What is Asperger's syndrome?
Asperger's syndrome is a developmental disorder that makes it very hard to interact with other people. Your child may find it hard to make friends because he or she is socially awkward.
People with Asperger's syndrome have some traits of autism. For example, they may have poor social skills, prefer routine, and not like change. But unlike those who have autism, children with Asperger's syndrome usually start to talk before 2 years of age, when speech normally starts to develop.
Asperger's syndrome is a lifelong condition, but symptoms tend to improve over time. Adults with this condition can learn to understand their own strengths and weaknesses. And they can improve their social skills.
Both Asperger's syndrome and autism belong to the group of disorders called autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), once known as pervasive developmental disorders. You may hear the term ASD used to describe Asperger's syndrome.
What causes Asperger's syndrome?
The exact cause of Asperger's syndrome is not known. And there is no known way to prevent it. It tends to run in families. So researchers are doing studies to look for a genetic cause. Asperger's syndrome is more common in males than in females.
What are the symptoms?
Asperger's syndrome is usually noticed at age 3 or later. Symptoms vary, so no two children are the same. Children with Asperger's:
- Have a very hard time relating to others. It doesn't mean that they avoid social contact. But they lack instincts and skills to help them express their thoughts and feelings and notice others' feelings.
- May be bothered by loud noises, lights, or strong tastes or textures.
- Like fixed routines. Change is hard for them.
- May not recognize verbal and nonverbal cues or understand social norms. For example, they may stare at others, not make eye contact, or not know what personal space means.
- May have speech that's flat and hard to understand because it lacks tone, pitch, and accent. Or they may have a formal style of speaking that's advanced for their age.
- May lack coordination; have unusual facial expressions, body postures, and gestures; or be somewhat clumsy.
- May have poor handwriting or have trouble with other motor skills, such as riding a bike.
- May have only one or a few interests, or they may focus intensely on a few things. For example, they may show an unusual interest in snakes or star names or may draw very detailed pictures.
How is Asperger's syndrome diagnosed?
If you are concerned about your child's behavior or communication style, talk to your child's doctor. He or she will ask you about your child's development and ask if other people have noticed your child's social problems.
The doctor may refer you to a specialist to confirm or rule out Asperger's syndrome. The specialist may test your child's learning style, speech and language, IQ, social and motor skills, and more.
The diagnosis of ASD typically occurs during childhood, but an adult can be diagnosed with ASD.
How is it treated?
Treatment is based on your child's unique symptoms. It may change often so that it's most useful for your child.
Doctors, teachers, and mental health counselors can help your child improve his or her behavior and build social and learning skills. School programs, job training, and counseling can help too. Many children with Asperger's syndrome also have other conditions, such as ADHD or obsessive-compulsive disorder. So they may need other treatments, such as medicine.
At home, you can help build your child's confidence and skills. Use rules and daily routines, visual aids, and role-playing. Focus on your child's strengths. Encourage your child to explore interests at home and at school. And stay informed about what is happening in your child's classroom.
Federal law requires public schools to have programs for people ages 3 through 21 with special needs. Contact your school district to find out what services your child can be a part of.
How can you help your child succeed?
It takes patience and support to help your child reach his or her full potential. And it may take time to find a doctor who has experience treating people with this condition.
Try to learn as much as you can about this condition, and talk to others about it. The more that teachers, your child's peers, and other people learn, the better they can help and support your child.
Many parents find comfort and build acceptance with help from support groups, counseling, and a network of friends, family, and community.
Although there are many possible symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, the main symptom is significant trouble with social situations. Your child may have mild to severe symptoms or have a few or many of these symptoms. Because of the wide variety of symptoms, no two children with Asperger's are alike.
Symptoms during childhood
Parents often first notice the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome when their child starts preschool and begins to interact with other children. Children with Asperger's syndrome may:
- Not pick up on social cues and may lack inborn social skills, such as being able to read others' body language, start or maintain a conversation, and take turns talking.
- Dislike any changes in routines.
- Appear to lack empathy.
- Be unable to recognize subtle differences in speech tone, pitch, and accent that alter the meaning of others' speech. So your child may not understand a joke or may take a sarcastic comment literally. And his or her speech may be flat and hard to understand because it lacks tone, pitch, and accent.
- Have a formal style of speaking that is advanced for his or her age. For example, the child may use the word "beckon" instead of "call" or the word "return" instead of "come back."
- Talk a lot, usually about a favorite subject. One-sided conversations are common. Internal thoughts are often verbalized.
- Avoid eye contact or stare at others.
- Have unusual facial expressions or postures.
- Be preoccupied with only one or few interests, which he or she may be very knowledgeable about. Many children with Asperger's syndrome are overly interested in parts of a whole or in unusual activities, such as designing houses, drawing highly detailed scenes, or studying astronomy. They may show an unusual interest in certain topics such as snakes, names of stars, or dinosaurs.
- Have delayed motor development. Your child may be late in learning to use a fork or spoon, ride a bike, or catch a ball. He or she may have an awkward walk. Handwriting is often poor.
- Have heightened sensitivity and become overstimulated by loud noises, lights, or strong tastes or textures. For more information about these symptoms, see sensory processing disorder.
A child with one or two of these symptoms does not necessarily have Asperger's syndrome. To be diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a child must have a combination of these symptoms and significant trouble with social situations.
Although the condition is in some ways similar to autism, a child with Asperger's syndrome typically has normal language and intellectual development. Also, those with Asperger's syndrome typically make more of an effort than those with autism to make friends and engage in activities with others.
Symptoms during adolescent and teen years
Most symptoms persist through the teen years. And although teens with Asperger's can begin to learn those social skills they lack, communication often remains difficult. They will probably continue to have difficulty "reading" others' behavior.
Your teen with Asperger's syndrome (like other teens) will want friends but may feel shy or intimidated when approaching other teens. He or she may feel "different" from others. Although most teens place emphasis on being and looking "cool," teens with Asperger's may find it frustrating and emotionally draining to try to fit in. They may be immature for their age and be naive and too trusting, which can lead to teasing and bullying.
But some teens with Asperger's syndrome are able to make and keep a few close friends through the school years. Some of the classic Asperger's traits may also work to the benefit of your teen. Teens with Asperger's are typically uninterested in following social norms, fads, or conventional thinking, allowing creative thinking and the pursuit of original interests and goals. Their preference for rules and honesty may lead them to excel in the classroom and as citizens.
Symptoms in adulthood
Asperger's syndrome is a lifelong condition, although it tends to stabilize over time, and improvements are often seen. Adults usually have a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. They are able to learn social skills, including how to read others' social cues. Many people with Asperger's syndrome marry and have children.
Some traits that are typical of Asperger's syndrome, such as attention to detail and focused interests, can increase chances of university and career success. Many people with Asperger's seem to be fascinated with technology, and a common career choice is engineering. But scientific careers are by no means the only areas where people with Asperger's excel. Indeed, many respected historical figures have had symptoms of Asperger's, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Thomas Jefferson.
Many children with Asperger's syndrome also have coexisting conditions and may have symptoms of these conditions also. They include:
Exams and Tests
Asperger's syndrome is a developmental condition in which people have difficulties understanding how to interact socially. A diagnosis is best made with input from parents, doctors, teachers, and other caregivers who know or who have observed the child. Asperger's syndrome is diagnosed when specific criteria are met. These include:
- Poor social interaction.
- Unusual behavior, interests, and activities.
- No delay in language development.
- No delay in self-help skills and curiosity about the environment.
Your doctor will take a medical history by asking questions about your child's development, including information about motor development, language, areas of special interest, and social interactions. He or she will also ask about the mother's pregnancy and the family's history of medical conditions.
Testing can help your doctor find out whether your child's problem is related to Asperger's syndrome. Your primary care provider may refer your child to a specialist for testing, including:
- Psychological assessment. Intellectual function and learning style are evaluated. IQ (intelligence quotient) and motor skills tests are common. Personality assessment tests may also be done.
- Communication assessment. Speech and formal language are evaluated. Children are tested to find out how well they understand and use language to communicate ideas. Your doctor will also test for understanding of nonverbal forms of communication and nonliteral language skills, such as understanding of humor or metaphor. He or she will listen to your child's voice for volume, stress, and pitch.
- Psychiatric examination. Your doctor may examine your child's family and peer relationships, reactions to new situations, and the ability to understand the feelings of others and types of indirect communication such as teasing and sarcasm. Your doctor may want to observe your child at home and at school. He or she may also look for conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are often found in people with Asperger's syndrome.
When making a diagnosis, your doctor will see if your child meets the criteria published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a publication of the American Psychiatric Association.
Treatment for Asperger's syndrome strives to improve your child's abilities to interact with other people and thus to function effectively in society and be self-sufficient. Each child with Asperger's syndrome has differences in the number and severity of symptoms, so treatment should be designed to meet individual needs and available family resources. Specific treatments are based on symptoms.
Start by contacting your local school district to find out which services are available for your child. Become informed about your child's educational rights. Federal law requires public schools to provide appropriate educational services for people ages 3 to 21 who have disabilities (including Asperger's). Also, there may be state and local laws or policies to aid children with Asperger's.
You will meet with school personnel to identify goals and establish an individualized education program (IEP). IEPs are designed to fit the child's specific needs based on the evaluation of his or her level of disability.
Look at what is being offered at different schools to find out which services your child needs and where you can best find them. Qualities to look for include:
- Small work groups with individual attention.
- A communication specialist with an interest in social skills training.
- Opportunities for social interaction in a structured setting and in supervised activities.
- A concern for teaching real-life skills and encouraging a child's special interests and talents.
- A willingness to individualize the curriculum.
- A sensitive counselor who can focus on your child's emotional well-being and serve as a liaison with the family.
- An emphasis on respect for diversity and empathy for students.
Stay informed about what is happening in your child's classroom. Frequent communication can be managed with a communication diary that goes back and forth between teacher and parent.
Treatment is geared toward improving communication, social skills, and behavior management. A treatment program may be adjusted often to be the most useful for your child.
Take advantage of your child's strengths by encouraging him or her to explore interests at home and at school. Activity-oriented groups and focused counseling can also be helpful.
Many children with Asperger's syndrome also have other coexisting conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, and depression. These conditions can place extra demands on parents who are already dealing with a child with extra needs. These conditions may require treatment with medicines and other therapies.
For more information, see:
Researchers have not yet found a way to prevent Asperger's syndrome. Some advocacy groups claim the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes Asperger's and autism. But numerous studies have not found a link between these conditions and the vaccine.footnote 2 Doctors recommend that you have your children immunized, because not doing so puts them and others in your community at risk for serious diseases and even death.
You can best serve your child by learning about Asperger's syndrome and providing a supportive and loving home environment. Remember that your child, just like every other child, has his or her own strengths and weaknesses and needs as much support, patience, and understanding as you can give.
Educating yourself about the condition and about what to expect is an important part of helping your child develop independence and succeed outside of his or her home. Learn about Asperger's syndrome by talking to your doctor or contacting Asperger's organizations. A good source is OASIS @ MAAP: The Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support Center at www.aspergersyndrome.org. Learning about Asperger's will reduce your and your family members' stress and help your child succeed.
The following are some suggestions on how to help your child who has Asperger's syndrome. Some of the ideas will be helpful, and some may not work for you. Flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to continue to learn will all help you as you raise your child.
General strategies for success
- Children with Asperger's syndrome benefit from daily routines for meals, homework, and bedtime. They also like specific rules, and consistent expectations mean less stress and confusion for them.
- Many people with Asperger's syndrome do best with verbal (rather than nonverbal) teaching and assignments. A direct, concise, and straightforward manner is also helpful.
- People with Asperger's syndrome often have trouble understanding the "big picture" and tend to see part of a situation rather than the whole. That's why they often benefit from a parts-to-whole teaching approach, starting with part of a concept and adding to it to demonstrate encompassing ideas.
- Visual supports, including schedules and other written materials that serve as organizational aids, can be helpful.
- Be aware that background noises, such as a clock ticking or the hum of fluorescent lighting, may be distracting to your child.
- Children with autism spectrum disorders (which include Asperger's syndrome) may be especially interested in video games, computers, or other screen-based media such as TV. If possible, keep televisions, video games, and computers out of your child's bedroom. When children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have these devices in their bedroom, they are more likely to sleep fewer hours. This is especially true when video games are in the bedroom. If your child doesn't get enough sleep, his or her ASD symptoms may be worse.
- Children with Asperger's syndrome often mature more slowly. Don't always expect them to "act their age."
- Try to identify stress triggers and avoid them if possible. Prepare your child in advance for difficult situations, and teach him or her ways to cope. For example, teach your child coping skills for dealing with change or new situations.
Strategies for developing social skills
- Your child may not understand the social norms and rules that come more naturally to other children. Provide clear explanations of why certain behaviors are expected, and teach rules for those behaviors.
- Encourage your child to learn how to interact with people and what to do when spoken to, and explain why it is important. Give lots of praise, especially when he or she uses a social skill without prompting.
- Practice activities, such as games or question-and-answer sessions, that call for taking turns or putting yourself in the other person's place.
- Help your child understand others' feelings by role-playing and watching and discussing human behaviors seen in movies or on television. Provide a model for your child by telling him or her about your own feelings and reactions to those feelings.
- Teach your child how to read and respond appropriately to social cues. Give him or her "stock" phrases to use in various social situations, such as when being introduced. You can also teach your child how to interact by role-playing.
- Foster involvement with others, especially if your child tends to be a loner.
- Teach your child about public and private places, so that he or she learns what is appropriate in both circumstances. For example, hugging may not be appropriate at school but is usually fine at home.
Strategies for school
- Use visual systems, such as calendars, checklists, and notes, to help define and organize schoolwork.
- Orient your child to the school setting. Before the school year starts, take time to "walk through" your child's daily schedule. You can also use pictures to make your child familiar with the new settings before school starts.
- Be aware of and try to protect your child from bullying and teasing. Talk to your child's teacher or school counselor about educating classmates about Asperger's syndrome.
- Ask your child's teacher to seat your child next to classmates who are sensitive to your child's special needs. These classmates might also serve as "buddies" during recess, at lunch, and at other times.
- Encourage your child's teacher to include your child in classroom activities that emphasize his or her best academic skills, such as reading, vocabulary, and art.
- Set up homework routines for your child by doing homework at a specific time and place every day. This will help your child learn about time management.
- Use rewards to motivate your child. Allow him or her to watch TV or play a favorite video game or give points toward a "special interest" gift when he or she performs well.
- Some children with Asperger's have poor handwriting. Typing schoolwork on a computer may be one way to make homework easier. Using computers can also help children improve fine motor skills and organize information. Occupational therapy may also be helpful.
- Volkmar FR, et al. (2008). Asperger's syndrome of Pervasive developmental disorders. In RE Hales et al., eds., The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 882–884. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Taylor LE, et al. (2014). Vaccines are not associated with autism: An evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies. Vaccines, 32(29): 3623–3629.
Other Works Consulted
- Reiff MI (2011). Autism spectrum disorders. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph's Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 352–355. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Sadock BJ, et al. ( 2007). Pervasive developmental disorders. In Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry, 10th ed., pp. 1191–1205. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Volkmar FR, et al. (2009). Asperger's syndrome section of Pervasive development disorders. In BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3554–3559. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Woodbury-Smith MR, Volkmar FR (2009). Asperger syndrome. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 18(1): 2–11.
Current as ofSeptember 11, 2018
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: John Pope, MD, MPH - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Current as of: September 11, 2018
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