Since the 1990’s “Asperger’s Syndrome” has gradually gained widespread attention. People hear this label, but in the general public it remains an enigma. The term “Asperger’s Syndrome” was first used in 1981, but refers to research by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger. In 1944, Dr. Asperger conducted research on a small group of boys that he observed to have atypical social and thinking patterns. As research and understanding of Asperger’s and autism in general expanded, Asperger’s Syndrome came to be understood as a form of high functioning autism.
Asperger’s Syndrome can be understood generally as a severe and chronic impairment in social interaction and the development of rigid behavior patterns, restricted interests, and activities. Neurologically, a child with Asperger’s Syndrome has difficulty integrating sensory information. They can’t filter out information well enough to function normally. Just imagine that while you are trying to read this you are also equally aware of everything touching you, all the sounds in the background, everything else that is visually available, and all the odors are in the forefront of your awareness. Unless you were in a very quiet, comfortable place you would be easily overwhelmed. This is one reason why children with Asperger’s Syndrome and also those with autism have the restricted behavior patterns – they just can’t process all the information that we are bombarded with every second. There is little or no ability to filter out extraneous information and put it in the background. For those on the autistic spectrum, there is no background. It’s all in the foreground. So they do some odd things just to try and keep it together: flap their arms, rock back and forth, hum to drown out other noises, pinch themselves, cover their ears, etc.
Asperger’s Syndrome is different from lower functioning autism in some key ways. One of the main things that set them apart is that children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome do not have a delay in cognitive development. This means that their thinking abilities are not impaired and therefore children with Asperger’s Syndrome typically do well academically. Children with Autism usually have impaired cognitive abilities. Another key area of difference between Asperger’s and Autism is communication. Children diagnosed with Autistic Disorder typically remain noncommunicative and are much more socially aloof than children with Asperger’s Syndrome. One could say that children with Asperger’s syndrome are much more interested in communication and social connection than other children on the autistic spectrum.
The problem is that both Asperger’s Syndrome and Autistic Disorder feature marked impairment in social interaction. This is seen in their difficulty with nonverbal communication and gestures. This makes interaction very difficult because the “neurotypical” person communicates 55% through gesture, 37% through tone, and 8% through the actual words used (Mehrabian, 1981). For someone with autism, this means that 92% of communication is lost. So for the child with Asperger’s who is interested in communicating, this difficulty with socializing creates a great deal of distress.
In the documentary about a man with Asperger’s, “Today’s Man” by Lizzie Gottleib, the father of the young man with Asperger’s Syndrome explains; “He doesn’t know, a good deal of the time, what is or isn’t appropriate. So you have to tell him. And then he can slowly memorize it.” So in many ways the child with Asperger’s Syndrome is at such a disadvantage socially there is an invisible barrier between them and everyone else around them. Socially they continually feel like a foreigner or outsider.
These problems are not the result of faulty parenting. It is basically the result of abnormal neurological development. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome are not “retarded,” they just have problems processing and understanding information that the rest of us take for granted. They have trouble understanding appropriate ways to act. They struggle to understand other’s emotions. In many ways, they just don’t “get it” as easily was the rest of the world. This creates special challenges to the person with Asperger’s in all realms of relationships: family, friends, school and work. Understandably, anxiety and depression are also common problems associated with Asperger’s.
There are a variety of services that help people with Asperger’s meet these challenges. Occupational therapy is utilized to help with sensory integration. Medication can help manage problems with anxiety, depression, and agitation. Individual and family counseling can provide help in social skills and coping. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in schools can help create a structure that is more conducive to academic success. Support groups, such as the Mid-Ohio Valley Autism Network (MOVAN.org) can help provide resources and encouragement for individuals and families.
This brief article just barely scratches the surface on the whole issue of Asperger’s Syndrome. For more information, please use the following resources:
- http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html – information on nonverbal communication.
- Autism Spectrum Disorders by Chantal Sicile-Kira, 2004
- Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships by Dr. Temple Grandin and Sean Barron, 2005.
- Asperger’s Syndrome:A Guide for Parents and Professionals by Tony Attwood, 1998