Phyllis Smith Asinyanbi

This is the first in an occasional series of articles which will separate the myths from the facts on a type of autism many had not heard of until recently -- Asperger's Syndrome (also known as Asperger's Disorder).

It was reported that the Connecticut school shooter, Adam Lanza, was diagnosed with AS, and many mistakenly assume AS predisposes an individual to violent behavior which is not true. AS is not a mental illness; it is a form of autism, often referred to as high-functioning autism.

However, HFA is technically not a medical term, although physicians use it with lay people to distinguish AS and other types of autism in which a person is able to function at a higher level from those who suffer from moderate to severe classic autism. AS, as other types of autism, is a neurobiological developmental disorder. A CT scan of an autism-affected person's brain is markedly different from the typical person's brain.

Asperger's Syndrome was named after Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician, who researched and studied a group of children, mostly boys, who display the symptoms that are now recognized as AS. Much of his research which was done in the 1940s was written in German, and was translated posthumously. AS was not widely recognized in the United States until 1994.

Tony Atwood, a world-renowned authority on Asperger's Syndrome, lists the following as some of the criteria for an AS diagnosis:

A qualitative impairment in social interaction:

  • Failure to develop friendships that are appropriate to the child's developmental level.

  • Impaired use of non-verbal behavior such as eye gaze, facial expression and body language to regulate a social interaction.

  • Lack of social and emotional reciprocity and empathy

  • Impaired ability to identify social cues and conventions.

A qualitative impairment in subtle communication skills:

  • Fluent speech but difficulties with conversation skills and a tendency to be pedantic (overly formal and extreme detail), to speak with an unusual prosody (rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech), and to make a literal interpretation.

Restrictive Interests:

  • The development of special interests that is unusual in their intensity and focus.

  • Preference for routine and consistency.

Following are other symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome:

  • Motor clumsiness.

  • Difficulty with handwriting.

  • Hyper and/or hypo-sensitivity to auditory (hearing), visual (seeing), olfactory (smelling), gustatory (tasting), and tactile (touching) experiences.

  • Problems with organizational and time management (executive functioning) skills.

  • Challenges with explaining thoughts and ideas using speech.

Individuals with AS have average or above average intelligence and on-time language development, whereas 75 percent of those with classic autism have an intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation) and marked delays in speech. Although there is no cognitive intellectual disability, those who have AS are autistic, and are, therefore, developmentally delayed.

These delays affect communication (verbal and non-verbal) as well as social and emotional growth. Many AS children have an extensive vocabulary but do not use language appropriately, are echolalic (repeat what they hear although they may not understand it), and lecture others rather than talk to them--like "little professors." AS individuals also have restrictive interests and engage in repetitive behaviors, i.e., flapping hands and arms, walking in circles, banging body against walls, but may outgrow these behaviors.

Individuals with AS also have difficulty with identifying and expressing emotions just as any autistic person does. It helps to remember that an AS person is autistic, and it is possible for an AS person to be intellectually gifted, but this does not alter the autism diagnosis. Children who are gifted and have a special need or challenge are known as twice-exceptional (2E), exceptional as in gifted and exceptional as in having a special need/challenge.

Currently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition) has Asperger's Syndrome listed as an autism spectrum disorder but distinct and separate from other forms of autism.

However the DSM-5 which will be published in May 2013 will list AS along with other autism spectrum disorders, because researchers now believe there are more likenesses than differences in AS and other types of autism. This is controversial as many individuals with AS identify themselves as "Aspies," have formed networks and communities, and take pride in their unique gifts and learning styles.

For clarification, many non-mental illnesses are in the DSM, and almost anything that varies from what mental-health clinicians categorize as typical can be found in the DSM. Therefore, a wrong assumption about AS being a mental illness should not be made simply because it is in the DSM.

There will be future articles that augment and explore the specific symptoms of AS in greater detail.

Following are links to other articles on Asperger's Syndrome:

Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet

How to Help Your Child Who Has Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet

Connecticut School Shooter and Asperger's Syndrome