What is Asperger's syndrome?

Adults diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome often have trouble with social interactions. They also have obsessive interests and enjoy repetitive activities.
Adults diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome often have trouble with social interactions. They also have obsessive interests and enjoy repetitive activities.

Asperger's syndrome is a diagnosis that was once given to those who had trouble with social interactions. People diagnosed with Asperger's also had obsessive interests and enjoyed repetitive activities. 

Since 2013, people who were once considered to have Asperger's have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Doctors now understand behaviors that were once believed to be associated with Asperger's as caused by mild autism.

Many people have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism in childhood. However, some people with mild symptoms do not receive a diagnosis of autism until adulthood.

Signs of Asperger's in adults

Asperger’s, like autism, was mostly noticeable in interactions with other people. A person who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s or mild autism is usually not unhappy when alone. Mild autism doesn’t mean someone can’t keep a job, care for themselves, or start a family if they choose to do so .

The difficulty people with mild autism experience in certain social situations can, however, be distressing. Here are some signs of mild autism you may notice in yourself or others:

Social awkwardness

Adults with mild autism may come off as socially awkward. They may not understand the back-and-forth nature of conversations. One common behavior is unintentionally talking too much about yourself or your interests and not allowing the other person time to talk. 

People with mild autism also tend to miss social cues including facial expressions and body language. They may give off the impression that they are uninterested in or not paying attention to social interaction.

Difficulty understanding jokes or sarcasm

Some adults with the sort of mild autism that was once diagnosed as Asperger’s have a hard time understanding jokes, colloquial phrases, or sarcasm because they take things more literally. A colloquial phrase like “riding shotgun” — meaning to ride in the front seat of the car — may cause confusion.

One study found that teenage boys with Asperger’s syndrome preferred jokes with simpler endings, but still wanted to laugh and make others laugh. People with mild autism may have a different sense of humor from other people, but they still have a sense of humor.

Challenges making or keeping friends

Due to social difficulties, adults with autism may have few friends. They may find it challenging to spend time with people, preferring to spend time alone, immersed in their interests. 

Sensory issues

Some, but not all, people with mild autism also have sensory processing disorders. The symptoms of sensory processing disorders can include:

  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Sensitivity to certain types of touch
  • Sensitivity to loud or high-pitched noises
  • Sensitivity to strong smells
  • Poor balance
  • Low sensitivity to pain
  • Clumsiness 
  • Being extremely picky about food 

Avoidance of eye contact

One of the recognized symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome that is also common in people with mild autism was difficulty making eye contact or discomfort doing so. Along with other social behaviors, avoiding eye contact may give the impression that you’re not being interested in social interactions when you really are. 

Lack of adherence to social rules

Some adults with mild autism or previous Asperger’s diagnoses don't appear to follow social norms, like talking quietly in a library or taking turns in a conversation.

Very strong and particular interests

Some adults with autism have very strong interests. According to one study, their interests are more intense than those of neurotypical individuals — people without autism, mental illness, or cognitive or developmental disorders. These interests usually involve facts, objects, and sensory topics and can include:

  • Reading
  • Movies/TV shows
  • Video games
  • Animals
  • Collecting something
  • Math 

Difficulty with change

Adults with mild autism love routine and may become distressed if their daily routine changes. For some people, routine can mean eating the same food for each meal or watching the same TV show every night. Other people have more complex routines. When something disrupts this routine, it can be significantly upsetting for a person with autism.

Strong ability to focus

Adults with mild autism often enjoy spending a long time reading, writing, or working on a project. Sometimes this ability to focus for a long time on a particular interest can lead to a hobby or career. 

For example, Temple Grandin, a woman with autism, used her strong interest in animals to study animal behavior and develop new ways to handle livestock that make them less fearful and easier to manage. 

Strong attention to detail and pattern recognition

People with mild autism may have a greater ability than neurotypical people to recognize patterns or small details. Some enjoy performing tasks that require a high degree of accuracy and can recognize errors better than others.

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Causes of Asperger’s

There is no known cause for autism spectrum disorder. Some experts believe genetics may play a part. Mild autism may be caused by inherited genetic abnormalities or ones that occur spontaneously.

Researchers are also investigating whether exposure to certain environmental factors like chemicals or medications may cause autism, or make someone more likely to have it.

While other types of chemical exposure are being investigated, it’s a myth that vaccines against severe diseases like diphtheria can cause autism. Researchers have studied this theory in depth and have found no connection between vaccines and autism. Parents may believe a connection exists because autism so often becomes noticeable around the age that children are vaccinated.

While there is no known cause for the type of mild autism that doctors used to call Asperger’s, there are some risk factors. For example, men are more likely to be diagnosed with autism. Other risk factors may include:

Diagnosing Asperger’s in adults

It’s no longer possible to be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at any age. The syndrome has ceased to be a valid diagnosis, and its symptoms are considered symptoms of autism.

To get a formal diagnosis of autism as an adult, you may undergo neuropsychological testing with a psychologist or a psychiatrist. The medical professional will interview you about your symptoms and behavior. They may also give you written or computer-based tests to compose a full picture of your language, communication, and cognitive abilities.

What kind of testing you need and from whom will vary depending on why you’re seeking a diagnosis. For example, your school or college may have very specific guidelines to follow in order to get academic accommodations including quiet testing areas free of unpleasant sensory stimulation. Workplaces may offer other types of accommodation based on other criteria.

It’s unlikely that a person with the type of mild autism once diagnosed as Asperger’s would qualify for disability payments, which are intended for people who can’t work any type of job. That said, you need a formal diagnosis from a Ph.D.-level psychologist or medical doctor to get supplemental social security income or social security disability insurance in the United States.

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Treatments for Asperger’s

Depending on your symptoms, treatment for mild autism may not be necessary. Just knowing about a diagnosis can help you to identify why you have struggled with certain things, inform future decisions, or be useful in seeking accommodations.

However, if your symptoms disrupt your life, the following treatments are available:

Prescription drugs

While there is no drug that treats autism, a medical professional may prescribe drugs to:

  • Stabilize mood
  • Reduce impulsive or compulsive behavior
  • Treat depression or anxiety caused by social challenges

Therapy

Counseling or therapy can help people with Asperger’s:

  • Learn to recognize social cues and “rules”
  • Practice social situations
  • Learn how to show interest in social interactions (making eye contact, not interrupting, etc.)
  • Learn to manage frustrations

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What is the best treatment for Asperger's?

Asperger’s syndrome is one of several conditions now understood to be a type of autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the way people communicate and behave. Though Asperger’s is no longer a diagnosis, the term is still used at times to indicate a type of autism without intellectual or language impairment.

Autism affects people across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, though it is four times more likely to be diagnosed in boys than in girls. About one in 54 children has been diagnosed with autism.

What is Asperger’s syndrome?

Asperger’s and autism can mean many different things depending on the person. Generally speaking, the kind of mild autism that used to be called Asperger’s affects communication and behavior. People with mild autism often have difficulty with social interactions because it is hard for them to communicate with other people. 

Though people with Asperger’s may find conversations to be hard or frustrating, they generally have average to high intelligence and strong verbal skills. They tend to engage in repetitive behavior and may have trouble understanding complicated feelings, gestures, or sarcasm.

Signs and symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome

People with mild autism tend to have difficulty with social interactions. This can show itself as difficulty understanding others’ feelings, expressing your own feelings, understanding gestures, and making eye contact. Sometimes people with autism are very literal and can’t understand jokes. Other people with autism sound different when they talk, using a flat tone of voice or repeating words and phrases.

Another obstacle to socializing for people with autism can be repetitive behaviors and obsessions. Others may not understand why an autistic person always eats the same dinner or wears the same clothes. It can also be hard for other people to understand why someone with autism collects items like coins or stamps, or memorizes facts about their favorite actors.

While most people with autism have trouble socializing, some also have physical symptoms. These can include awkward movements, clumsiness, and high sensitivity to certain noises and sounds.

Causes of Asperger’s syndrome

There is no one cause of autism. A combination of genetic and environmental factors can increase the risk of autism. Anyone can have the type of autism referred to as Asperger’s syndrome, but the following factors increase risk:

  • Sex, since boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism
  • Family history of autism
  • Premature birth, especially in babies born before 26 weeks’ gestation
  • Other medical conditions such as Fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome, or tuberous sclerosis
  • Possibly parents’ ages, but more research is needed 

Diagnosis for Asperger’s syndrome

There is no one test for autism. All children are screened for autism at their 18-month and 24-month checkups. The screening will generally include: 

  • Asking about a child’s behavior and developmental milestones
  • Observing the child to see how they interact with those around them and their environment
  • Asking the child to perform tasks that test their thinking skills and decision-making ability 

In  addition, a child’s pediatrician may perform tests to rule out other issues that may cause autism-like symptoms, including: 

Treatments for Asperger’s syndrome

There is no one treatment for autism, and autism does not mean anything is wrong with you that needs to be cured. Treatment generally focuses on managing autism symptoms — for instance, learning how to better communicate and reducing any repetitive behaviors that interfere with your life. Treatment options can include therapies and medications. 

Therapies

Behavior therapies address the social and behavioral issues that can cause distress for people with autism and interfere with their relationships. Family therapy can help family members learn the best way to interact with family members who have autism. 

Speech or language therapy may be beneficial to help with issues like monotone speech. It may also help with understanding figures of speech and implied meaning. Occupational therapy can help with sensory integration, and physical therapy may be helpful with balance and coordination issues. 

Medications

There is no medication that can treat the core characteristics of autism, but there are medications that can help with some symptoms. Certain medications can be prescribed for the hyperactivity that some autistic people experience, for example. Antidepressants may help with anxiety. It’s important to keep all doctors involved up to date on all medications since some can interact and cause adverse effects. 

Special diets

Maintaining a healthy diet is important for people with autism. Children with autism have been shown to have thinner bones than children without autism. While some people promote gluten-free or casein-free diets to treat autism, there is no evidence that these approaches work. In addition, these diets may limit bone-building foods, causing harm. 

Possible complications and side effects

The medications used to treat some symptoms of autism can have adverse effects. Discuss any new medications with your doctor, and let a medical professional know if you’ve been feeling worse since starting a new medication.

Antidepressant side effects can include:

Additionally, antidepressants in children can trigger feelings of hostility, anxiety, and impulsivity, along with suicidal thoughts

Stimulants are often used to treat hyperactivity and inability to focus in people with autism. Stimulant side effects can include:

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Medically Reviewed on 2/28/2022
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