Asperger’s Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

Asperger’s Syndrome

What is Asperger’s syndrome?

Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is one of a group of neurological disorders known as autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). AS is considered to be on the mild end of the spectrum. People with AS exhibit three primary symptoms:

  • difficulty with social interaction
  • engaging in repetitive behavior
  • rigidity in thinking and a focus on rules and routines

Some people with ASDs are classified as high-functioning. High-functioning autism means that these individuals do not have the delayed language acquisition and cognitive development that is typical of many people with ASDs.

Often, individuals diagnosed with AS have normal or above normal intelligence. In addition, people with this condition are frequently able to be educated in mainstream classrooms and hold jobs.

AS cannot be cured, but early diagnosis and intervention can help a child make social connections, achieve their potential, and lead a productive life.

What are the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome?


Symptoms vary from person to person, but children with AS often have an obsessive focus on a narrow topic of interest. Children with AS may develop an all-consuming interest in things like train schedules or dinosaurs, for example. This interest can be the subject of one-sided conversations with peers and adults. The person with AS is oblivious to the other person’s attempts to change the topic of conversation. This is one of the reasons that children with AS may have difficulties with social interactions.

People with AS are unable to read facial expressions and body language. Many people with AS find it hard to recognize other people’s feelings. It is common for people with this condition to avoid eye contact when speaking with others.

People with AS may also speak in a monotone and display few facial expressions. They may also have difficulty knowing when to lower the volume of their voices to accommodate their location.

Children with AS may also have difficulty with essential motor skills, such as running or walking. These children may lack coordination and be unable to do certain tasks, such as climbing or riding a bike.

What causes Asperger’s syndrome?


Changes in the brain are responsible for many of the symptoms of AS. However, doctors have not been able to determine precisely what causes these changes. Genetic factors and exposure to environmental toxins, such as chemicals or viruses, have been identified as potential contributors to the development of the disorder. Boys are more likely to develop AS than girls.

How is Asperger’s syndrome diagnosed?


There is no single test that can tell you whether your child has AS. In many cases, parents report developmental or behavioral delays or difficulties. If your child is in school, their teacher may note developmental problems. These issues should be reported to your doctor.

They can assess your child in key areas, such as:

  • language development
  • social interaction
  • facial expressions when talking
  • interest in interacting with others
  • attitudes toward change
  • motor coordination and motor skills

Because there are no specific tests for diagnosing AS, many patients have been misdiagnosed with other health problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If this happens, your child may need to be evaluated again to determine the correct diagnosis.

How is Asperger’s syndrome treated?


There is no cure for AS syndrome. However, there are various treatments that can reduce symptoms of the disorder and help your child reach their full potential. Treatment is often based on the child’s specific symptoms.

Medications are often used to treat AS symptoms. Examples include:

  • aripiprazole (Abilify) to reduce irritability
  • guanfacine (Tenex), olanzapine (Zyprexa), and naltrexone (ReVia) to reduce hyperactivity
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to reduce repetitive behaviors
  • risperidone (Risperdal Consta) to reduce agitation and insomnia

Medication can be helpful for controlling problematic behaviors, if they occur in AS. However, there are other treatments that can improve communication skills, emotional regulation, and social interaction. Many children with AS also receive:

  • social skills training
  • speech and language therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • physical therapy
  • cognitive behavioral therapy

Parents are often provided with therapy as well. Parental training can help you cope with the challenges involved in raising a child with AS.

What is the long-term outlook for a child with Asperger's syndrome?


There is no cure for AS. However, many children with the disorder grow up to live healthy and productive lives with treatment and early intervention. Though many still struggle with social interactions, most adults with AS are able to live independently.

You asked, we answered

  • What’s the reason behind the rise in diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders and the prevalence in boys?
  • There are many factors behind this. First, educators are becoming more educated in terms of what to watch for. Many schools employ or contract with psychologists who can work with the child to learn more about symptoms that may be impairing education or social interactions. Family physicians and other primary care providers are also more aware of autism spectrum disorders today and are more apt to make referrals to specialists if children demonstrate signs and symptoms. Insofar as the prevalence in boys, some theories have suggested that the male brain is more susceptible to ASDs than girls. However, science continues to explore this question.

    - Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

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