Asperger’s Syndrome

By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

There is a lot of information on the Internet about Asperger's Disorder or Asperger's Syndrome ("AS"). It was named after Hans Asperger, a German pediatrician who first described the syndrome.

From Wikipedia: Asperger published the first definition of Asperger's Syndrome in 1944. In four boys, he identified a pattern of behavior and abilities that he called "autistic psychopathy", meaning autism (self) and psychopathy (personality disease). The pattern included "a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements." Asperger called children with AS "little professors" because of their ability to talk about their favorite subject in great detail. (5/9/08.)

In 1944, Asperger wrote:

We are convinced, then, that autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community. They fulfil their role well, perhaps better than anyone else could, and we are talking of people who as children had the greatest difficulties and caused untold worries to their care-givers.

There are a number of good websites that describe the symptoms of Autism and AS (which I sometimes call "autism light."). For a few of them, scroll to the bottom of this article. AS is a Syndrome, which means "a group of symptoms that together are characteristic of a specific disorder, disease, or the like." There does not seem to be one specific causative factor, such as a germ or a dysfunction of a specific organ, which leads to Asperger's. Also, there is a wide range of severity, from mild to severe, characterized by a few and/or weakly expressed symptoms to many and/or strongly expressed symptoms. There does seem to be a genetic component, as it runs in families.

There seems to be some correlation between the career pursuits and interests of the parents and the probability of AS in the child. AS kids' parent are often in the computer field or some other area of engineering, or work with machines. Many kids with AS spend a great deal of time on the computer or video game, in part because those interactions are governed by easily learned, predictable rules that never vary.

Wired Magazine published a very informative article about it, called The Geek Syndrome, in volume 9, number 12. There appears to be an epidemic of Autism and Asperger's Syndrome in Silicon Valley:

In 1999, the number of clients was more than double what it had been six years earlier. Then the curve started spiking. By July 2001, there were 15,441 clients in the DDS database. Now there are more than seven new cases of level-one autism - 85 percent of them children - entering the system every day.

People with AS are treated for the specific symptoms they have, such as anger problems, obsessive thinking (extreme focus on minor details or specific topic areas), poor social skills and lack of reciprocity in relationships, lack of awareness of social cues, etc. A combination of medication, supportive counseling, social skills training, anger management, family counseling, and other modalities may be combined for a specific client. There are also specific approaches to learning that may be useful. For example, many individuals with AS have more success learning visually than verbally. There are a number of approaches to providing more effective educational strategies for AS. Individuals with AS often have other overlapping issues, such as Irlen Syndrome, Sensory Integration Dysfunction, and attention problems.

People with AS tend to have concrete thinking, which may be a hindrance in their interpersonal relationships, and is related to their difficulty with empathy ("putting oneself in another's shoes"). They have to be taught to think about what other people might be feeling, since they do not seem to have any built-in system that tunes in to others' feelings and reactions - the very system that allows most of us to adapt successfully to social expectations. There is some thinking and research that people with autism and Asperger's may be lacking so-called "mirror neurons" that respond to the emotional displays of other people.

Children with Asperger's are often misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD, because of their difficulty focusing on what adults want them to attend to. If they are treated for that incorrect diagnosis with stimulant medication, their problematic behavior will often become worse over time. There are other medications that may be necessary to obtain the best results from the attention medicine. Please see my article, Addressing Attention.

If you are a parent of a child with Asperger's, or if you think that your child might have AS, there are several things you should do. First, spend some time reading about it and determine if your child might possibly fit the diagnostic criteria. Second, schedule an evaluation with a professional who can differentiate between various overlapping disorders. Third, develop a plan to address the areas of deficit or weakness identified by the evaluation, as well as to utilize the child's natural strengths to his or her advantage.

Coping: A Survival Guide For People with Asperger's Syndrome by Marc Segar

Excellent website, one of the first, by a person with AS who wanted to explainto others how to get by in a world where everyone expected you to know the rules, but never told you what the rules were.

RDI Connect: Relationship Development Intervention for Autism and AS

A program that teaches parents and caregivers to work with autistic and AS kids to train them in relationship skills that they do not understand intutitvely:

Create a genuine relationship while, successfully guiding your child's development. The RDI® Program effectively remediates the core deficits that impair children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships

byTemple Grandin, a widely-known Ph.D. who is autistic, recently wrote

Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism

Dr. Grandin makes her living by being a consultant to the cattle handling industry (she claims that, as an autistic person, she thinks more like animals than like people), and has made significant contributions to our understanding of autism.