Asperger Syndrome is an Autism Spectrum Disorder (or Pervasive Developmental Disorder) characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviors and interests. Those with Asperger Syndrome, or AS, may exhibit a lack of empathy for their peers, clumsiness, and atypical use of language, though none of these symptoms are required for a diagnosis.1
The disorder has much in common with High-Functioning Autism, and it has been suggested recently that AS be removed and Autism Spectrum Disorders be rated on a severity scale. Individuals with AS typically lack the linguistic and cognitive difficulties commonly associated with Autism.
Like Autism and other Developmental Disorders, Asperger Syndrome begins in childhood. Unlike other disorders, many with AS are high functioning enough that they don’t receive the diagnosis until well into adulthood. When the disorder was first identified by Dr. Hans Asperger, he believed that it only affected males2. The disorder does affect males at a higher rate than females. Estimates for the male to female ratio range from 10:1 to 3:13, the actual ratio may be lower since the disorder may present itself quite differently in males and females.
Adults with Asperger Syndrome can have a variety of symptoms, some of the more common characteristics include:
- Average or above-average intelligence
- Difficulty with high-level language skills (reasoning, problem solving, being too literal)
- Lack of empathy
- Inability to see another person’s point of view
- Problems engaging in “small talk”
- Lack of emotional control, particularly with anger, depression, and anxiety
- Strict adherence to routines which can lead to anxiety when something unexpected happens
- Extreme focus on a particular interest or hobby
While there are a number of treatments available for Aspergers, many have little data to show the effectiveness. The most common approach is Behavioral Therapy, focusing on the person’s specific issues. This can be an effective method and can help improve communication skills, reduce repetitious and obsessive behaviors, and may even be useful with physical clumsiness.
Most people with AS show improvement with treatment, but difficulties with communication and social interaction can exist into adulthood and can often make independent living a struggle. Recently there has been a shift in attitude, with many pushing the idea that it is now a disability or disorder, simply a difference.
The lack of empathy prevalent in the disorder makes interpersonal relationships difficult for most with Asperger Syndrome. Many individuals also have additional problems such as an inability to hold eye contact, awkwardness with posture, and a lack of facial expression. They are often unable to read the subtleties of body language and facial expressions necessary to interact normally. This can often lead to others seeing them as uncaring or selfish. Those with AS are usually shocked and upset when told their actions were inappropriate or hurtful.
While those with Autism are typically withdrawn, a person with AS are not afraid to approach others. This can often be quite awkward and off-putting for others as those with AS may engage in long-winded speeches about a favorite topic instead of discussions. Those with Aspergers tend to misunderstand or not recognize the reactions and feelings of those they are with. Some mistake this social awkwardness as a disregarding of feelings which means making friends can be quite difficult for those with AS. Sadly after a number of failed social encounters and attempts at friendship, the childhood desire for companionship can become numbed.
Individuals with AS can often discuss the intricacies of social norms in almost scientific detail without the ability to put that knowledge into action. Quite often their attempts to “act normal” can cause additional problems when others misinterpret their intentions.
Another major feature of AS that can cause problems in relationships is the restriction or repetition of behavior. They may create strict routines and follow them without regard for others, or focus so intently on a particular item or task that they ignore their friends and family members.
Other features of AS such as talking too much, or too loudly, or rapidly changing subjects can also result in social problems. They may also tend to take things too literally, leading to unexpected responses and sometimes hurt feelings.