Asperger’s disorder, also known as Asperger’s Syndrome, is a developmental disorder ﬁrst described by Hans Asperger, a Viennese psychiatrist, in 1944. The disorder did not enter the general psychiatric lexicon for another ﬁfty years; the DSM-IV (1994) is the ﬁrst edition to include it.
Until recently most people who would now receive an Asperger diagnosis either were undiagnosed or classiﬁed as high-functioning individuals with autism. The disorders do share some important features in common, but the differences between them are quite striking.
Asperger’s disorder is listed in the DSM-IV as an autism spectrum disorder and is distinguishable from autism primarily by the lack of a delay in language development and the absence of any clinically signiﬁcant delays in either cognitive functioning or adaptive behavior, other than social interaction. In other words, unlike a majority of the autistic population, people with Asperger’s disorder are not mentally retarded. To the contrary, these individuals are usually extremely good on rote memory skills (facts, ﬁgures, dates, times, etc.), and many do especially well in math and science (a 2001 Wired article dubbed Asperger’s “The Geek Syndrome”). Like autistic children, children with Asperger’s disorder demonstrate a severe and sustained impairment in social interaction, as well as the development of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities—what Asperger, in his original description, referred to as “typical autistic behaviors.”
Since it only became well-known recently, many adults with Asperger’s disorder have had the experience of ﬁnally understanding why they’ve always felt different and been regarded as a bit odd. People with Asperger’s disorder are typically regarded as socially awkward and stiff, self-centered, inﬂexible, and lacking in empathy and understanding. Children are therefore usually socially isolated and are often easily agitated. Unlike normal children, however, they do not reveal this agitation and anxiety in the usual ways (tone of voice, body language, facial expression), and so their agitation may escalate to a crisis point before anyone, including the children themselves, is aware of it. As a consequence, these children are easy targets for teasing, and they grow up aware that they are different but unsure of what to do about it. Self-esteem problems and a self-deprecating attitude are often the result.
Since recognition of the disorder is so recent, information on its prevalence is limited and inconsistent. What is known thus far is that, like autism and other developmental disorders, Asperger’s disorder is more frequently diagnosed in boys than in girls. It is almost certainly more common than classic autism. Age of onset may be later than for autism, or at least it tends to be diagnosed later, usually after age ﬁve. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the disorder takes longer to manifest itself, however, but rather that the absence of language delays makes it more challenging to detect than autism.
As with autism, the cause of Asperger’s disorder is unknown, but genetics appear to play a powerful role. In studies of identical twins, it appears that if one twin has autism, the other twin has about a 90 percent probability of having it as well. Although epidemiological research on Asperger’s disorder is in its infancy, similar ﬁgures will likely be found. Also as with autism, treatments that emphasize a behavior-modiﬁcation approach to eliminating problematic behaviors and increasing desired behaviors have proven far more effective than other approaches (see also Pervasive Developmental Disorders).
- Myles, B. S., and Simpson, R. L. Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for Educators and Parents. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, 1998;
- Silberman, S. “The Geek Syndrome.” Wired, 9(12) (2001).