What Is Asperger Syndrome?

What Is Aspberger's

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

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From 1994 to 2013, Asperger syndrome, commonly called Asperger's, existed as a distinct category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and was considered one of five pervasive developmental disorders. In 2013, due to inconsistencies in the diagnostic criteria, Asperger's was folded into one general category for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Asperger's Is Now Known As Autism

Since U.S. practitioners can no longer officially diagnose someone with Asperger's, anyone who was given that diagnosis prior to that year is now considered to have autism.

Though no two people are ever identical, the core issue of those on the spectrum—including people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—is difficulty with social interactions. That might present itself as an inability to communicate clearly, read others’ emotions, and/or clearly express oneself. However, a lack of verbal communication is neither a failing nor a lack of intelligence.

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LPC, a psychologist and pediatric mental health expert told Verywell, “Asperger’s is referred to as a ‘high functioning’ autism because individuals [typically] have less severe symptoms and don’t have speech delays."

Despite this reference, functioning labels (high vs. low functioning) are harmful to the autistic community as they have problematic origins and are an inaccurate way of describing the range of support needs autistic people have. The needs and experiences of autistic people are more complex than high or low functioning can describe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 54 children are diagnosed as being autistic. Asperger’s, while no longer in use, is estimated to describe 37.2 million people worldwide.

History of Asperger's/Autism

Asperger’s is named after the Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger. Back in the mid-1940s, he noted a recurring theme of social struggle in some of his patients. These patients often found it difficult to make new friends, struggled to comprehend typical social cues and emotions, and often had fixations on certain topics that would lead to one-sided conversations.

While Asperger was celebrated to be a pioneer in the study of autism, there are ongoing debates that suggest he may have been involved with Nazi policies of children with disabilities. The man and term 'Asperger' othered/others autistic people into good vs. bad and differentiated who was deemed worthy of living vs. not.

For many years, Asperger’s syndrome was considered its own isolated disorder. Capanna-Hodge says, “In 2013, it was folded into the broader category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) was updated and it is no longer considered a separate disorder.”

While there is increased awareness and understanding of autism today, there is still a long way to go to achieve societal support and acceptance for the autistic community. Its grim history offers context into how we have shifted away from terms and views that further separate a community that has long been isolated and deemed 'genetically inferior.'

Traits of Autism

Those with autism display a wide range of functioning across cognitive, social, and communication domains. These signs also vary according to age and gender.

Traits in Young Children

Though it’s less common, largely because it’s difficult to detect, some children can be diagnosed with autism even before they turn three years old. Some common signs include:

  • Loss of previously acquired speech
  • Delays in speech, babbling, or social functioning
  • Delayed processing or learning
  • Limited eye contact
  • No response to their name being called
  • Little or no desire to interact
  • Low activity levels
  • No back and forth smiling or engagement
  • Lack of facial expressions
  • Extreme irritability
  • Fixation on certain objects

Traits in All Ages

In addition to the aforementioned symptoms, Cappana-Hodge says that older children and adults might also experience the following signs:

  • Delayed language development
  • Lack of reciprocal communication skills 
  • Sensory processing difficulties, including under or overstimulated reactions to sensory stimuli (sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors)
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Difficulty with back and forth body language, facial expressions, and gestures
  • Avoidant behaviors and general lack of engagement with others
  • Difficulty comprehending other people’s feelings
  • Struggles with time management
  • Persistent repetition of words or phrases (echolalia)
  • Resistance and reaction to minor changes in routine or surroundings
  • Restricted interests
  • Fixated interests
  • Repetitive behaviors, such as flapping, rocking, and spinning

Autism Diagnosis

Diagnosing someone on under the spectrum of autistic disorders is done by identifying observed (and reported) carefully defined clinical symptoms.

Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2)

“The process largely consists of clinical interviews and observations and behavioral rating scales. Sometimes one-to-one assessments are conducted that look at social, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functioning, as well as learning,” notes Cappana-Hodge. “While there is technically no [universal] assessment measure, The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) is often considered the gold standard.”

According to Cappana-Hodge, the ADOS-2 is a loosely structured, standardized assessment instrument which helps guide the evaluator on the specific topics of communication, social interactions, and restricted and repetitive behaviors that are associated with ASD diagnosis.

Underdiagnoses of Girls and Women With Autism

Originally, Hans Asperger made these cognitive observations about boys, so it was believed that primarily boys were affected.

Today, we know that autism presents itself in both boys and girls, and that it is not a “one size fits all” disorder for anyone.

According to the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE), because of that original and perpetuated belief, girls and women are often diagnosed less often. When they are diagnosed with autism, it is often much later in their life compared to boys—this is still true even today.

This is largely because they were either misdiagnosed with other disorders, or the autism is missed entirely by professionals since it doesn’t present itself in a typical fashion.

The AANE also notes that girls with autism may prefer solitary versus social situations, demonstrate an aversion to what's considered typically feminine, and work hard to camouflage social anxiety via imitation of others or fantasy escapism. Like boys and men, she might also have an intense fixation on certain topics, including literature, animals, and the arts.

There are also racial-ethnic disparities associated with the diagnosis. Specifically, Black children are less likely to be identified and when they are, it is more likely to be identified later in life.

Autism Treatment

There is technically no medication that specifically "treats" autism. Autism is not an illness that needs to be eradicated or fixed but rather a neurotype that needs to be embraced, celebrated, and accounted for.

However, many autistic people are prescribed medications in an effort to manage some of the most common tendencies, which include difficulties with focus, anxiety, mood, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. 

While medications can help, it’s exceedingly helpful for those diagnosed with autism to engage in various therapies.

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LPC

Behavioral therapy, parent coaching, social skills training, occupational, physical, and speech therapy, as well as evidence-based integrative therapies such as nutrition and neurofeedback have all been found to be effective treatment options for those on the autism spectrum.

— Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LPC

Capanna-Hodge adds that the single most important thing that a parent can do if they think their child is autistic is to learn about autism from autistic people.

Additionally, “Formal and ongoing social support is pivotal for both the immediate social development of children and their longterm integration into the world,” she says. “People with autism have a better quality of life when they are able to incorporate the things that they are highly interested in into their jobs and lives, as this helps them integrate into the world in a much more positive and natural way.”

Autistic people also have more fulfilled lives when they grow up fully accepted and are not forced to mask.

A Word From Verywell

Anyone diagnosed as autistic can enjoy a high-quality, thriving, joy-filled life. It’s important to identify and diagnose the disorder as early as possible, participate in necessary therapies, and learn from autistic people. These things will help provide the ultimate toolset for empowerment and navigating the world.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Functioning Labels Harm Autistic People.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.

  4. GBD 2015 Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators. Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 310 diseases and injuries, 1990-2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015 [published correction appears in Lancet. 2017 Jan 7;389(10064):e1]. Lancet. 2016;388(10053):1545-1602. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31678-6

  5. Baron-Cohen S. The truth about Hans Asperger’s Nazi collusionNature. 2018;557(7705):305-306. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05112-1

  6. Wutkiewicz K. Asperger and Autism Spectrum: Women and Girls. Asperger Autism Network.

  7. Mandell DS, Wiggins LD, Carpenter LA, et al. Racial/ethnic disparities in the identification of children with autism spectrum disordersAm J Public Health. 2009;99(3):493-498. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.131243

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.