Asperger Syndrome (AS)

Asperger syndrome is part of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a group of disorders that affects the development of social and communication skills. Unlike many children with ASD, children with Asperger syndrome do not have early language delays, and often have well-developed language skills and normal to above average intelligence. However, they may use unusual speech patterns and have a hard time understanding irony, humor, and sarcasm or gestures and social cues important to normal conversation. Many children with Asperger syndrome develop an obsessive interest in one topic or object. They may use high-level vocabulary or complex statistics in conversation. Children with Asperger syndrome may have delayed motor skills and thus can appear uncoordinated and clumsy compared to their peers. Other features of Asperger syndrome include difficulty interacting with peers, inappropriate social or emotional behavior, and engaging in repetitive routines. Both children and adults with Asperger syndrome are at an increased risk for depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood and anxiety disorders, and other mental health disorders.

The cause of Asperger syndrome, like most ASDs, is not fully understood, but there is a strong genetic basis, which means it does tend to run in families. Multiple environmental factors are also thought to play an important role in the development of all ASDs.

Treatment for Asperger syndrome depends on each person’s age and needs, and the recommendation is for treatment to begin as early as possible. Many people with Asperger syndrome can learn strategies to manage their symptoms. Treatment may include behavioral therapy, speech and language therapy, support in school, and mental health counseling. Medications may sometimes be used for behavioral or mood disorders.

Of note: the newest edition, updated in 2013, of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-V), which is used predominantly in the United States (US), replaced the terms Asperger syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders with the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. This means that currently, Asperger syndrome is not officially considered a separate disorder in the US, but instead, it is now part of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, many doctors still use this term. The World Health Organization International Classification of Diseases, (ICD-11) which is used in other countries throughout the world still uses Asperger syndrome as a subtype of ASD.

Asperger syndrome, like all autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), has a strong genetic basis, however, the way it runs in families is complex. Doctors believe this is because although a baby may inherit a genetic change that increases their risk for developing Asperger syndrome (genetic predisposition), other factors in the environment are involved in the development and course of the syndrome.

There are many different genes that are believed to be associated with an increased risk for developing Asperger syndrome and the search continues for more. Scientists are also working to better understand how variations in different genes may influence this risk and which environmental factors may be important. Therefore, to get the most current information, people with specific questions about genetic risks to themselves or family members are encouraged to speak with a genetic counselor or other genetics professional.

With behavioral and educational assistance, people with Asperger syndrome can learn ways to manage their symptoms. In some cases, adults may do so well, they no longer meet the criteria for being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. However, many people continue to struggle with social interactions and relationships throughout adulthood. This is especially true if the person has one or more mental health disorders in addition to Asperger syndrome. While some adults with Asperger syndrome may continue to need support with meeting demands of everyday living, many are able to find employment, develop social relationships, and/or live independently.

Support and advocacy groups can help you connect with other patients and families, and they can provide valuable services. Many develop patient-centered information and are the driving force behind research for better treatments and possible cures. They can direct you to research, resources, and services. Many organizations also have experts who serve as medical advisors or provide lists of doctors/clinics. Visit the group’s website or contact them to learn about the services they offer. Inclusion on this list is not an endorsement by GARD.

Organizations Supporting this Disease

  • Autism Society of America
  • Autism Spectrum Connection/Coalition

Source: NIH Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD): rarediseases.info.nih.gov