Asperger Syndrome in Children and Young Adults
Asperger Syndrome and autism spectrum disorders have become an increasing concern among parents, teachers, and family doctors. There is, generally speaking, a higher level of understanding and tolerance for children who fall anywhere on the autism spectrum. And while raised awareness of a developmental disorder is generally a good thing, there is still tremendous misunderstanding, and a tendency to spot young children who exhibit eccentric or unique social behavior and place the Asperger’s label on them. In fact, the symptoms of Asperger’s in children and young adults can be temporary phases, or pop up in children who are actually developing perfectly normally.
The most important thing to remember, whether dealing with a child with Asperger’s or just one with some quirky behaviors, is to proceed with patience and caution. If you are concerned about your child or a child you care for, don’t rush to label him or her, and before doing anything, begin with a private discussion with a family doctor. If you don’t have a family doctor or need help finding resources, the Autism Society is a great starting point.
And, of course, keep in mind that kids either who either have Asperger’s or are just a bit different can go on to lead successful and happy lives with the proper love and support.
Symptoms of Asperger’s in Children
Some symptoms of Asperger’s or autism spectrum disorders appear in as early as a baby’s first few months. Others don’t surface or become noticeable until a child is placed in a social setting like daycare or play dates. For others still, symptoms can be subtle enough that it’s not apparent until young adulthood. And again, one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate Asperger’s. Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms for a child who may have Asperger Syndrome:
- Making unusual facial expressions or gestures, during conversation
- A persistent tendency to avoid eye contact, especially during conversation. Or alternately, holding eye contact for extended periods of time, staring.
- A heightened sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights, drastic changes in surroundings.
- He or she may have a tendency to talk at length about just one or very few specific subjects. This is pretty common in a lot of kids, but could be an Asperger’s symptom if it’s a highly focused interest, like train schedules, for example, or the Latin names of flowers. He or she may obsessively catalog or collect statistics or facts about the subject, and show little interest in other areas.
- Continuing difficulty in social situations. Constantly misreading social cues or misunderstanding what peers are trying to communicate.
- Monotonous speech patterns, lacking in changes in intonation, as well as difficulty with regulating volume. Always talking loudly without realizing it in quiet places like restaurants or a library.
- Similarly, children with Asperger’s often will talk with a formality or polished adultness that is unusual for others their age (using “return” instead of “come back” for example). Hans Asperger called his first patients “little professors.”
- Dislike or strong anxiety in response to changing routines.
- There may also be physical symptoms, although diagnosis does not require them. Children with Asperger’s often have poor motor skills or coordination, and appear clumsy. They can sometimes be overactive, seem bouncy, and commonly fall into repetitive motions like flipping their fingers back and forth.
A couple of other notes about the symptoms of Asperger’s: First, while delay in the development of language is a common symptom in children with autism, that’s one of the factors that sets Asperger’s apart from the rest of the spectrum. Children with Asperger’s often have very good verbal skills, but simply use them in a way that makes it difficult for them to connect socially. Similarly, cognitive skills may be perfectly well developed, and in fact children with Asperger’s are often quite intelligent.
Finally, any one or more than one of the symptoms on this list may be present, but do not in themselves indicate autism or Asperger Syndrome. In fact, diagnosis hinges on at least one factor, and that is significant and repeated difficulty in social situations. That must be present, in addition to a combination of the common symptoms, for an Asperger’s diagnosis to be made. And even then, the diagnosis can be a tricky one.
The process of diagnosing a child with any autism spectrum disorder is a complex one marked by subtle criteria. In fact, there is no physical test for Asperger Syndrome, nor is there a set behavioral exam for doing so. Diagnosis of a child should never be attempted by anyone other than a health care provider with expertise in developmental disorders. The first step is again, with patience and caution, meet with the family physician. If the pediatrician believes there may be cause for concern or further examination, he or she will refer the family to a specialist, or often more than one specialist in fields related to developmental disorders, such as speech therapists and neurologists. It is equally important to rule out other potential issues that could be causing the symptoms, or related syndromes that may be exacerbating them, and then make a proper diagnosis. Parents may also choose to pursue a second opinion, considering the lack of standard examination. During this process, it’s important to find a team of physicians the family gets along with and trusts.
Treatments and Support
Unfortunately, there is no treatment that can eliminate the core symptoms of Asperger’s, so in some form or another, they continue throughout life. There are also no definitive treatments for coping with the syndrome, especially since every patient is so very different. However, Asperger’s is a disorder that can be understood, managed, and incorporated into a highly productive and happy life.
The most important baselines for good care are a loving and patient environment, and a trusted team of professionals. From there, most caregivers will recommend speech, physical and social therapy to learn how to manage the symptoms in daily life—essentially teaching and practicing behaviors that do not come naturally.
There may also be a need to treat other issues related to, but separate from the main diagnosis of Asperger’s. For example, children with AS will sometimes experience hyperactivity, anxiety and depression that need to be dealt with simultaneously.
Finally, it’s important to learn more about the child and his or her Asperger’s tendencies. Rather than necessarily trying to squelch them, families may choose to embrace some of their behaviors. It can be very beneficial to encourage them to pursue their fixations as a passionate hobby or even a career. Some very successful people have taken their Asperger’s symptoms and parlayed them into a fulfilling and productive living.