Information on Aspergers for a School Assignment

A school student asked my for some information on aspergers. Here are the questions and my answers. Note that this information is aimed at young adults and I've tried not to let it get too complicated.

What is Asperger Syndrome?

Aspergers Syndrome is simply a label given to a group of characteristics which occur simultaneously in several individuals. It can't be measured or otherwise detected in normal terms but is based upon the subjective analysis of a doctor, usually as psychologist. The name aspergers comes from Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who described the symptoms in 1944. His work was not translated into English until 1989 and wasn't recognised for it until 1981, one year after his death.

The diagnostic criteria for aspergers syndrome is as follows;

(I) Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:

(A) marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction

(B) failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level

(C) a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people, (e.g.. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)

(D) lack of social or emotional reciprocity

(II) Restricted repetitive & stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:

(A) encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus

(B) apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals

(C) stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g. hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)

(D) persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

(III) The disturbance causes clinically significant impairments in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

(IV) There is no clinically significant general delay in language (E.G. single words used by age 2 years, communicative phrases used by age 3 years)

(V) There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction) and curiosity about the environment in childhood.

(VI) Criteria are not met for another specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Schizophrenia."

This criteria is used by doctors all around the world to diagnose people with Aspergers Syndrome. In the DSM V, a new manual to be published next year, aspergers syndrome has been replaced by the overarching term "autism". Not everyone is happy with this change.

How does it affect everyday life?

You either have Aspergers Syndrome or you don't. You can't have "a little bit of Aspergers" however since people with aspergers syndrome are affected in different ways, some people will adjust to everyday life better than others.

Common issues with aspergers include;

Extreme Sensitivity to light, noise, temperature, smell or vibration. If the conditions within a room change suddenly, a person with aspergers may need to leave immediately or may meltdown (a bit like a temper tandrum but uncontrolled) or shutdown (roll up into a ball).

Social difficulties, like not knowing when to take turns talking. Not being able to small talk - being limited to certain topics (special interests) only. Not being able to read body language, for example being able to tell if someone is upset or angry. Not being able to show emotions in a way that other people can understand. People with aspergers syndrome might laugh when they are feeling sad or overwhelmed. They feel the right emotions but they display them in a way that can sometimes be socially unacceptable.

Low muscle tone. People with aspergers can develop muscles but their muscles are often layered on their body in ways which don't support it as well. This can make them slouch and can result in issues with RSI and poor posture. They often have balance issues too.

How do you get it? (Are you born with it?)

Nobody is 100% certain how you get aspergers syndrome but the odds are heavily in favour of genetics. There have been suggestions that vaccinations contribute but these have mostly been refuted. It is possible however that some vaccines may react with different body chemistry to produce a simlar effect. In the vast majority of cases however there is only a genetic link.

There are a lot of theories about this including a suggestion that people with Aspergers carry genes from Neanderthal Man (a genetic offshoot of humanity which was replaced by modern homo sapiens). There's an altenative theory that people with aspergers have a more "male-brain" than female.

Is Asperger's hereditary? If someone has it, is it likely to be passed to their children?

It certainly seems to be the case that Aspergers Syndrome is hereditary and many parents who are unaware that they have aspergers syndrome have discovered their own condition as a result of testing done on their children. While there haven't been any studies to establish likelihood and genetic predisposition, there's enough real life examples for the arguement to carry weight.

Can it be cured?

Nobody has succeeded in curing Aspergers sydrome - or even detecting it scientifically. It can only be detected by subjective analysis. If the condition is truly hereditary and if the neanderthal theory holds true, then there's little chance of a "cure". Many people with Aspergers syndrome do not want a cure as Aspergers is so deeply ingrained in their personality that they feel that any cure would change the person that they are.

There are plenty of examples of people with aspergers who have contributed significantly to human achievement and it's debatable whether or not we would have made the same progress with them. In particular, people such as Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edision have been linked to Aspergers Syndrome.

The best way to "cure" a person of aspergers is to cure their issues, not their personality. For example, if they have major sensitivity to noise, then the "cure" could be a set of noise-cancelling headphones. Sometimes the best cure is simply a matter of learning a new coping skill.

How common is it?

According to wikipedia, a review in 2003 found that it varies from 0.03 to 4.84% depending upon the area. The idea that aspergers is more common in some parts of the world than others may increase the likelihood of it being genetic. Aspergers occurs about four times as often in boys as it does in girls however this may be because girls are more able to "hide" with the condition than boys.

If I were to see (only visually see, not interact with) someone with Asperger's, would the syndrome be obvious or noticeable?

Aspergers is often referred to as an "invisible special need" because you usually can't tell that someone has it just by looking. Of course, some people show signs more obviously than others, particularly where special interests are concerned. You may for instance find that a person with aspergers may look extremely "geeky" and that it could show in the sort of fashion they wear.

Is it complicated to work with your son? (How is his learning ability affected?)

Aspergers is rarely a lone traveller. It quite often comes with Co-conditions, such as OCD Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, NVLD Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (a learning disorder not assoicated with speech) etc. In my eldest son's case, he has Aspegers Syndrome, ADHD(I) and NVLD. He can speak fluently and obsesses over Star Wars and Lego. His learning difficulties make it almost impossible for him to complete simple tasks. He can't follow lists or timetables, and will frequently become distracted in the middle of a task. It can take him 60 minutes or more to get changed and even then clothing will often be inside out - or missing.

The difficulties he faces at school are mainly due to problems of executive functioning (his ability to work to a plan). He also has a lot of social difficulties interacting with other children and making friends. These problems often result in depression and the occasional meltdown.

It is at times very difficult to work with him but he usually produces unique work which makes these interactions a joy.