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What is Asperger’s syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome is part of the overall autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. It is a developmental disorder that is considered to be a mild form of autism. Autism is a brain-development disorder that results in communication and behavioral problems. People diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome typically have high intelligence and no speech delays. However, they tend to play, learn, speak, and act differently from others.
Symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome
Children may appear to show signs of Asperger’s syndrome at an early age. Signs your child may have Asperger’s syndrome include:
- Obsessing over a single interest.
- Craving repetition and routine (and not responding well to change).
- Missing social cues in play and conversation.
- Not making eye contact with peers and adults.
- Not understanding abstract thinking.
Your child also may have trouble with pretend play, not want to be held or touched, or have unusual reactions to noises, smells, or tastes. These things may be noticeable to your child’s doctor, teacher, and even to you as a parent. See your doctor if you suspect your child’s communication and social skills are not developing appropriately. Your doctor may refer you to a developmental specialist.
What causes Asperger’s syndrome?
No one thing causes Asperger’s syndrome. However, research suggests that certain factors during pregnancy and after birth may put a child at higher risk of an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. Those factors include:
- A chromosomal abnormality (such as fragile X syndrome).
- A mother’s use of prescription medicines taken during pregnancy (such as valproic acid for seizures or mood disorders, or thalidomide for anxiety).
- Having been born to older parents.
Asperger’s syndrome appears to be diagnosed more often in boys than girls.
How is Asperger’s syndrome diagnosed?
Asperger’s syndrome has gained increased attention in the last 20 years. With more education and information available, doctors are able to diagnose Asperger’s syndrome in children as young as 18 months old. There is no blood test or medical imaging scan to diagnose the condition. Doctors compare a child’s behavior and development to a milestone checklist against same-age peers.
Can Asperger’s syndrome be prevented or avoided?
Because the cause of Asperger’s syndrome is unknown, there is no way to prevent or avoid it.
Asperger’s syndrome treatment
Early and regular treatment can help your child cope with the symptoms related to Asperger’s syndrome. It can prepare him or her for adult life. Treatment usually includes a mix of speech, physical, occupational, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The therapy team will decide how often it needs to work with your child. Therapy sessions might look like this:
- Social skills and speech therapy: Your child may speak well. However, he or she may need to learn important conversation skills. Those skills include learning to take turns while talking, making eye contact with the person he or she is speaking to, showing interest in what the person says, and learning to talk about a variety of topics, not obsessing over one topic. The therapist also might teach appropriate playtime skills, such as taking turns, following rules, and learning to cope with one’s feelings around others.
- Physical therapy: Some people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome may appear clumsy. A physical therapist works to develop a person’s core body strength. This will help with running, jumping, pedaling a bike, walking up and down stairs, and other physical movement activities.
- Occupational therapy: An occupational therapist helps people with Asperger’s syndrome with their fine motor skills (anything requiring the use of their hands). They also work to help your child cope with sensory issues. A person diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome may be sensitive to certain sensory experiences. This might include noise, touch, smell, or visual stimuli. It might include certain materials, such as modeling clay, chalk, sand, and water. It could include sensory issues related to eating different types of food textures and types. Your child’s therapist also will work on hand-eye coordination and teach your child to feed him or herself appropriately. Before your child starts school, an occupational therapist will develop your child’s pre-writing hand strength. Once your child enters school, the therapist will help him or her develop handwriting skills.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) teaches people with Asperger’s syndrome how to act socially and cope with their emotions. It teaches important skills such as controlling impulses, fears, anxiety, obsessions, interrupting, and tantrums. It’s different for every person, based on his or her needs.
- Medicine: There is no medicine to treat Asperger’s syndrome. Most medicines treat the anxiety, depression, or inability to focus often related to Asperger’s syndrome. Commonly prescribed medicines for anxiety and depression include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antipsychotic medicine, and stimulant medicines.
Don’t ignore your child’s early social and communication delays. Asperger’s syndrome behaviors will not improve on their without therapy. As your child progresses through school, therapy may change to reflect your child’s needs at the time. More importantly, ask your therapists how to apply the therapy at home. Children do best when therapy is the same at school and home.
Therapy is not a one-time treatment. Repetitive therapy helps your child develop a desired behavior. Children should not be punished for undesired behavior. Instead, therapists use incentives and rewards (giving your child extra free time, a healthy snack, or something that is important to them) to encourage appropriate behavior.
Living with Asperger’s syndrome
If your child has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, developing relationships for him or her will take practice and effort. A person diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome may not display appropriate emotions (or any emotion), may not understand the irony in a joke, abstract concepts, or the subtle points of a conversation. Peers may perceive their behavior as eccentric.
Although Asperger’s syndrome cannot be cured, therapy can help. Your child can be successful at school and in their adult life. In fact, many employers say that the focus and attention a person with Asperger’s syndrome gives to his or her job is a good thing. Adults diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome may continue to need therapy or counseling to teach appropriate personal and workplace behavior.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Should I tell my child he or she has Asperger’s syndrome when he or she is older?
- Is Asperger’s syndrome associated with violent or self-injurious behavior?
- How can I cope with the stress of raising a child with Asperger’s syndrome?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.