Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome

Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome

Most of us desire to make the best first impression possible when entering into any important social situation; being able to do so is vital to thriving in our society, as it facilitates us effectively applying for jobs and resolving difficult conflicts around us. In order to do this, we have to be able to calculate our responses to people using observations about their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Through doing so, we can determine if our actions are making them happy, sad, angry, etc.

Now, imagine having an illness that affected your ability to read all of those vital social cues; how hard would it be to effectively communicate with others? Such is the struggle faced by those with Asperger’s syndrome, one of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

What is Asperger’s syndrome?

This mental health disorder is named after Austrian pediatrician Dr. Hans Asperger, who was the first to research and describe this disorder in 1940s.  As mentioned prior, Asperger’s syndrome is a less severe form of autism, a disability one is born with and which presently has no cure (nor known cause). This disability affects cognitive functioning, namely how an individual processes information about the world and other people around them. Asperger’s is often said to be on the “autism spectrum”, as autism is highly variable, affecting different individuals in many different ways, and with many different degrees of severity. Asperger’s is relatively common, affecting around 1 in 165 people in Canada. According to Asperger’s Society of Ontario, more than 70000 people in the province live with Asperger’s syndrome. This disorder can affect people from all walks of life, but is more frequently seen in males than females (it’s not yet understood why this is the case).

Asperger’s is typically considered to be an invisible disability, as it is not immediately apparent. As one gets to know someone with Asperger’s, however, one will typically see them struggle with the following:

  • social communication;
  • social interaction;
  • social imagination.

Asperger’s syndrome does not, however, necessarily affect intelligence; many who have the disability demonstrate IQs that higher than average — unlike autism, which frequently causes learning disabilities (though it should be noted that people with Asperger’s are prone to ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, and in extreme cases, may also have epilepsy). Moreover, Asperger’s syndrome is often confused with giftedness, thus resulting in gifted children being diagnosed with Asperger’s and vice versa.

As those with Asperger’s are not severely impaired, they often go on to lead happy and successful lives, if they have access to adequate support; there are many forms of social, behavioural, and communications-based therapy that can help a person with Asperger’s.

The Challenges of Asperger’s

Asperger’s syndrome affects each person who has it differently, but the challenges of the disability usually manifest in three main areas:

Difficulty with Interpersonal Communication and Social Interaction

Asperger’s syndrome typically makes it hard to understand conversation, and to express one’s emotions appropriately and adequately. The difficulty in processing conversation properly is due to the challenge inherent in understanding gestures, facial expressions, and/or tone of voice that most with Asperger’s experience. People with this disability often seem to have poor “filters”, being unaware of when they are making people uncomfortable or when they should end a conversation. People with Asperger’s may not understand that jokes are jokes, and struggle with abstract facets of conversation, such as metaphors. When speaking to someone with Asperger’s, be brief but concise, avoiding needless elaboration.

People with Asperger’s may be perceived as “antisocial”, but this is often not truly the case; instead, they simply struggle with maintaining social interaction due to their cognitive differences, and trying to maintain friendships may distress them when they become mired in their inability to process complex social concepts, such as the “unspoken rules” that govern many interactions.

Difficulty with Social Imagination

People with Asperger’s struggle a great deal with putting themselves in other people’s shoes, so to speak. It’s hard for them to imagine what another person is thinking and feeling, even if their imaginations are otherwise quite well-developed. This lack of social imagination tends to impact their ability to predict others and to empathize innately with another person’s struggles. Children with Asperger’s may also struggle with imaginative play, instead enjoying activities many other children typically do not, such as organizing toys or doing mathematics.

Common Characteristics of a Person with Asperger’s Syndrome

As mentioned prior, this condition manifests quite differently in different people, but there are a few common personality “quirks” that tend to show up, in whole or in part, in those with Asperger’s:

  • A love of routines, which typically expresses itself in having set ways of doing things that are almost ritualistic in nature. People with Asperger’s are very resistant to change and may be quite upset if their routines are broken.
  • Special interests, which they often focus on so intensely it may seem obsessive to those without Asperger’s. They often become highly knowledgeable about their favourite topics.
  • Sensory difficulties, such as an usual level of discomfort with touch, or being easily overwhelmed by noise. Often one or more of the senses of someone with Asperger’s are either overdeveloped, or underdeveloped. Due to this, people with the disability can be somewhat clumsy, as their senses can easily become “confused”, making it harder for them to orient their bodies in space and perform fine motor functions.

How is Asperger’s Diagnosed?

Like many variable and high-functioning illnesses, Asperger’s syndrome is difficult to diagnose. It may wind up being misdiagnosed for many years, or not diagnosed at all. Generally, difficulties are brought up with one’s general practitioner, who then refers the patient to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, who will use psychological assessments to diagnose AS. Typically, a combination of social emotional assessment and developmental issues assessments is used.

While some fear the stigma of a diagnosis, it is often very helpful in facilitating the patient understanding him or herself better, as well as aiding friends and family of the patient in adapting their behaviours to make life easier for the person with Asperger’s.

As Asperger’s is on the autism spectrum, it may be diagnosed as a range of conditions under the autism umbrella, such as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), high-functioning autism (HFA), or atypical autism. Sometimes those with Asperger’s symptoms are instead diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) or semantic pragmatic disorder. All of these disorders benefit from similar therapies, however, so treatment is unlikely to vary significantly regardless of the label given.


Image credit: www.flickr.com/photos/theloushe/4640871734