What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

I wanted to write about Asperger’s because many people suspect that their child has Asperger’s from reading symptom lists. As soon as they see their preschool child has some autistic symptoms but not the language delays, they will start wondering. (See my post on “It’s not all Autism” for similar commentary about this problem.)

But very few preschool children will be diagnosed with Asperger’s, and my personal belief is that in most cases, it is better to wait until the child is elementary age to diagnose. This is because most of the symptoms are, in essence, symptoms of relational immaturity. All children start out with these symptoms, to one extent or another. It is not until the child is older that you can tell his/her relational experiences have not led to maturity. In some cases, there are definitely diagnostic tip-offs before age 3. But many Asperger’s sufferers have become adults before discovering the truth. It is definitely one of the hardest disorders to capture on paper.

When you encounter an Asperger’s child, you often know. But you may not know exactly what the problem is. An Asperger’s child has a peculiar orientation to the world. They seem in it, but not of it. They seem interested but not attached. They know a lot, but their knowledge seems impersonal. They give inappropriate or inadequate responses to interactions, such as speaking too loudly, off-topic, unkindly, flatly, etc. They often don’t make eye contact, don’t seem to be gauging your interest as they speak, and are resistant to manners, customs, and teaching about such matters. In social matters, they just don’t seem to be “getting it.”

These are just some of the symptoms, which can be symptoms of other autism spectrum disorders. Essentially, Aspergers is a social/emotional detachment disorder which is neurologically based (i.e. not based on circumstances, stress, or intention). The cognitive hardware that receives and expresses emotional/relational input is damaged. Have you ever had an existential experience, like at someone else’s wedding, where you see all kinds of people having fun and participating, but you don’t really know them? You feel distant from them, as an outside observer, and recognize that however genuinely they are laughing and relating to one another, you have no connection to them. Nor do you have the relational capital necessary to go over and just join in the conversation. This is sort of the way having Asperger’s is described. From self-reports, we get the sense that many of them are having the truly existential (detached) experience of the world where they are smart enough to rationally understand what is going on between people, but they are emotionally and socially hindered from vicariously experiencing it (entering in), interpreting it, and reciprocating it back (expressing to others). Thus they come off as awkward, disrespectful, or self-centered.

But keep in mind, Aspergers is not a character or personality deficiency—it is a neurological problem. The person is unable to recognize or engage within themselves what needs to be changed.

Depending on the individual’s intelligence and verbal abilities, Asperger’s people may be able to overcome a lot. But they have rely on memory for many manners and customs, and have to be taught explicitly about all the rules which other people seem to understand naturally. (Of course, as special needs teachers know, “naturally” is not exactly natural.) They have to be taught to recognize relational cues, including those from faces, gestures, and circumstances. They have to be taught context cues, which is very difficult for the analytical mind to grasp. Until those context cues are mastered (and many can really only be mastered by intuition or discernment), the Aspergers’ patient will have trouble with many holistic concepts such as:

Diplomacy (hurting another’s feelings, being polite, respecting ethnicity/differences, respecting different tastes/styles, resisting sensitive subjects, acknowledging or reciprocating others’ contributions, recognizing when someone is embarrassed, obliging oneself to be charitable, perceiving boundaries, respecting authority, adjusting one’s style i.e. based on family from acquaintance, old from young, sick from ill)

Conversation (letting others talk, using appropriate tone/volume/voice, responding to others, initiating properly, ending properly, chit chat, giving others time to think/answer, asking questions, knowing when they’ve talked enough, reading between the lines)

Posture (giving others space, not leaning, touching others appropriately)

Character (not being prideful, not being bossy, Golden Rule)

Receiving/Expressing (sympathy, empathy, apologies, thankfulness, compliments, praise, congratulations, help, relief, thankfulness, being proud of someone else, humor)

Identity (sense of belonging, understanding one’s heritage, understanding a history/significance of one’s own past, believing in traditions, forming one’s own convictions, experiencing freedom, valuing friendships, perceiving whether one is accepted, wanting someone to be intimate with–spouse, best friend, pet!)

So you can see why these types of things are too hard to judge in a preschooler… none of them have these abilities!

You can also see why other disorders, including learning disorders, auditory or sensory disorders, communication disorders, and personality disorders could also be possible diagnoses rather than Aspergers. One of my sons who has had language problems since he was a baby, for example, was stalled in much of his social development because we could not talk with him about these concepts until he was over four years old. Little kids start picking up things like empathy and manners as young as one and two years old (just little seeds), and acquiring that relational capital for more understanding later. But if you are hindered in relating to your child for any reason in those early years, they can show significant emotional or social immaturity. Firstborns, only children, and spoiled children can too! ;-) The key difference between them and the Asperger’s patient, however, is that the Aspergers is not able to understand 9internally witness) what you are talking about. The non-Asperger’s should be able to understand what you mean, even if he or she doesn’t have the skills to talk about it or change their behavior right away.

In closing, Aspergers is an auto-recognition disorder that is hard to describe but causes a significantly socially peculiar spirit to a child. Essentially, they have an overly analytical mind which does not know how to process social/emotional/relational information. They may underperceive input, or receive it but not know how to interpret it, or know how to interpret it but not know how to reciprocate expressively. Because the nature of relationships is synthetic and often highly contextual, the Aspergers child will have to be given an educational program that is able to analytically break down the concepts they are struggling with, as much as possible. And because of the challenge in capturing the Asperger’s repertoire on paper, you do not want to jump to conclusions about your preschooler having Asperger’s unless you have some experience with the syndrome. It’s not one of those disorders you can diagnose in a three-year old who has some autistic-leaning symptoms. It should definitely be done by a professional.

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8 thoughts on “What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

  1. This post definitely drew my interest since my sister was diagnosed with Asperger’s. She turns 17 this summer and while I don’t remember exactly when she was diagnosed I do know it was very young, maybe 5 or so. I remember that before she was diagnosed she seemed to have behavior problems that some may consider extreme. She would throw fits that were so much more intense than what seemed normal to me. She would completely lose control of her emotions (at this point I can’t remember specific instances) and my mom and stepdad had absolutely no success in helping her get under control. She would scream and fight and for awhile and eventually just calm down. Because the episodes seemed completely over the top my mom started talking to doctors and psychologists. Eventually they diagnosed her with Asperger’s and my mom started working with my sister according to the doctor’s advice. Somehow combined with this was a discovery that certain foods (dairy mostly) seemed to cause greater swings in her moods so she stopped eating them.

    When all this was happening I had several problems with the strict medical diagnosis/give her pill approach:
    1) I saw many episodes that seemed to be a battle of wills between my mom and sister. Many times my mom would simply wear out and give into my sister, which I assumed encouraged her extreme behavior.
    2) The second is related to the first. My stepdad never seemed to handle my sister’s mood swings well. He would very quickly lose his temper and respond negatively (e.g. telling my mom “you deal with her” and then stomping off in a huff or just yelling at my sister louder than she yelled at him). This seemed harmful to my sister on many levels and only added to her struggles. Basically, she never received her father’s love, help, and proper correction. This was also very difficult on my mom since she had to carry the weight all by herself.
    3) The relationship between my mom and stepdad was always difficult and had a bit of coldness to it. There was never any outward expression of love and forgiveness in the home. This created a tough environment for anyone to live in and only added to my sister’s struggles. To this day I don’t ever remember hearing my stepdad tell my mom or sister that he loves them.

    All this added up to a confusion mix of challenges for my sister. Maybe she really does have what the doctors said, but where does the Asperger’s end and where do the other issues come in? She does display many of the traits you mentioned and maybe others. She is awkward in social situations and doesn’t really know what to say. She is also extremely black and white about everything. Something is strictly right or wrong. No gray areas. (Validity of gray areas can be debated, but recognizing them is very helpful relationally.) She is very literal about everything too. I learned a long time ago that brotherly teasing doesn’t work with her. I might be “kidding” but she will miss that subtlety. This also has provided a major hindrance to her forming friendships. More than once a friend has done something that seems un-friend-like and she immediately severed the relationship. They were “never really her friend.”

    My mom points out that all of these things are classic Asperger’s traits. I’m not a doctor so I won’t argue with her, but you have to wonder if the challenges I listed above are a factor. If she saw her mom and dad practice forgiveness would she be more forgiving to friends?

  2. Thank you both for your input. My son is just three and a half, and I have just started looking into Asperger’s as a possible explanation for his social absurdities. I know he’s young, and I really don’t want to label him with a “disorder” or “syndrome” before he even has a chance to mature, but at the same time I need some answers or at least some guidance on how to deal with him, and it seems like this can only come from some sort of diagnosis.

    Ever since he was about 6 months old I started wondering about Autism– he could play with the tires on a car for half an hour straight, but wouldn’t really engage in interactive play with me or other babies. As he got older, my concerns continued, especially when he got so advanced in other areas, like learning shapes and colors and letters, etc. His pediatrician assured me at every appointment that he was fine and these “abnormalities” were nothing to worry about.

    This last appointment I didn’t even mention the dreaded A-Word because I knew she’d give me the same “everything’s-fine” schpeel. Then I watched her ask him questions to see if his social skills were up to par, and subsequently I watched her put down the chart and pull up a chair. I knew it was coming. She referred me to a pediatric neurologist to test for Asperger’s. He doesn’t make eye contact, he can’t understand new questions, and familiar questions he answers with trained responses. There is no connection between behavior and consequences. He is amazing at one-on-one games, but just can’t grasp group activities. The majority of the time he just doesn’t seem to get what’s going on or being said. He’s happy enough, but there are no back and forth conversations.

    The neurologist said that he didn’t like to diagnose these social disorders so early without very strong evidence to support the diagnosis. He did say, however, that my concerns were valid and he recommended a child psychologist.

    So here’s where I’m at: I am a single mother, and we moved over 12 times before he turned one. Even after we settled into our apartment, things were not easy. I could barely pay rent, he was waking up every 40 minutes all night long, every night, and my own social life was more or less non-existent. I know that he did not have the beautiful, comforting start that many babies get, and I have no doubt in my mind that this might be at the root of his issues now. That being said, I want to help get him through this. I want to know where his mental roadblocks are so I can figure out how to help him overcome them. I am not the most patient person, and thus get EXTREMELY frustrated when he doesn’t respond the way I think he should. No matter how much I tell myself that he has “issues” and isn’t intentionally driving me crazy, I hit my own roadblock when it comes to accepting this. If I don’t understand him, how can I help him understand me? or the rest of the world for that matter?

    I guess my point behind this novel is that while I understand the problems associated with diagnosing people with such a life-long syndrome, I also understand that with the medical and insurance world the way it is, sometimes the only way to get your child (or yourself) the necessary resources to deal with the problems, a diagnosis must be made.

  3. THANK YOU! Being from north-central Kentucky, there is not a lot of education on Asperger’s. My son (age 5) was JUST diagnosed with Asperger’s comorbid with ADHD, which also explains his epilepsy. We started with a simple family therapist after his preschool teachers were complaining about his behavior and “oddities.” After sweat tests, MRI’s, CT’s, X-rays, blood work, diet restrictions, and a million diagnoses over the past 2 years, it’s nice to know that he just needs simple socialization therapy along with one med for his ADHD and one med for his seizures. However, your article really helped me to empathize and “walk a mile in his shoes” to see how I can really help him more at home. He still is emotionally immature (at age 5, he acts 2 years old), but I hold hope that he will eventually learn how to interact and maybe a cure can be found in his lifetime. Thanks again for all the information and enlightenment!

  4. Pingback: Educating Children With Asperger’s Syndrome « The Education Cafe

  5. My son was just diagnosed with Asperger’s by a specialist in autism and he is 3. She did say that this was very young for such a diagnosis but that it describes him very well and this will open up services for him through our insurance. He is going to the public school already in a special early learning class.

    It has been extremely helpful to get these services, and has been very eye opening for me. I understand my child better now and we are able to enjoy our days without so much drama and misunderstandings as before. It’s still hard, but it’s better.

    My pediatrician kept telling me he was fine.

  6. Thank you for posting this. I hadn’t come across the “someone else’s wedding” analogy before, and it helps me to understand my husband better. He was just diagnosed a couple of years ago. Our middle son (age 3) was diagnosed with Autism 6 months ago and as our oldest (age 4) gets older I have more and more reason to suspect Asperger’s. I was looking into preschool dianosing of Asperger’s which is how I came across your blog.

    So I just need a place to admit that I feel further and further from them all. I guess its a subconscious defense mech? I’m trying to become ok with it all and accept our new life with different therapies everyday. I love my kids. I love my husband. I feel very alone. I’m sure it will get better, but being true to myself right now, I feel overwhelmed.

  7. this helps alot..im in tge process of possibly getting my 5yr old diagnosed with AS..my brother has it we think my dad has it but he will never admit that..my cousins actually have autism. so its run in my family.. my 5yr old has always been a very diffucult child since birth. when he was a baby he would scream and scream ge was so extream on particular positions to be held if u move an in he would scream for anoyher 3 hrs..he was ten mo when he started running..he was alot more content one he was able to move himself..but always on the go..more so then other children his age..he was very tempermental about things and still is..he is very black and white on things..no grey area. he has to have a very strict schedule/routene and when for some reason something changes he has a very difficult time, extream tantrums, he veiws things have to be done a certian way, its like he gas to have control over everything! say for instance we go to the grocery store if we normally go dwn veggie isle, then canned foods then frozen isle normally..if I switched it and did frozen food first then veggies then canned foods he would have a melt dwn.. but its with everything thats how he is..he talks exsesssivly non stop, I mean like a straight half gr to an hr of just straight taljing.lacks impolsive control. gas a hard time focusing, bouncing off the wall so energetic, seems to me to gave anger issues, doesnt kbiw his oen strenth, clumsyness, does great one on one with someone but has a hard time with group settings, doesnt do well with kids his own age he does better eith older kids or adults, he vecomes aggresive with kids his own age, he gets so much negitive feedback from others cause it seems as though he is out of control, I gave tryed everything and my other two kids dnr act this way..when I disaplibe him it seems nothing works, he does serm to lack empathy as well, im just at the end of myself friends have mentioned thongs and made xomments, I just dnt know what to do. I feel like im crazy xause I dnt know if this is as or im failing as a parent or some disorder..i dnt like to kabel people but at the same time I want him to hgave help and to be succsesful in life..so if u gave any advise or anything lease id love to hear it

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