Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder meaning that it shares many of the same symptoms as autism but to a different degree. Asperger’s essentially describes patients then who exhibit only very mild forms of autism, finding difficulty with such things as social interaction and communication. For this reason it is often referred to as a high-functioning, mild autism; though in reality it is the result of genetically inherited brain abnormalities that share more in common with bipolar depression.
Asperger’s is diagnosed in one in every 5,000 people and is four times more likely to affect boys than it is girls. Like many brain disorders, there are yet to be developed any guaranteed laboratory tests for Asperger’s. Thus diagnosis is currently based on observation and anecdotal information alone collected largely from caregivers, teachers and colleagues along with a series of tests carried out by general practitioners, psychologists and language experts. Here the professionals will collect a range of information such as:
* Their development history, and whether parents recall anything unusual during development. The late onset of speech for example might point to Asperger’s (speech usually develops at around the age of three with single phrases starting around 18 months).
* Assessment of social interaction abilities and communication skills. The ability to make and keep friends is considered something that Aspergic patients struggle with. Meanwhile tests will be used to establish a functional ‘theory of mind’ or innate understanding of human behaviour allowing them to predict other people’s actions.
* Intellectual/academic abilities, particularly in relevant areas such as English.
* Current speech and language abilities, which can be assessed through conversation or the use of comprehension tasks.
* Vision and hearing which can be a confounding variable.
* Visual-motor skills.
* Potential emotional or behavioural issues. This might include repetitive and obsessive behaviour and/or self harm related issues.
Often those with Asperger’s are misdiagnosed with other problems, for example ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or emotional disorders such as the related bipolar disorder, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) or low I.Q. At school this can affect academic performance but also result in behavioural issues that get the child into trouble. This is why it is important to diagnose Asperger’s as early as possible to as to help teachers treat the condition more sensitively. Here are some signs and symptoms of Asperger’s to look out for:
* Precocious speech that seems advanced beyond their years around the age of three. Surprisingly grammar and vocabulary tend to be very good at this age.
* However this speech might be slow, monotonous or very quick making it difficult to follow and engage in.
* A lack of irony, humour or sarcasm can also suggest Asperger’s though this might not be clear until later on. Aspergic children tend to take everything highly literally and fail to understand metaphor or symbolism.
* Aspergic children will tend to talk only about themselves and be highly ‘ego centric’. This will result in one-sided and exhaustive conversations that do not take into account the listener’s reactions. Again though this is fairly typical of children up to a certain age (around the age of four).
* Unusual mannerisms when talking – such as a lack of eye contact or facial expressions coupled with ‘awkward’ posture or gesticulations. They may also experience tics such as twitching or coughing.
* Poor motor skills, coordination and balance which might be labelled as ‘clumsiness’.
* General odd posture or gait that leaves them looking awkward or ‘rigid’.
* Obsession on particular and narrow subjects. This does not include the childish impulse to watch the same film over and over, but more a fascination with statistics, numbers, train schedules or more ‘cold’ subjects that can be quantified and seem unusual for a child.
* I.Q. can be anywhere on the spectrum, but you will likely find that their ability is above average in subjects such as maths, music and science but below the average in English, PSE, languages and PE.
* This might manifest itself as full blown dyslexia resulting in writing problems and poor spelling.
* They might also exhibit a lack of ‘common sense’ which leaves them vulnerable when alone. For example they may cross the road without looking, be happy to wander around in the dark on the streets and other similar behaviour.
* They will also likely show a lack of ability to think in an abstract manner. This would result in them engaging in fewer creative endeavours, telling stories or lying.
* They may also engage in some mild forms of self harm such as hair pulling or banging or slapping their heads, or alternatively self-stimulatory behaviour.
* They might also have problems with their senses such as short sightedness though this tends to be worse in other autism spectrum disorders.
* They will also demonstrate a lack of empathy or sensitivity. This can result in them making rude and unpleasant observations (past the normal age where this is acceptable) and failing to comfort those who are in distress.
* They will also often lack the ability to ‘read’ others which might result in a lot of questions regarding others’ behaviour.
* They are often described as ‘eccentric’ with many of the traits you might expect from a ‘nerd’ or absent minded professor but to a greater degree.
If you notice these behaviours in a child or colleague then they are likely to be suffering from Asperger’s or a similar condition. It is important to treat them with care and sensitivity, and to get them specialised intervention to help develop their skills and abilities. Unfortunately there is no ‘cure’ for Asperger’s but many develop useful coping skills.
As Aspergic patients lack an ‘innate’ theory of mind for example, they can be taught instead to learn the rules of socialisation and human interaction in a more analytical sense. By applying the rules and patterns to their daily behaviour and interactions they can then predict and second guess what people are thinking or planning in much the same way we might predict the next number in the Fibonacci sequence. They can also detect things such as humour and sarcasm by looking for facial cues and changes in tone which can be taught by family members along with speech and language specialists or psychologists.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy meanwhile is a school of psychology that aims at changing people’s unhealthy associations and recognising and directing their own thought patterns. This way an Aspergic patient can learn to spot certain feelings, situ actions and scenarios and then use coping strategies they have been taught to deal with them. This is particularly useful for controlling and monitoring their own emotional disorders such as obsession, repetitive behaviour, breakdowns or panic attacks.