Is Asperger’s Syndrome the Same As Autism?

asperger syndrome

Takeaway: We now see autism as being a spectrum with a range of subtypes. Asperger’s Syndrome is the old name of the mildest of these subtypes. Children with Asperger’s have a lot of the same characteristics as children with classical autism, but it doesn’t affect their functioning as much. And with the right support, they can live full, meaningful lives.

Autism is a developmental difference that changes the way a child engages with the world.

Children with autism see life differently. Their brains have developed in a way that makes it harder for them to understand social interaction. So, they find it difficult to spot nonverbal communication like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. They might also get overwhelmed by loud noises, bright colours, etc. And they tend to want order and routine in their lives. However, autistic children also have the capacity to get hyper-focussed on a particular subject or topic, which can be a strength. Learn more about autism.

The thing is, there are many ‘forms’ of autism. So, it’s more accurate to call it ‘the autism spectrum.’

Some autistic children might have problems learning how to speak, while others may speak but with an unusual tone of voice or in a robotic way. Some might struggle to learn in class, while others don’t. Some might have below-average intelligence, while others have average/high intelligence. Some might only play by themselves, while others prefer to play alone but will play with friends occasionally. Some might cause self-harm (by biting themselves or banging their head), but others won’t. There are so many of these variations that it’s more accurate to see autism as a ‘spectrum’ with a range of character traits.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a subtype of the autism spectrum.

Think of the autism spectrum as being a series of sub-categories that range from ‘mild’ to ‘severe.’ Asperger’s is the ‘mildest’ category in the autism spectrum. You’ll see many of the same characteristics you’d see in children with classical autism, but it doesn’t affect their functioning as much. So, a child with Asperger’s might be highly intelligent and do well in class, but still struggle to play with her friends. [Note: As you move up the spectrum, towards the more ‘severe’ end, children find it harder and harder to adapt to regular life and might even have associated medical challenges like seizures.] What complicates things, however, is that even though Asperger’s is ‘mild’ objectively, subjectively it can be very traumatic. For example, children with Asperger’s often have far more anxiety about their condition than those with classical autism.

‘Classical’ autism vs. Asperger’s: Some of the differences

Here are examples of how autism is a spectrum.

  • Interest in their friends. Children with more severe autism spectrum traits usually don’t want to spend time in groups or interacting with others. Children with Asperger’s, on the other hand, do want to get along. But they find it hard to do so, because they don’t quite ‘get’ important communication rules like taking turns when talking, making eye contact, etc.
  • Trouble speaking. Children with more severe autism spectrum traits often learn to speak later than usual. Children with Asperger’s are usually great at speaking. They just speak differently. So, they might speak a little too formally, or too loud, or in too high a pitch, or in a singsong manner.
  • Children with more severe autism spectrum traits might have intellectual disabilities. But children with Asperger’s have average or above-average levels of intelligence.
  • Fitting in. Children with more severe autism spectrum traits are usually spotted well before they go to school. Meanwhile, children with Asperger’s are affected so minimally that they’re often well into early school life before they begin to struggle.

For more characteristics of children with Asperger’s, read our article on the Autism Spectrum.

So, why all the confusion with the names?

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome were discovered by two different people. In 1943, the Austrian-American psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner noticed children with traits that would later be defined as autistic. I.e., these children struggled with speech, social interaction, and repetitive behaviour. Around the same time, the Viennese paediatrician Dr. Hans Asperger was making observations of his own. He noticed children who didn’t struggle with intelligence and language, but still had problems with social interaction. He thought of this as a completely different phenomenon, but a lot of his peers felt it was just a milder form of autism. So, the separate diagnoses of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome would keep butting heads till 2013, when they were finally brought under what we now call the Autism Spectrum.

Does it make sense to keep Asperger’s Syndrome as part of the autism spectrum?

Some people argue that autism is better understood than Asperger’s Syndrome. So, placing Asperger’s under the umbrella of the autism spectrum opens up care options. But others argue that it’s misleading to group the milder Asperger’s Syndrome with more debilitating forms of autism. What if a child’s problem behaviours are so mild that she doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria of the new autism spectrum? She’ll need help but may not get it. The other concern is that children on the autism spectrum have such diverse needs that it’s not practical to group them together. For now, the medical profession will stick to the term ‘autism spectrum,’ but the conversation continues and Asperger’s may well get back its separate identity in time.

What is life like for a child with Asperger’s?

10-year-old Nick reflects on some of his experiences.

  • “Sometimes kids think I don’t want to play, but I do. I just don’t know how to ask to be included, so I’m waiting for an invitation. Other times I’m not sure what other kids are doing, so I’m watching to see what the rules are.”
  • “My brain gives me too many messages at once. It’s like having 10 people telling me to do different things at the same time. When I get confused, I might knock things off the table, shout “Stop talking,” or walk away. I need a few minutes to get my thoughts organized. My teacher lets me take a ‘chill’ break in the hall for a minute when I need one.”
  • “It’s hard to start or continue a conversation because I’m not sure what I should say when I don’t have a question. I often just answer “yes” or “no” to a question. But ask me about trains, planes, computers, electricity, or tornadoes and I will talk until you walk away. Please try to start a conversation with me anyway.”
  • “Sometimes I make noises like a cat or dog, spin my pencil, or kick the furniture while I’m thinking. I have no idea I’m doing this until someone tells me to stop. Sometimes I blurt things out. My brain just needed to say things right then and it didn’t ask for my permission.”

The advantage of spotting Asperger’s is that you can now help manage it.

Here’s how some of the more common issues can be addressed:

  1. Social skills. You could enroll your child in social skills training — either one-on-one or in a group. The facilitator can watch your child’s interactions and encourage the positive ones. This way, your child gets to model ‘good’ behaviour and learn in the process
  2. Speech and language. A trained speech and language therapist can help your child regularise her speech patterns and practise her conversation skills.
  3. She can learn to process her emotions and actions using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This will help when she feels emotionally overwhelmed or unable to stop obsessive, repetitive behaviour.

Do you think your child might have Asperger’s Syndrome or is on the autism spectrum? Feel free to consult with us.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London.

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