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What Is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Most of us have someone in our lives, a loved one, an acquaintance, a co-worker, who is just a bit different, in a way that’s hard to pin down exactly. He or she may tend to avoid eye contact, struggle to keep up with conversations, have an almost robotic use of language, or be heavily invested in very specific interests. Over the years, people with such tendencies have been labeled quirky, nerdy or just a little odd.

But in the past 10 or so years, there’s been an increasing awareness of a developmental disorder called Asperger Syndrome (or interchangeably, Asperger’s or just AS) that has become a touchstone for explaining these kinds of behaviors. Asperger’s is also known as high-functioning autism, or simply the milder end of autism spectrum disorders. In fact, in 2013 the DSM, the standard guide for psychiatric diagnosis, is actually removing it as a separate diagnosis. Still, diagnosis and awareness of Asperger’s has been on the rise since the 1990s, and many professionals still find it a useful diagnosis.

At the very least, Asperger Syndrome has served as an important entry point for many to understanding the wide and complex array of symptoms and personality traits associated with autism spectrum disorders of all kinds. This article will attempt to shed some light on this misunderstood syndrome and term, and what it means for those who have Asperger Syndrome.

Please keep in mind that this is not a tool for self-diagnosis or diagnosis of others, and is only to be referenced as an introduction to understanding the syndrome and related disorders. See below for more references, or speak to a health care professional for more information or help for any specific individual.

What is Asperger Syndrome?

The briefest and most common way to describe Asperger’s is that it’s the mildest form of autism (sometimes called “a dash of autism”), a developmental brain disorder that varies greatly in severity, but is marked by difficulty with communication and social interactions, and a tendency toward repetitive behaviors. For people on the more severe end of the spectrum, that can mean they completely lack language, and are almost completely withdrawn from interactions with others.

On the other hand, many people with ASD are highly functioning with manageable impact on their daily lives. And in fact, some of the symptoms of ASD that might display in childhood may not actually turn out to be autism. Part of the difficulty and the stigma of this set of disorders is that symptoms vary tremendously and diagnosis can be quite difficult.

Asperger Syndrome is, according to the newest DSM, a form of highly functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. What tends to set it apart from what most people think of as autism is that children with Asperger’s will often not have delays in language skills. In fact they are usually highly verbal, with an almost academic use of language. They do, however, use language in abnormal ways. They tend to talk in long, uninterrupted sentences, and in conversation have difficulty understanding social cues like sarcasm. Like those with more severe autism, they do tend to get fixated on routines and specific topics, appearing obsessive.

This combination of difficulty with social situations and tendency for repetitive or obsessive behavior are the key aspects of Asperger Syndrome. However, it is often said that no two Asperger Syndrome patients have the same set of symptoms.

Despite the fact that the DSM is doing away with the distinction between Asperger’s and ASD, many in the field will still use the term, as will we in this description, with the caveat that it’s now accepted as a milder version of autism.

History and Diagnosis

Hans Asperger was a Viennese pediatrician who specialized in mental disorders in children. Asperger first published the definition of Asperger Syndrome in 1944, after working with four boys he described as having “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.” He described their expertise in specific fields, and how they would often take these interests into their adult lives and careers.

Asperger, however, received little acknowledgment for his work, and his description of the syndrome was largely unrecognized. It wasn’t until the 1990s when his research began to draw increased attention, and the syndrome would finally make it into the DSM in 1994.

Since then diagnosis has increased steadily, although it’s largely considered to be as the result of growing awareness, similar to the pattern with autism diagnosis. And in 2013, it seems once again, his syndrome is falling out of favor, at least in clinical circles. While some doctors would prefer to keep the diagnosis separate, the syndrome appears to be folding back into autism spectrum disorder. In cultural awareness, however, Asperger’s continues to be a known and accepted syndrome, or at least as a kind of shorthand for a “dash of autism.”

In fact, awareness of Asperger’s has grown such that there’s become a surge in people considering whether they—or perhaps someone they know—have the syndrome. For example, an episode of the popular public radio show This American Life in 2012 focused on the Finches, a couple who discovered husband David had Asperger’s after wife Kristen always joked with him about his aloofness and encouraged him to take an online test. David Finch would go on to be professionally diagnosed and write a bestselling book on the subject, The Journal of Best Practices.

It’s important to note that taking an online test is no replacement for professional diagnosis. Nor does a husband who appears to struggle with expressing emotion or empathy necessarily have Asperger Syndrome. Awareness is important, and asking questions about how one’s brain works is a healthy exercise. But amateur analysis of this complex and subtle syndrome must be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Treatment and Care

The good news for patients professionally diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome is that our understanding has come a long way, and with patience, proper therapy and in certain cases medication, happy and productive lives lie ahead. For children in particular, there are behavioral therapies that can be very effective. For example, therapists can teach social conventions and speech habits, reinforce social skills, and conduct physical therapy to help with motor skill deficiencies. In cases where Asperger’s is accompanied by anxiety and depression, medication or behavioral therapy can be effective.

It’s also worth noting that, with the increased awareness and understanding, there’s been increased acceptance of people who exhibit such behavior. In fact, in technical or mathematical fields such as computer programming, there’s been a surge of successful professionals with Asperger’s. Progressive employers are becoming increasingly accommodating for people who excel in their fields with unique focus and attention, albeit with unique personality quirks along the way. And there’s been a movement of people with pride in their “neurodiversity,” many of whom call themselves proud “Aspies.”

Asperger Syndrome in Popular Culture

As awareness has increased, so has inclusion in popular culture and media. Or perhaps, with inclusion in popular culture, awareness has increased. There have been bestselling books, hit TV shows, and movies that take on the topic of Asperger’s, either explicitly or implicitly. Here are a few examples:

Community – In this cult-hit sitcom, in which a group of misfits form close bonds while attending community college, beloved character Abed has been openly described as having Asperger’s. He has a laser-like fixation and encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture trivia and filmmaking, and speaks in a detached, monotonous pattern. In fact, creator Dan Harmon acknowledged in a profile by Wired Magazine that he has many Asperger’s characteristics himself.

Big Bang Theory – In this other popular sitcom, main character Sheldon Cooper is a child prodigy turned theoretical physicist, whom many have observed exhibits Asperger’s symptoms. He is brilliant, extremely introverted, eccentric, and struggles in social situations. The show’s creators have said they decided not to make an explicit diagnosis of Sheldon as having Asperger’s, because of the burden they would face to reflect the reality of the syndrome.

Bones – Popular detective procedural Bones features an FBI agent and an anthropologist who work together to solve mysteries by examining human remains. Main character Temperance “Bones” Brennan is the genius anthropologist who has a unique ability to examine details in skeletal remains. Her character is also highly socially awkward, constantly missing jokes or sarcasm in conversation, being unnecessarily honest or overly descriptive, and is frequently described as robotic or lacking empathy. Similar to Big Bang Theory, writers have opted to leave the question of her diagnosis open-ended.

Hannibal – This new and highly acclaimed series about the characters in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs books features a detective who is explicitly on the autism spectrum. Will Graham exhibits social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, and the telltale fixation on detail in his hunt for killers.

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