Asperger (or Asperger’s) syndrome is a form of autism. The condition makes it hard to read signals from others that many understand without a second thought. This can include facial expressions, tone of voice and general social conventions.
This makes it difficult for those with Asperger’s to communicate and interact with others. It can lead to anxiety, confusion and frustration for them and their loved ones.
Those with Asperger’s also struggle with unpredictable situations, favouring routine and structure in their life. This may be reflected in their actions. For example, a need to have things arranged in a certain order, or a compulsive need to collect something.
Asperger’s is a lifelong condition and there is no cure. However, there has recently been a shift towards looking at Asperger’s as a ‘difference’ rather than a ‘disability’. It’s something that cannot be cured or treated, but managed.
On this page we will explore Asperger’s symptoms, causes and diagnosis. We will also find out when the right time is to seek help and what sort of treatment for Asperger’s is available.
On this page
The nature of Asperger’s syndrome
Asperger’s is part of the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The ASD is a range of different disorders relating to communication, imagination, creativity and social interaction.
It affects people in different ways, and to varying degrees. There are three main areas of difficulties for those with Asperger’s:
- social communication
- social integration
- social imagination.
Asperger’s is similar to autism, but those with Asperger’s have fewer problems with speech. Unlike autism, those with Asperger’s typically have above average intelligence. They also tend not to have the learning difficulties associated with autism. However, they may have specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, or other conditions such as ADHD or epilepsy.
Most symptoms of Asperger’s improve over time, but difficulties with communication, social adjustment and independent living can continue into adulthood.
As mentioned above, the main symptom of Asperger’s is having difficulties in social situations. There are however, a number of other symptoms your child may have. This is due to the complexity of the syndrome, and it’s why no two children who have it are alike.
Asperger’s symptoms in children and teens
You may notice Asperger’s symptoms in your child when he or she starts preschool and begins to interact with other children on a daily basis.
Asperger’s symptoms in children may differ from child to child. If a young person has Asperger’s, they may:
- Lack empathy.
- Have a lack of social skills (find it hard to read social signals, start or maintain conversations, read others’ body language and wait their turn when talking).
- Dislike change.
- Stare at others or avoid eye contact.
- Fail to recognise differences in speech pitch, accent and tone that changes the meaning of others’ speech. Your child might not understand a joke or take a sarcastic comment to heart. His or her speech may also be hard to understand because of its flat tone, accent and pitch.
- Have a formal way of approaching conversations. For example he or she may say, “beckon” instead of “call”.
- Exhibit unusual postures and facial expressions.
- Talk about his or her favourite subject a lot. Typically having one-sided conversations.
- Have a delay in his or her motor development. Your child might take longer than other children to learn to ride a bike, use cutlery or catch a ball.
- Become overstimulated by strong tastes, bright lights or loud noises.
- Become very knowledgeable and preoccupied with only a few subjects.
If your child exhibits one or two of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the condition. To become diagnosed, your child will need to display a number of these Asperger’s symptoms and have major difficulties in social situations.
Although Asperger’s can be considered to be similar to autism, a child with the condition will usually have normal intellectual and language development. Children with Asperger’s also tend to show more of an interest in making friends compared with children who have autism.
Asperger’s symptoms tend to progress through your child’s teenage years. Even though teens may try to address their lack of social skills, communication can still be difficult. Reading other’s behaviour may still prove to be a problem.
Like other teens, he or she will want to make friends, but may feel intimidated or shy when approaching others. Most teens with Asperger’s will find it mentally draining when trying to fit in. They may be naïve, immature and too trusting, which may lead to bullying.
Yet teens with Asperger’s are able to keep a few close friends throughout school. Some traits, or symptoms, may work in your teen’s favour when growing up. Your teen might not want to follow social norms or conventional thinking. Instead, they may want to follow their own goals and interests.
Asperger’s symptoms in adults
Asperger’s symptoms in adults can improve over time. By this points in life, adults will usually know their own strengths and weaknesses. They are also more likely to improve their social skills, and their ability to read others’ social cues. Many people who have the condition go on to marry and have children.
Some Asperger’s symptoms in adults can be beneficial for academic and career success, such as focused interests and an increased attention to detail. A common career choice for people with Asperger’s is engineering due to their fascination with technology. Yet scientific or engineering careers aren’t the only areas where adults with Asperger’s do well. A number of historical figures exhibited symptoms of Asperger’s. These include Albert Einstein, Mozart, Thomas Jefferson and Marie Curie.
When is the right time to seek help?
Diagnosis of Asperger’s can be difficult. It is often diagnosed later in life than autism, and sometimes a diagnosis may not be made until adulthood.
Possible signs of autism in the first few years of life can include:
- not being able to make eye contact
- a lack of interest in other children and people
- making repetitive movements
- a sensitivity to light, touch, smell and taste.
In older children signs of autism may include:
- having few close friends
- a lack of communication skills
- difficulties with conversation
- not enjoying social situations.
If you suspect your child is displaying any of these symptoms, the first point of contact is a GP.
The causes of Asperger’s syndrome are currently unknown. According to research however, genetics can increase the chances of a child developing an autism spectrum condition. The research suggests that if a child in the family has autism, his or her sibling has a three to five per cent chance of having the condition or an associated problem. Three to five per cent is a much higher rate than the general population as a whole.
There are a number of other theoretical ideas on the possible causes of autism spectrum conditions, but they aren't supported by scientific research. For example, MMR vaccinations have been linked with autism spectrum conditions. There have been several in-depth investigations, but they haven’t found any evidence to support the claim.
There have also been a number of suggestions that diet could be a cause. But this, like the MMR vaccination theory, hasn’t proven to be the case when investigated further.
The increased rate of children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition compared with the 1980s has raised a cause for concern. However, this rise is thought to be due to the better recognition and increased awareness rather than an actual increase in the number of children who have a condition.
Asperger’s syndrome can be diagnosed as early as two to three years of age. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has published the following guidance for assessing whether your child has a form of autism:
- A specialist diagnosis will be required. Typically paediatric neurologists, behavioural and developmental paediatricians, child psychologists or psychiatrists will carry this out. In an ideal situation, there should by a multidisciplinary team to evaluate the child. Language, speech and occupational therapists, social workers and special educators may help provide a more detailed assessment of their chosen field.
- For an accurate diagnosis, other conditions will need to be ruled out. Sight and hearing tests and investigations for chromosome analysis are typically conducted before reaching a conclusion.
- To get a full diagnosis, observation may be required over a number of different settings (e.g. at school, especially in break times, and at the clinic).
- An autistic disorder can be diagnosed when an individual displays six or more symptoms in the three main areas.
There is no specific course of treatment, but there are different approaches that can be used to help manage Asperger’s. The focus of the treatment is on management and behavioural therapy, to address specific issues of Asperger’s.
- training of social skills
- medication for coexisting problems, e.g. depression or anxiety
- occupational/physical therapy for motor coordination
- social communication implementation.
It has been found that cognitive and behavioural therapies are most useful when it comes to counselling those with Asperger’s.
The idea behind behavioural therapy is that because behaviour can be learned, it can also be ‘forgotten’. Behavioural therapists will also look to understand the thoughts and feelings on a deeper level that lead to the specific symptoms.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) combines both cognitive and behavioural therapies. It looks to help manage Asperger’s symptoms by enabling you to recognise, and change the way you think or behave.
To find a counsellor in your area who can help with living with Asperger’s, use our advanced search tool.
Music therapy helps with communication, as well as self-awareness and reciprocal play.
Speech and language therapy
A child with Asperger’s may not see any reason to communicate with others. Therefore their speech skills do not develop as quickly as others. This then in turn limits their opportunities for many different forms of communication.
Speech therapy maximises communication, not just through speech but also through play, symbols, social skills and listening.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
There are currently no laws in place stipulating what training and qualifications a counsellor must have to treat Asperger's syndrome. However, NICE have developed a set of guidelines that provide advice about the recommended treatments.
In terms of psychological treatments, NICE recommend cognitive behavioural therapy and/or behavioural therapy. To help treat symptoms such as anxiety and/or repetitive thoughts, medication may also be offered. The guidelines also list various therapies and treatments that should not be offered, including chelation therapy.
Counsellors treating people with autism or Asperger's syndrome may have to adjust the way they work. For example, including more written or visual information. Therefore, it is advised that you seek a professional who has specific training and experience in working with people within the autistic spectrum.
Read the full NICE guidelines:
What our experts say
- Silent Asperger's in the couple relationship
Freddi Manson - Counselling for Couples and Individuals4th January, 2016
- Recognising the potential of Autistic Spectrum Disorders
Leslie Stanberry MBACP Registered, UKCP Regisetered7th August, 2014
- Asperger's: how counselling can help
Virginia Sherborne MBACP (Accred.)1st April, 2012
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