What Is Asperger’s Syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that falls under the broader category of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It was first identified by Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger in the 1940s and considered a separate diagnosis from Autism. His work described a group of children with distinct social and behavioural traits. Because of advances in research and clinical understanding since, as of 2013, Asperger’s disorder was reclassified as an ASD by psychiatry due to the overlap between the disorders.
This reclassification aimed to reflect the ‘spectrum’ of the disorder and how the severity and combination of signs and symptoms of Asperger’s varies widely between individuals and while some people have relatively mild symptoms and can lead independent lives, others require more support in daily living. It’s estimated around 700,000 people in the UK, including one in 100 children, are diagnosed with ASD (including Asperger’s).
This article will explore the signs and symptoms of Asperger’s as well as Asperger’s syndrome causes, diagnosis, and treatment.
Common Signs And Symptoms Of Asperger’s
Behavioural signs and symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome include specialised interests and repetitive behaviours. People with Asperger’s often develop intense, focused interests in specific subjects, dedicating extensive time and energy to them. These interests may become a central aspect of their lives, sometimes leading to expert-level knowledge. Repetitive behaviours, another hallmark, can provide a sense of structure and predictability in their environment. These behaviours might manifest as routines, rituals, or repetitive physical movements.
People with Asperger’s often possess a strong interest and desire for social engagement, wanting connections and relationships. However, they can find interpreting social cues, nonverbal expressions, and nuances in communication, challenging. They may struggle to recognise emotions, understand sarcasm or humour, and gauge appropriate conversational responses. These difficulties can lead to misunderstandings and frustrations. Moreover, individuals with Asperger’s can struggle with empathy and understanding others’ emotions instinctively, they often develop cognitive empathy through conscious effort and learning, aiming to understand emotions based on intellectual analysis.
Physical signs and symptoms of Asperger’s include sensory sensitivities and motor coordination challenges. People with Asperger’s may experience heightened sensory responses, becoming overwhelmed by stimuli like bright lights, loud noises, or certain textures. These sensitivities can affect reactions to surroundings and cause discomfort. Motor coordination difficulties are another aspect of Asperger’s physical signs. Individuals might struggle with fine and gross motor skills, affecting tasks like handwriting, tying shoelaces, or participating in sports. This can create a preference for activities that involve less intricate motor control.
Individuals with Asperger’s often experience literal thinking, straightforwardly interpreting language and instructions without grasping underlying meanings or implications. Their cognitive profile is marked by intense attention to detail, allowing them to excel in areas requiring precision and accuracy. This strength can lead to expertise in specific subjects. However, it might also result in difficulties in perceiving the broader context or overarching themes. Furthermore, many individuals with Asperger’s possess average to above-average intelligence, showcasing their cognitive capabilities. This cognitive profile contributes to their distinctive way of processing information and engaging with the world around them.
Causes Of Asperger’s Syndrome
Although the exact Asperger’s syndrome causes are not fully understood, research suggests a combination of genetic and environmental factors play a role in its development, including:
There is a strong genetic component. Asperger’s syndrome tends to run in families, and individuals with a family history of autism or related conditions are at a higher risk. Specific genes or combinations of genes might contribute to predisposing individuals to develop the syndrome.
Research has identified certain neurological differences in the brains of individuals with Asperger’s. These differences might affect how the brain processes information and responds to sensory stimuli, leading to the characteristic behavioural and cognitive signs of Asperger’s.
Prenatal and Early Childhood Factors
Environmental factors during prenatal development and early childhood might also play a role in Asperger’s syndrome. Exposure to certain infections, toxins, or stressors during pregnancy, as well as complications during childbirth, have been studied as potential risk factors.
Alterations in brain development, particularly in regions associated with social communication and interaction, are thought to contribute to the signs of Asperger’s. Connectivity and communication between different parts of the brain might be disrupted.
Epigenetic factors, which involve changes in gene expression without changes in the underlying DNA sequence, could influence the development of Asperger’s. These changes might be influenced by various environmental factors.
Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) have been suggested to play a role in Asperger’s syndrome causes. These imbalances could affect social interaction, communication, and behaviour.
Does Asperger’s Cause Violent Behaviour?
Asperger’s syndrome does not inherently cause violent behaviour. Like any group of individuals, people with Asperger’s can display a range of behaviours, including aggression. Behaviours are not directly caused by the condition but may result from a combination of individual factors and circumstances. Here are some important points to consider:
People with Asperger’s or ASD might have difficulty expressing their emotions or understanding the emotions of others. Communication challenges can sometimes lead to frustration, which may manifest as behavioural outbursts. It’s important to note that these outbursts are often expressions of distress rather than deliberate violence.
Many individuals with ASD have heightened sensory sensitivities. Overwhelm from sensory stimuli can lead to meltdowns or Asperger’s physical signs that appear aggressive, but are often attempts to cope with sensory overload.
Individuals with Asperger’s often thrive on routine and predictability. Sudden changes or disruptions to their routines might provoke stress and result in behavioural reactions.
Some individuals with ASD might have co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or impulse control disorders. These conditions can contribute to challenging behaviours.
Just as in the general population, behaviour varies widely among individuals with Asperger’s or ASD. Some people will never display violent behaviours, while others might have occasional outbursts.
It’s important to avoid making generalisations about violent behaviour based on a diagnosis of Asperger’s. Understanding and addressing the underlying factors contributing to any challenging behaviours, along with providing appropriate support, can significantly improve the well-being and quality of life of individuals with these conditions. If you have concerns about violent behaviour, it’s advisable to seek guidance from qualified healthcare professionals who specialise in autism and behaviour management.
How Is Asperger's Syndrome Diagnosed?
In the UK, the process of diagnosing Asperger’s syndrome typically involves several steps and requires the expertise of healthcare professionals specialising in developmental and behavioural disorders. Here’s an overview of the diagnostic process:
The process often begins with an initial assessment by a general practitioner (GP) or a healthcare professional who has experience in developmental disorders. If there are concerns about developmental issues or behaviours associated with Asperger’s, the individual may be referred to a specialist.
A specialist, such as a paediatrician, child psychiatrist, psychologist, or developmental specialist, conducts a thorough assessment. This assessment includes detailed discussions with the individual and their family about behaviour, development, and medical history.
Observation and Interviews
The specialist may observe the individual’s behaviour in various settings and gather information from parents, caregivers, teachers, and others who interact with the individual regularly. This helps to assess social communication, repetitive behaviours, and other relevant aspects.
Standardised assessment tools and questionnaires may be used to gather information about the individual’s behaviour and symptoms. Tools like the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) are commonly used.
Medical and Developmental Assessment
The specialist may conduct a medical evaluation to rule out other conditions that might have similar symptoms. They will also assess the individual’s developmental history, speech and language skills, and any sensory sensitivities.
In some cases, a multidisciplinary team approach is taken, involving professionals from different disciplines to provide a comprehensive assessment. This might include speech therapists, occupational therapists, and educational professionals.
Diagnosis and Feedback
Once all the assessments are completed, the specialist will provide a diagnosis or explain their findings. They will discuss the individual’s strengths, challenges, and recommended interventions, as well as provide information about available support services.
Following diagnosis, the individual and their family may receive guidance on interventions, therapies, and support services tailored to their needs. The specialist may also provide information about educational accommodations and community resources.
It’s important to note that the process can vary based on the age of the individual, the severity of signs and symptoms of Asperger’s, and the availability of specialists in the area. The diagnostic process should be conducted by qualified healthcare professionals with experience in assessing developmental disorders like Asperger’s syndrome or autism.
How To Treat Asperger’s Syndrome?
The treatment and management of Asperger’s syndrome are typically focused on improving quality of life, enhancing social communication skills, addressing behavioural challenges, and providing support for individuals and their families. Here are some common approaches to treatment:
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a structured approach that focuses on teaching and reinforcing positive behaviours while reducing challenging ones. It often involves breaking down skills into smaller steps and using rewards for positive behaviour.
Social Skills Training helps individuals learn and practice appropriate social interactions, including understanding social cues, initiating conversations, and managing emotions.
Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is designed to address an individual’s specific learning and developmental needs. It can include accommodations, support services, and tailored educational goals.
Speech Therapy helps improve communication skills, including verbal and nonverbal communication, expressive language, and pragmatic language (social language use).
Occupational Therapy focuses on improving fine and gross motor skills, sensory sensitivities, and daily living skills.
Medication might be considered to manage specific symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or attention difficulties, which can sometimes co-occur with Asperger’s.
Parent and Family Support
Providing families with information, resources, and strategies to understand and support their child’s needs.
Parent training programs help caregivers learn techniques to manage challenging behaviours and enhance communication.
Social Support and Peer Interaction
Engaging in social groups or classes designed to help individuals with ASD practice social interactions and develop friendships.
Preparing adolescents and young adults for transitions to adulthood, including vocational training, higher education, and independent living skills.
Recognising that every individual with ASD is unique, interventions and treatments are tailored to the specific strengths, challenges, and goals of each person.
While certain factors are thought to contribute to the development of Asperger’s, the exact interplay between genetics, environment, and brain development is complex and not fully understood. Each person’s experience of Asperger’s can vary widely. Thankfully, ongoing research continues to shed light on underlying Asperger’s syndrome causes. So with appropriate support, understanding, and interventions, individuals with Asperger’s can learn to manage their emotions and behaviours more effectively for improved life quality.
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