Asperger Syndrome, which is part of a group of conditions known as pervasive developmental disorders, was discovered in 1944 by the Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger.
Dr. Asperger's work was unavailable in English until the mid-1970s. Researchers believe that, as a result, AS was often unrecognized in English-speaking countries until the late 1980s. This situation was resolved when The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders created its official definition.
There are six criteria for the diagnosis of AS:
- The child's social interactions are impaired in at least two of the following ways: markedly limited use of non-verbal communication; lack of age-appropriate peer relationships; failure to share enjoyment, interests, or accomplishment with others; lack of reciprocity in social interactions.
- The child's behavior, interests and activities are characterized by repetitive or rigid patterns, such as an abnormal preoccupation with one or two topics, or with parts of objects; repetitive physical movements; or rigid insistence on certain routines and rituals.
- The affected individual's social, occupational, or educational functioning is significantly impaired.
- The child has normal age-appropriate language skills.
- The child has normal age-appropriate cognitive skills, self-help abilities and curiosity about the environment.
- The child does not meet criteria for another specific PDD or schizophrenia.
Children diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome learn to talk at the same age as their peers, although in many cases they have above-average verbal skills and above-normal intelligence. Dyslexia can often occur in children with AS, while others may have difficulty with writing or mathematics. Research and practice has shown that children with AS perform to the best of their abilities during structured learning situations in which they learn problem solving, life skills and academic subjects. Other studies reveal children with AS often need protection from bullying.
Adults with Asperger Syndrome are described as having rigid interests, social insensitivity, along with a limited capacity for empathy. This is countered by the fact that many adults with AS have normal or even superior intelligence and can make great intellectual contributions to society and industry due to their increased ability to focus. Individuals with AS are often highly creative and excel in study or employment fields such as mathematics, music and areas of computer sciences.
AS is a lifelong but stable condition, although research has suggested that people with AS have an increased risk of becoming psychotic in adolescence or later life and are more likely to live socially isolated existences. There is a contingent of adults with AS who argue that it is not a handicap or condition to be cured as they feel that their differences should be seen in a more positive light. While individuals with AS can be taught specific social guidelines, the underlying social impairment usually remains.
AS is distinguished from Autism by the following characteristics:
- Later onset of symptoms (usually around three years of age)
- Early development of grammatical speech (the AS child's verbal IQ is usually higher than performance IQ - the reverse being the case in Autistic children)
- Less severe deficiencies in social and communication skills
- Presence of intense interest in one or two topics
- Physical clumsiness and lack of co-ordination
- Family is more likely to have a history of the disorder
- Lower frequency of neurological disorders
- More positive outcome in later life
Although several genetic studies have identified genes or chromosomal regions that may be involved in AS, it has become clear that there is more than one gene in its development. Dr. Asperger's initial studies indicated that children with AS had fathers who demonstrated symptoms of the condition. Until the introduction of the DSM-IV guidelines in 1994, there was no official list of symptoms for the disorder, which made its diagnosis difficult. Although most children with AS are diagnosed between five and nine years of age, many are not diagnosed until adulthood. Misdiagnoses are common as AS has been confused with Tourette syndrome, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
According to researchers, approximately 50% of patients with Asperger Syndrome have a history of oxygen deprivation during the birth process. This has to led to the suggestion that the syndrome is caused by damage to brain tissue before or during childbirth. Another possible cause of AS is an organic defect in the functioning of the brain. One method of supporting people with Asperger Syndrome, who are known to be more likely to suffer from depression, is psychotherapy.