Asperger’s Syndrome

Children PlayingAsperger’s Syndrome (also known as Asperger’s Disorder) is a developmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction and by restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. Asperger’s Syndrome is considered to be on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum.

What are behaviors associated with Asperger’s Syndrome?

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome often have difficulty understanding the thoughts and emotions of others. Around the age of 4, most children develop an understanding that other people have unique thoughts and feelings. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome struggle with appropriate social interactions because they often experience difficulty understanding the emotions and perspective of others. Additionally, they generally experience difficulty predicting the behavior or emotional state of others. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome often prefer to relate to adults rather than to their peers because adults are more predictable in their behaviors and emotions than children.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome appear to have very strong verbal skills and may speak using a very sophisticated vocabulary. However, language is rarely used for social means. They will gather a great deal of facts about a specific topic of interest and may talk endlessly about it without being aware of the interest level of others.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome struggle with nonverbal communication. They may have difficulty using gestures and facial expressions to communicate. They may also struggle using eye contact to initiate and sustain social interactions. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome may violate others’ personal space without being aware of the social norms governing communication.

How common is Asperger’s Syndrome?

The prevalence rate of Asperger’s Syndrome is estimated to be approximately 0.5% of the school-aged population and is much more common in males than in females. The number of reported cases of Asperger’s Syndrome has increased steadily over the past 30 years. This rise in cases is partially due to more sophisticated measures for identification. However, there is yet to be a standardized diagnostic screen or schedule for diagnosing Asperger’s Syndrome. Additionally, some doctors believe that Asperger’s Syndrome is the same thing as High Functioning Autism and do not make the distinction between the two. This makes it difficult to obtain accurate data regarding incidence rates of Asperger’s Syndrome.

What causes Asperger’s Syndrome?

The cause of Asperger’s Syndrome is not yet known. However, because it tends to run in families, there is believed to be a genetic component to the disorder. Advances in brain imaging have revealed structural and functional differences in the brains of children with Asperger’s Syndrome. These differences may occur during fetal development when neural circuits that control thoughts and behaviors develop.

How does Asperger’s Syndrome differ from autism?

• Asperger’s Syndrome typically has a later onset than autism.

• Social communication is less severe in children with Asperger’s Syndrome than those with autism.

• On measures of intelligence, children with Asperger’s Syndrome usually have higher verbal reasoning skills (VIQ) than nonverbal thinking skills (PIQ). Children with autism generally score higher on nonverbal tasks than on tasks involving verbal reasoning.

• Children with Asperger’s Syndrome have no history of language delays related to developmental milestones (single words by age 2 and meaningful phrases by age 3). Children with autism have language delays.

• Children with Asperger’s Syndrome do not present with delays in cognitive development, age-appropriate self-help skills, or adaptive behavior (other than social interaction).

How is Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosed?

Most individuals rely on the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition-Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Practitioners look for patterns of behavior and review developmental history. A comprehensive evaluation may include cognitive testing to establish IQ and reveal strengths and weaknesses between verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills. It should also include in-depth language testing to evaluate pragmatics (social language) and use of language. Evaluations may also include rating scales, such as the Gilliam Asperger’s Disorder Scale (GADS), designed to measure behaviors consistent with characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Within the school setting, multidisciplinary teams do not “diagnose” Asperger’s Syndrome, but rather determine eligibility for special education services based on the categories of eligibility established in IDEA (2004). Asperger’s Syndrome is not identified under IDEA, but most states allow its inclusion in either the category of Autism or Other Health Impairment. School districts vary in whether they conduct educational evaluations for Asperger’s Syndrome. Although school psychologists are trained to conduct these evaluations, some districts require a medical diagnosis. Check with your school district about their particular guidelines.

What can parents and teachers do to help children with Asperger’s Syndrome?

• Provide supervised activities to practice social skills in a group setting. Teach skills such as making friends, dealing with anger, taking turns, respecting personal space, and interpreting nonverbal communication (body language/facial expressions).

• Use visual cues rather than verbal instructions.

• Be concise and brief in verbal explanations. (Don’t use too many words.)

• Use concrete and specific language when making requests.

• Allow sufficient time for children to process verbal information. Remember that a child’s vocabulary is not necessarily indicative of the language that he understands.

• Provide models and practice how to begin, maintain, and end conversations.

• Allow space for the child to be alone if needed. Remember that social contact can be challenging and children may need time alone in order to decompress or calm down if upset.

• Provide a predictable environment and routines.

• Provide specific times when it is okay for the child to talk about his or her special interest. The time should be specified so that the child knows that during other times, obsessive talk needs to be limited.

• Try to tie the child’s obsessive interest into learning opportunities. For example, a child who is obsessed with cars could use toy cars to practice math facts and counting.

• Provide a mat with the child’s obsessive interest and clip other work onto it. For example, a child obsessed with cows could have the outline of a cow with an assignment clipped to it. Just having the obsession visible is sometimes enough motivation for a child to complete the work.

• Writing is often very difficult. Shorten or modify assignments to reduce writing demands. Allow use of a computer to complete written assignments.

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