Aspergers syndrome, named after Dr. Hans Aspergers who first described the syndrome, is considered by many to be a “milder” form of Autism. Aspergers Syndrome is often depicted in the media as a socially quirky guy that has trouble talking to girls.
Children with a diagnosis of Autism are considered to be in dire need of therapy and treatment, and children with a diagnosis of Aspergers are just considered to be…different.
There is some truth that Aspergers Syndrome can be much less debilitating than full blown Autism, but Aspergers is nothing to take lightly. In terms of aggression, non-compliance, or anxiety, a child with Aspergers can have just as much difficulty in these areas as a child with a diagnosis of Autism. The common misconception that Aspergers is a kind of “Autism-Lite” has unfortunately led many parents and educators to believe that kids with Aspergers will be just fine and don’t need any help. However, I have worked with children with Aspergers who had challenging, persistent behavioral problems, self-stimulatory behaviors, or significant social difficulties that were often exacerbated by the child's cognitive abilities. In other words, the child is different and has no friends and they know it.
Most of us sat next to a child in school, worked with someone, or have a cousin so-and-so who probably has Aspergers Syndrome. Even without an official diagnosis it is often clear that these individuals have a lot of difficulty with tasks and behaviors that most people find easy. Due to their unique affect and interests, individuals with Aspergers often get labels such as “geek”, “nerd”, “weird”, or “loner. People may not know the person has an Autism disorder, but they can tell that something is off.
The downside to having a less apparent form of Autism is that individuals with Aspergers Syndrome sometimes get dismissed as just being odd, and aren’t recognized as having a true disorder.
Many people will ask me what’s the difference between a high functioning child with Autism and Aspergers Syndrome. Clinical diagnosis isn’t quite that finite. Research does not support a difference between high functioning Autism (HFA) and Aspergers, and Asperger Disorder has been eliminated from the most recent DSM (DSM-V). Autism, Aspergers, and PDD-NOS are now all synonymous with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Children with Aspergers often have behavioral issues that can be helped with ABA Therapy. As an ABA professional, my “Aspie” kids are usually much more verbal, have a broader skill set, and are easier to engage. My Aspie clients will easily talk to me about their day, and indicate their needs and wants without needing to be prompted. Aspie kiddos can be very fun to work with, because they tend to be straight shooters. They say whatever is on their mind and may feel no need to self-edit….the results can be hilarious.
Aspie kids can appear to be typically developing kids. In a classroom setting, it may be difficult to point out the student with Aspergers. That is, until its time for social interaction and then it becomes more obvious. Or, if the classroom schedule or routine is changed without warning. This is why it can sometimes take close observation from an experienced professional to determine if a child is just “quirky” or if they have Aspergers Syndrome.
Here are a few more Aspergers-specific tendencies, based on my experiences:
* Aspie kids take things very literally, and are concrete thinkers- Similar to Rose from Golden Girls, Aspie kids don’t respond well to sarcasm. They have a hard time determining when someone is teasing or joking with them, and are very rule oriented. If the teacher says that everyone in the classroom must line up, the Aspie kid is the one who will turn around and yell at the student who steps out of line to tie his shoe—to the Aspie child, a rule is being broken. And that is NOT okay.
* Aspie kids have a very hard time socializing or making friends- Aspie kids often want to socialize, which is a huge difference from many classic Autism kids. Aspie kids have the desire to engage their peers but lack the skills to do so. The Aspie kid is the one at the lunch table who drones on and on about rare dinosaur breeds, and doesn’t realize that the other students find him boring, or a nuisance.
* Aspie kiddos tend to have an Aspie parent- Many times a child with Autism can come from a family with no history of Autism. An Aspie child almost always has an Aspie parent, and it’s usually the dad. The parents generally are unaware that one of them (or both) is on the spectrum, and this can sometimes be a delicate conversation to have. Aspie dads generally have very complicated, technical jobs (like an engineer, or IT person), are awkward socially ( give intense eye contact, stand too close to you), and can be prone to angry outbursts.
* Aspie kids tend to have problems with authority- This doesn’t come from a place of defiance, but as rule-followers and logical thinkers everything has to make sense to an Aspie kid. You can’t tell these kids to do something “because I said so”……that won’t work. Rules must make sense, and demands must be logical. The Aspie kid is the student in the classroom who gets in trouble every week for arguing with the teacher and correcting her grammar. To the Aspie kid, it doesn’t matter that it’s rude to correct an adult.
* Aspie kids talk like very short adults- Due to a concrete understanding of language and advanced verbal skills, Aspie kids select and use their words carefully. Their vocal affect may sound stilted, or as if they are reading a speech off of note cards. They avoid lazy communicating, such as using slang or contractions. Instead of saying “I’m gonna’ go to karate after school, yay!” they would say something like “When school is finished I have a karate class. I like karate very much, and I am excellent at it. There are 7 kids in my karate class. There is David, and there is Robert, and…..”
Just like a child with Autism, Aspie kids can benefit greatly from routine, structure, and order in their environment. Aspie kids also respond well to visual supports, particularly in the classroom.
The biggest obstacle with an Aspie kid will be teaching social skills. The fact that the child has a form of Autism makes navigating social waters difficult. Add on top of that a concrete thinker who tends to mentally store massive amounts of information about very specific topics, and they won’t exactly be King or Queen of the playground (Girls can, and do, have Aspergers Syndrome even though most literature and information refers to boys). The Aspie kid on the playground is the one trying to join a game of Tag by explaining to the other students the difference between an Eudicella ducalis beetle and an Eudicella euthalia beetle.
If you suspect that your child or student might have Aspergers Syndrome, then I’d definitely recommend seeking a diagnosis from a qualified professional. Since Aspie kids are verbal and friendly, parents tend to think no diagnosis or treatment is necessary. However, the reality is these individuals still may need significant assistance with simple things such as: making friends, finding employment, handling change and transitions, attending college, and being a fully functioning member of society.
**Quick Tip: Tony Attwood is a respected leader in the field of Autism, and most of his publications focus extensively on Aspergers Syndrome. If you would like more information about Aspergers Syndrome I recommend his website.