In a previous article I wrote about the autism spectrum. Asperger’s syndrome is part of this broader category formally titled autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
People who generally have Asperger’s syndrome are smart as other people, but they may have difficulty with social skills.
They also tend to have obsessive focuses on one topic or activity, possibly performing the same behaviours again and again.
Medically, this means those with Asperger’s are of a high-functioning type of autism spectrum disorder, with symptoms being less severe than other kinds.
A 2012 study published in the Annals of General Psychiatry states that individuals with Asperger’s may show impairment in describing their own feelings and emotions. Usual triggers stem from various social environments including family and school, and during social activities.
Some people diagnosed with Asperger’s also suffer from distinct and debilitating mental health conditions.
Anxiety and depression, in particular, seem to occur at a higher rate among individuals with Asperger’s than in the general population. A number of other conditions, from OCD to bipolar disorder, may also co-occur. Therefore, individuals living with Asperger’s and mental illness must be recognised and treated for each distinct neurological or psychiatric condition that they have.
Asperger’s was first identified in 1944 by Dr Hans Asperger who was best known for his early studies on mental disorders, especially in children.
In one study, Asperger identified in four boys a pattern of behaviour and abilities that included “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest and clumsy movements”.
Asperger noticed that some of the children he identified as being autistic used their special talents in adulthood and had successful careers.
One of them became a professor of astronomy and solved an error in Newton’s work. Another was the Austrian writer and Nobel Prize in literature laureate, Elfriede Jelinek. It was through this research Asperger published a definition of autistic psychopathy.
Unfortunately, Asperger died before his identification of this pattern of behaviour became widely recognised.
English researcher Dr Lorna Wing proposed the condition Asperger’s syndrome in a 1981 paper.
Asperger’s starts early in life, therefore for parents of young children you may notice that your child may not make eye contact.
They may also seem to be somewhat awkward in social situations and may not know what to say or how to respond when someone talks to him.
Asperger’s children may miss social cues that are obvious to others, like body language or the expressions on people’s faces, for example, when a person is angry. Asperger’s children may show little emotion, like by not smiling when they are happy or even laughing at a joke. They may also speak in a flat, robotic kind of style or tone.
Other characteristics can include: talking about themselves most of the time, focusing a conversation on a single subject with constant repeating on a topic of interest.
Those with Asperger’s do not like change, and therefore altering routines can cause personal disruption and upheaval.
There are treatments for those who have Asperger’s. Counselling can be an effective method in either group or individual social skills training. Therapists teach how to interact with others and express themselves in more appropriate ways.
Speech/language therapy may improve communication skills. This will mainly assist with a person’s alternating vocal patterns when they speak, rather than the flat robotic tone. Speech therapists may also conduct role playing scenarios on two-way conversations including gaining a clearer understanding of those social cues like hand gestures and eye contact.
Other treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy, parent education and training, and applied behaviour analysis that encourages positive social and communication skills while discouraging negative behavioural patterns of communication.
Therapists will use praise or other positive reinforcement to get results during this process.
Medications are not a normal pathway used for treating Asperger’s unless their use is for related symptoms such as depression and anxiety, using prescribed medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antipsychotic drugs or stimulant medicines.
For autism/Asperger’s support phone Aspire (02) 6058 4000, the LEAP Centre (02) 6024 1809 or Action Kids Therapy (02) 6931 7655.
Anthony Perrone is college counsellor at Trinity Anglican College. The views expressed are Dr Perrone's and not necessarily those of Trinity Anglican College. Got a question for the counsellor? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org