There are so many phrases and words used interchangeably to describe symptoms and syndromes, that it can be hard to work out what is being referred to. This article looks at autism and Asperger’s, exploring the links between the two and what this means when working with or looking after someone with autism and Asperger’s.
Rain Man was a powerful film although not everyone agrees it gives a true representation of what it is like to live with autism. It gave a sense of the rewards and challenges of high functioning autism- also known as Asperger’s Syndrome – a diagnosis that you may have heard about.
Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is one a type of autism that often goes unrecognised in childhood, and in adulthood too.
Diagnosis of autism is slowly improving and as a result, children are being diagnosed earlier and getting the help they need. But there is still a lot of work to be done. There are similarities and differences between classic autism, as it is sometimes known, and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Children with AS are often not diagnosed correctly until adulthood but like those children with classic autism, they seem to be in a ‘world of their own’ and disconnected from those around them.
What causes AS?
We are still trying to understand autism and its causes but there is a link between AS and genetics. Some children and adults with AS obsess over unusual things and communication is considerably challenging.
Like the character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, someone with AS can be incredibly talented. Dustin Hoffman’s character was gifted with math, others excel at science, complex thinking process, music and so on. But this is not typical and happens in only a small number of cases.
Whether someone with AS borders on being a genius or not, there are three areas that they struggle with as does anyone with a diagnosis of being of the autistic spectrum;
- Socialising and socialisation
- Behaviour range
Scientists specialising in autism, its range and diagnosis say that anyone with AS will have displayed significant symptoms in the first three years of their life. Autism doesn’t get worse with age or develops as the child develops. It is apparent from the earliest years.
How is AS different from classic autism?
Thoughts and research are still developing in this area but there seem to be two main differences between classic autism and AS.
According to research from the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, children or adults with Asperger’s tend to display;
- Significant language delay – they may have started talking later in life, for example, than their peers
- A higher-than-average IQ – there is some suggestion that those diagnosed with AS tend to have an IQ higher than their peers. If their IQ is very high, they do start talking sooner than their peers. As you can see, this makes a firm diagnosis early on difficult to determine.
Researchers are now uncovering that the lack of ability to understand the positive impacts they are having socially can result in some children and adults with AS to be depressed. Being locked into their own world with no way of reaching people leads to an isolation that is both physical and emotional.
Children with autism and those diagnosed with AS struggle with socialising, communication and behaviour range but some with AS may also display problems with language delay or a higher than average IQ that can ‘mask’ AS symptoms.
What causes Asperger’s Syndrome?
Slowly, science is making breakthroughs and our understanding of what causes autism and AS is improving.
Asperger’s Syndrome is more common in males than it is in females, although this may be because we are yet to understand the differences in symptoms displayed by girls over boys if they are different.
There are 9 males with AS to everyone one female diagnosed with the disorder and thus, the research so far is based on foetal testosterone levels (higher levels are found in boys than girls) and Asperger’s syndrome.
There are several ways in which the hormone testosterone might play a role in AS. One is ‘excessive maleness’, a finding that the scientific community is dealing with cautiously. If this is the case, say autism specialists, the ethical debate around treatment could leave many more unanswered questions.
There is also a debate that is simmering in the background relating to foetal testing to find out if a child has AS. A similar debate rages around the testing for Down’s Syndrome in the womb with some parents saying that when the extra chromosome was detected, they were advised to abort. Ethically, by testing and aborting foetuses with an extra chromosome, Down’s Syndrome could be ‘wiped out’.
Researchers and medics question whether this is ethically corrupt and that this is not the reasoning behind foetal testing. The same is true with AS, a condition that is not necessarily life-limiting, in the same way that Down’s Syndrome is not.
Likewise, manipulating hormones in the womb is also ethically challenging. Should science be manipulating nature, as some people see it?
But it comes down to the right support, something that our understanding of both AS and autism underpins. Children and adults with AS are not necessarily seeking a cure for their disability but are looking for better understanding and acceptance.
Someone with AS may have an unusual ability for memorising details or can focus on something for hours and hours – in other words, they may have abilities that can transform understanding of puzzling elements in life or find the answers to complex questions in science and beyond.
AS affects more boys than girls and has been linked to the male hormone, testosterone. The how and why of testosterone levels and how it ‘creates’ AS in the womb are yet to be fully understood.
Treatment and Diagnosis
Quite often, teachers and teaching assistants are given a piece of information – Child A is autistic – and from that, they are expected to change how lessons are delivered.
But, say experts, this label contains no information at all. This is because both classic autism and AS are individual to one person. One autistic person is not the same as the next;
- Language ability differs from one person to another
- Behavioural patterns vary greatly
- How well someone interacts with others also varies
Treatment should, therefore, be matched to what the person needs, rather than following guidelines and boundaries.
There is no medication or treatment plan that cures with autism or AS. Many children or adults with AS are treated for ‘add-on’ conditions, such as depression or other mental health issues linked to AS.
Opinions may vary but there are two points on which there is consensus;
- Caring for and educating a child with Asperger’s Syndrome or classic autism is ineffective if it does not consider their difficulties with language, socialisation and communication
- Early diagnosis is essential
As well as treating mental health issues, depending on the gravity of the issues relating to behaviour, cognitive therapies that look to change some behaviours is currently an effective tool. But this is an expensive option and not one on which everyone agrees.
Everyone on the autism spectrum including those with AS, display different levels of ability in being able to communicate, use language and socialise. There is no cure.
There is still a lot of research that needs to be done before we truly understand what autism and AS is, and how we can help people who have been diagnosed.
But there is little doubt that a key aspect of helping children and adults with autism and AS is awareness, acceptance and understanding. From autism awareness courses to facing off prejudice, we need to understand better how autism and AS really affects people.
Children with AS will often do well in the education system with the right support and will go on to live fulfilling lives, with great careers and form relationships in spite of their disability.
Some people with autism and AS need more help than others and perhaps this is what we need to understand as well as the complexities of hormones in the womb. And so, in one class, you can teach four or five children with a diagnosis of autism and AS, but only one may need extensive help to access learning or understanding the nuances of social interaction.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a sub-type of autism. The autism spectrum means that some people with autism will display different behaviours and levels of language for example, to others. People with AS are thought to be higher on the spectrum, with a higher-than-average IQ and increased social difficulties.
Want to know about autism and Asperger’s syndrome?
- Take a look at why research suggests people with AS are adept at technically demanding jobs
- Learn why early diagnosis of autism is important
- Find out about the pediatrician who lends his name to this high-functioning form of autism, Hans Asperger