Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurological disorder that has been severely misunderstood and misdiagnosed since its discovery in the 1940’s. It affects the way a person interprets social cues, how they process information, and how they express their own emotions and comprehend them in others. For many years it was referred to as simply ‘high functioning autism.’ Then, in the 1994 version of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) disassociated it from autism completely and classified it as its own unique condition. The DSM was first created by the APA in 1952 and is used to help medical professionals recognize and diagnose mental and behavioral conditions. This living document has been revised as many as 12 times since then. In an effort to reflect new research and improve the accuracy of diagnosis in the psychiatric practice, members of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Work Group printed a new, updated manual in 2013 (DSM V, 2013). This manual paired Asperger’s Syndrome back with autism on what is now referred to as the ‘Autism Spectrum,’ this time classifying Asperger’s as a type of high-functioning autism, but not high-functioning autism itself.
While both Asperger’s and autism both fall under the same broad diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), they each come with very different symptoms. “It’s… one of those hidden disabilities because it has no physical features to indicate the person has the condition,” says Daniel Jones, creator of The Aspie World. Unlike autism, which typically presents itself very early on in life, Asperger’s involves impairments to social skills and information processing, making it difficult to detect until the child is a little older, even though they are believed to have been born with the condition. Because of this alone, getting accurately diagnosed with Asperger’s can be challenging in many cases. Some of the most obvious characteristic differences between Asperger’s Syndrome and autism include:
Cognitive Skills and Intellect: children with autism may find it difficult to learn the same way or at the same pace as those without. In cases of severe autism, many children are considered to be developmentally disabled. Children with Asperger’s, on the other hand, can typically keep up with children their age and in many cases even surpass their classmates on the IQ scale. According to the Autism Society, “a person with Asperger’s Disorder cannot have a ‘clinically significant’ cognitive delay, and most possess average to above-average intelligence.”
Communication and Speech: many children with autism experience speech development delays, or may not ever learn to speak at all. This is not the case with Asperger’s: not only do children with Asperger’s typically learn to verbally communicate just fine, their vocabulary is often broader than others in their age groups. When it comes to communication in general, however, individuals with Asperger’s may struggle with unusual speech patterns, use appropriate inflection, or match the tone to the setting or topic of conversation. Many people with Asperger’s report that they often don’t understand the natural flow of conversation.
Social Skills and Empathy: difficulty with non-verbal communication and picking up on social cues are stapling characteristics across the Autism Spectrum, and will manifest in each individual differently depending on the severity of their condition. Those with Asperger’s tend to have specific problems in behavioral settings and may not understand non-verbal cues like irony, humor, and any subtlety of language. They may struggle with eye contact, show few emotions (if any at all), or be unable pick up on other people’s moods or tone. It has long been thought that those with Asperger’s lack a general ability to empathize, however, alternative theories claim that due to the hypersensitivity that can often come with any type of autism, those with Asperger’s actually feel more empathy than those without. The difference? They are unable to process it in a healthy way. Whichever the case, individuals with Asperger’s usually have extreme difficulty processing emotions, whether it’s their own or others. This can sometimes translate into poor social skills, rudeness, or lack of care for others.
While many professionals agree with classifying Asperger’s as a form of high-functioning autism, it’s important to note that although they are under the same umbrella diagnosis, both Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asperger’s are very much different conditions and should be treated as such. A study led by Dr. Frank Duffy at the Boston Children’s Hospital observed 26 Asperger’s Children against 550 neurotypical children and 400 children with autism. Using EEG recordings, they measured the amount of signaling between specific brain areas in each child. In many ways, the results of children with autism and those with Asperger’s came up very similar. However, there were enough physiological differences found between the two that Duffy and his team concluded that “it is essential to separate these two groups because they need different education and training and opportunity.”
Adults living with Asperger’s may have difficulty with things like processing language/information, interpreting non-verbal communication like facial expressions and body language, or differentiating between truth and fiction. They may also express obsessive behaviors, look for and notice unusual patterns, and need routine so much that they may even vehemently resist even the most minor changes. People with Asperger’s are oftentimes much more sensitive to their surroundings, and get overwhelmed easily: “I can’t go out in public sometimes because I’m very vulnerable to sensory overload,” says Alyssa Huber in her short documentary, Through Our Eyes: Living With Asperger’s. “I often have a hard time understanding other people, because how I experience the world is different. I may be human, but sometimes I feel like I’m from a different planet.”
Living with Asperger’s is difficult, no doubt. The mental and emotional strain of this condition can take its toll, especially on those who are left undiagnosed. The inability to socialize or understand and feel understood often leads to isolation and depression. In many cases, an anxiety disorder can be caused by being forced into overwhelming social situations because of school or work obligations. But Asperger’s can definitely come with some unexpected benefits, which many professionals would rather their patients investigate, explore, and expand on. In an article posted on the Asperger/Autism Network, Gode Davis writes: “Many neurotypicals, when discussing Asperger Syndrome, tend to dwell on the negative. As a developmental disability, a form of high functioning autism, AS does have a downside. However, I realize that everything I’ve achieved in my life has largely been because of, not despite, Asperger Syndrome. This is not merely “positive thinking;” it is my reality.”
Individuals with Asperger’s think differently than neurotypical people, which gives them flaws as well as strengths. “It results in differences in perception – how we perceive the world – and differences in how we interact with people,” says Mark Hutton, M.A. “We may find social interactions a little bit more challenging than other people would. And I also think we have certain gifts that people without Asperger’s Syndrome don’t have.” Things like the ability to focus for an extended period of time, demonstrate higher intelligence and natural talent, and be extremely reliable and honest have all been associated with people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Individuals with Asperger’s have also been found to have better memory retention and are known to be more detail oriented and independent thinkers, making them excellent entrepreneurs, mechanics, designers, IT technicians, and artists.
Possibly the most frequently asked question about Asperger’s is, “can it be cured?” The answer can seem like a bit of a grey area. Asperger’s is a lifelong disorder that manifests itself physically in the brain in ways that cannot yet be reversed. That being said, it is totally possible to manage the condition and be able to live with fewer disturbances from it. In every case, treatment takes attention, time, and dedication. Some treatment options include:
In one-on-one or group sessions, therapists can use Social Skills Training to teach patients how to interact in social situations, better pick up on social cues, and help bring awareness to their surroundings, making social situations and day to day activities more enjoyable.
For those who have a hard time with inflection, tone, eye contact or body language, Speech-Language Therapy can help patients find the rhythm in conversations and learn articulate as well as communicate better.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that helps patients understand how their brain processes, then use that information to help change their thinking patterns and behaviors. This helps them better manage their emotions, repetitive motions, outbursts, or obsessions.
While there are no medications for Asperger’s Syndrome, more severe cases may require medication for symptoms associated with the condition such as depression, anxiety, or insomnia. These drugs are usually very strong and come with a long list of side effects, so it’s important to discuss any concerns you may have with your medical provider before introducing these into a treatment plan.
Studies have shown that neurofeedback (NFB) can be an excellent therapy for Asperger’s Syndrome. Neurofeedback uses technology to assess how the brain is functioning and where it might be functioning improperly. It’s a noninvasive, drug-free method that helps change the way the brain uses its electrical energy. This can help ‘rewire’ the neuropathways of those suffering from neurological disorders. Data from a study on 150 patients with Asperger’s Syndrome over the course of 15 years reported “the positive outcomes of decreased symptoms of Asperger’s and ADHD (including a decrease in difficulties with attention, anxiety, aprosodias, and social functioning) plus improved academic and intellectual functioning, provide preliminary support for the use of neurofeedback as a helpful component of effective intervention in people with AS.”
Because it is often associated with aggression, depression, anxiety, obsessiveness, mood disorders and compulsive behaviors, practicing mindfulness may be a way to manage symptoms of Asperger’s. While more studies are needed specifically in regard to Asperger’s Syndrome, meditation is already known to successfully lower heart rate and anxiety, decrease depression, aggression, and help treat mood disorders. Additionally, deep breathing techniques have been found to trigger neurons in the brain that tell the body it’s time to calm down. These neurons link breathing specifically to relaxation, focus, excitement, anxiety, and mood, and can tell the difference between different kinds of breaths you are taking. If you are anxious, your breathing speeds up and activates these specific neurons, which alerts your system that you are in distress. These neurons can tell the difference between a yawn, a sigh, a laugh, and yes – even knows when you’re breathing deeply, and will tell your body to calm down when you do so.
Cannabis is an excellent source of essential fatty acids (EFA), which is vital when treating any neurological disorder. Our bodies and brains need these fats to survive, but they are not naturally produced in our system, so we must rely on outside sources to supplement. The fatty acids Omega 3 and 6 are both known to be essential for building and fueling the brain, even going so far as helping to physically line neural passageways. Additionally, a recent study concluded that children with Asperger’s displayed a significant increase in language and learning when they supplemented with EFAs. Cannabis also has properties that serve as powerful neuroprotectants, fixing passageways, misfires, overactivity, and promoting neurogenesis, a process in which the brain actually ‘births’ new brain cells. On top of all that, cannabis is also chock-full of antioxidants, helping to fight off oxidative stress which contributes to deterioration and dysfunction within the brain. You don’t need to smoke it in order to reap the benefits, either: whole plant extracts in the form of tinctures are not only medicinal but highly nutritional, and are the preferred method for treating pervasive developmental disorders like Asperger’s.
The biggest thing to remember when treating symptoms of Asperger’s is that it can take some time to find a method that works for you. What works for some may not work for others, and because of how vastly misunderstood this condition is, many people have a hard time knowing how to associate or interact with those who are living with it. In an effort to help teachers better understand how to connect with students who have Asperger’s, 21-year-old YouTuber William N. said of his experience: “…the teacher tried to help me with my work through various coping mechanisms. But the thing is, most coping strategies don’t work on ‘aspies’ because normal coping strategies only work on ‘normal’ people…” The good news? These days, awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorder is on the rise, and this includes Asperger’s. More studies, research, and clinical trials are being pushed forward in order to better understand these conditions and how to effectively treat them. If you think you or a loved one may have Asperger’s Syndrome, do not hesitate to contact your medical provider and take the steps required in order to get an accurate diagnosis. While those with Asperger’s may be prone to more accidents due to lack of awareness, the disorder itself is not life-threatening. It can, however, make everyday life more difficult than necessary. Talk to your doctor – living a full, happy life with Asperger’s Syndrome is totally possible and available to you.