Not all children develop at the same rate. Some children walk or talk early while others may be the last in their age group to master a particular motor skill. Other children will develop awkward social skills that make them stand out from their peers. Developmental delays may be attributed to a number of factors, including developmental disorders. One such developmental disorder that has gained much attention over the last couple of decades is Asperger’s syndrome.
Children with Asperger’s syndrome tend to develop normal cognitive skills, including speech and language, but have difficulty socially. Because their other skills develop normally or even above average, children with Asperger’s can sometimes go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, leading to adults with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. We’re here to explain what Asperger’s syndrome is as well as to share Asperger’s syndrome symptoms for children and adults. We’ll help you stay informed so you can seek medical care should you or your child have behavior that aligns with these symptoms.
What Is Asperger’s?
Asperger’s syndrome is named after Dr. Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who was the first to describe the syndrome in the 1940s. Considered a form of autism for years, Asperger’s has often been referred to as high-functioning autism.
Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder in which developmental delays vary in severity from individual to individual. A common symptom of autism is a lack of speech or delay in speech development. Individuals with Asperger’s usually have symptoms that are less severe than those of autism. Most notably, the speech delays that are seen in autism are not seen in Asperger’s.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Asperger’s syndrome was officially named a separate disorder from autism by the American Psychiatric Association. Then in 2013, Asperger’s syndrome and autism disorder were both categorized under the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Under the ASD umbrella fall various brain development disorders that involve repetitive behaviors, difficulties with communication, and social difficulties. Asperger’s is generally considered to be on the high end of the spectrum and is still described by some physicians as high-functioning autism.
What Causes Asperger’s?
According to the Autism Society, research has revealed that children with a disorder under the ASD umbrella have exhibited brain scans with shape and structural differences from children without ASD. This research leads physicians to attribute ASD to abnormalities in brain structure and brain function.
But what causes the brain abnormalities? Physicians also believe that genetics play a role in ASD, as patterns of ASD have been discovered in many families. Further research is being conducted to determine what, if any, additional factors may contribute to the development of ASD, including genetics, issues during pregnancy or delivery, and environmental factors.
Asperger’s symptoms vary greatly, and rarely are all known behaviors associated with Asperger’s syndrome present in one individual. Asperger’s symptoms in children and Asperger’s symptoms in adults are often the same.
Common Asperger syndrome symptoms include:
- Social limitations
- Lack of eye contact
- Inappropriate and/or limited social interactions
- One-sided, self-oriented conversations
- Missing social cues
- Difficulty with nonverbal communications such as:
- Facial expressions
- Body language
- Repetitive or monotone speech
- Repetitive patterns of behavior
- Focus on unusual topics
- Obsessive interests
- Awkward mannerisms
- Difficulty understanding emotions
- Difficulty understanding nonliteral phrases
The Autism Speaks website is a wonderful source for more in-depth information on Asperger’s, including symptoms.
Asperger’s Symptoms in Children
Asperger’s syndrome is often initially misdiagnosed in children. Unlike children with autism, children with Asperger’s do not experience delays in language development or cognitive development. On the contrary, children with Asperger’s may exhibit exceptional vocabulary and language skills. The issue arises from the child’s inability to use language appropriately or the child’s tendency to use language awkwardly during social interactions.
Asperger’s disorder is sometimes misdiagnosed in children as a behavioral disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But difficulties for children with Asperger’s don’t stem from an inability to focus or concentrate on something but rather on challenges with socializing.
Sometimes, children with Asperger’s will exhibit a delay in motor skills and pronounced clumsiness. Children with Asperger’s may have difficulty playing with other children. They may not understand how to play a sport, catch a ball, or play on the playground, even though they observe their peers doing these physical activities.
Asperger’s Symptoms in Adults
While Asperger’s does not develop in adulthood, it can be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in children, leading to an adult diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. The symptoms of Asperger’s in adults are the same as symptoms in children, namely showing up as impairments in communication skills.
Adults with Asperger’s will often be socially awkward, have difficulty understanding emotions and social issues, may lack empathy with others, and may have one-sided conversations with a focus on themselves or a particular topic that he or she finds interesting. Undiagnosed Asperger’s in adults can lead to several issues, including difficulties with relationships and job-related difficulties.
Treatment of Asperger's Syndrome
Early diagnosis and treatment can set your child up for maximum success in life. Treatment varies depending on how Asperger's syndrome manifests in young children, but typically focuses on social skills training, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and occupational and/or physical therapy.
- Social skills training: To prepare a child with Asperger's for social situations, a trained therapist might teach skills such as how to follow the rules, play with others, take turns, and manage feelings so that he/she doesn't succumb to tantrums or retreat into social isolation.
- Occupational and physical therapy: Occupational therapists help people with Asperger's disorder strengthen their fine motor skills, such as hand-eye coordination, and regulate sensory input. Those with Asperger's are especially sensitive to touch, noise, smell, or visual stimuli. A physical therapist can help Asperger's patients develop movement mastery and strength so they are better able to participate in sports.
- CBT: This type of therapy helps those with Asperger's cope with their emotions and better navigate social interactions and interpersonal relationships by providing effective tools for impulse control, anxiety, and overwhelming obsessions.
- Medication: Any medication prescribed is intended to help alleviate the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antipsychotic medicine, and stimulant medicines for anxiety.
Beyond Asperger’s Syndrome
While social communication may be a bit of a struggle and personality quirks might call misunderstood attention on a child diagnosed with Asperger's, their uniqueness can also be cultivated into a one-of-a-kind life and purpose with targeted help and direction. For instance, a person with Asperger's might be laser focused on a particular area or subject that makes them the perfect candidate for a high-paying job in a growing industry.
Take inspiration from Temple Grandi, a renowned author and professor at Colorado State University. She didn't start speaking until she was 4 years old and her parents were told she would be best institutionalized. She went on to become one of the foremost experts in animal sciences and was one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”
Proof that different doesn't have to be debilitating.