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How does Asperger’s Differ from Autism?

Asperger’s syndrome differs from autism although according to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), they are not separate disorders. Asperger’s is classified as an autism spectrum disorder. However, this classification remains a controversial decision, and many experts would argue that there are several distinct differences between the two disorders.

 Related resource: 5 Tips for Making Your Home Comfortable for Your Child with Autism

 Should We Still Be Using the Term Asperger’s?

 Asperger’s syndrome used to be a separate psychiatric diagnosis until the DSM updated its criteria in 2013. Officially, there is no longer a disorder entitled Asperger’s syndrome. However, that has not stopped the medical and autistic community from using the name. Although it may eventually fade out of existence, it is a useful term to help differentiate people who exhibit symptoms more common to what used to be Asperger’s versus those with more severe types of autism. Indeed, even people that are diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome often prefer to identify themselves as “Aspies” rather than be labeled autistic. If you want to be technical, Asperger’s syndrome no longer exists but the term and its meaning have not gone away.

 Symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome

 The following are common symptoms of what used to be diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome:

 Emotional and Cognitive Issues

 One of the hallmarks of Asperger’s is a deficit in understanding and processing emotions. As a result, they may appear to be self-focused and exhibit little empathy. Additionally, people with Asperger’s may be prone to emotional outbursts because they have problems with coping and displaying difficult emotions. Further, their lack of understanding of abstract thought may cause considerable frustration and acting out behavior.

Communication Issues

 Another primary area of difficulty for those with Asperger’s is communication. Although they may have strong verbal skills, their social skills are usually lacking. This is frequently characterized by a lack of eye contact, robotic speech, inappropriate speech volume, and an inability to pick up on non-verbal cues, including body language. Moreover, they may have trouble with simple social communication, such as making small-talk.

Behavioral Issues

 People with Asperger’s exhibit certain behaviors that others may find peculiar. For example, much like someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, they like to repeat certain behaviors as part of a routine. If that routine is interrupted they are likely to become upset. They can also be sensitive to certain stimuli, including light, smells, and textures. This may cause them to want to avoid those stimuli or, on the other hand, become overly preoccupied with them. In addition, they frequently become fixated on a specific subject and will exhibit laser focus in learning about it and performing activities related to it. Finally, people with Asperger’s may have problems with motor coordination and appear clumsy.

 Does Asperger’s Look Different in Children?

 Children with Asperger’s have similar symptoms as adults but they present different challenges for children because they are still developing and are placed in more forced social situations. For example, due to difficulties in abstract thinking, children with Asperger’s will have trouble with pretend play, a common type of social interaction for younger kids. Moreover, children are less forgiving of what they may consider odd behavior. Since children with Asperger’s have social and communication deficits, this could lead to more teasing and bullying. As a result, a child with Asperger’s may have difficulty making friends and want to avoid friendships with peers; instead, they may gravitate to more adult interaction. Further, children may have increased behavioral incidents due to even greater difficulty in coping with their frustrations and other negative emotions.

 Differences Between Autism and Asperger’s

Diagnosis

 One of the differences in Asperger’s and autism is when the condition is diagnosed. Autism is usually diagnosed when a child is between the ages of two and four. Asperger’s may not be diagnosed until a child is well into the teen years or even in adulthood. While this remains generally true, there is also a growing body of evidence that women with milder forms of autism may be diagnosed much later in life because the symptoms for girls can differ from those displayed by boys. The diagnostic criteria for autism and Asperger’s are also different, with an Asperger’s diagnosis more rooted in social difficulties.

Language Delay

 One of the reasons for the early diagnosis of autism is that the first sign of the condition is often a language delay. This is also one of the main and most common differences in autism and Asperger’s. Children with Asperger’s do not suffer from a language delay and may appear neurotypical to the casual observer. Their language skills may be excellent compared to others their age. However, they might also display unusual speech patterns, talk too loudly or have other unusual verbal habits.

Intelligence

 As is the case with language delay, there is no cognitive impairment with Asperger’s. In fact, while the intelligence of children with Asperger’s may range from average to high, it is not uncommon for children with Asperger’s to be very intelligent. However, sometimes this intelligence is masked with behavioral problems. Children with autism may have severe or mild cognitive impairment or they might be highly intelligent. Children with Asperger’s may sometimes be diagnosed with a learning disability, but cognitive impairment negates the possibility of an Asperger’s diagnosis.

 Neurological Differences

 Some researchers have looked at whether there are brain differences in children with autism versus those with Asperger’s. Some differences have been identified. For example, in the part of the brain that controls language, there are fewer folds in children who have Asperger’s compared to children who have autism. Connections in the brain’s left hemisphere may also be weaker for children with autism compared to children with Asperger’s. A study that appeared in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience reported on research that examined the amount of gray matter in the MRIs of people with autism and Asperger’s. Researchers found significant differences, with autism tending to show more excess gray matter on both sides.

  As these differences indicate, while some people might think of Asperger’s as simply a milder form of autism, this is not entirely accurate. Further research and refinement of the definition of both disorders will likely need to continue as a more accurate picture emerges of the symptoms and physical ways in which Asperger’s differs from autism.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

March 2020

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