Significant symptom overlap with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the main reasons why many people no longer use the term “Asperger’s” as a diagnosis.
Asperger’s syndrome was once a diagnosis that experts used for a neurodevelopmental condition featuring mild symptoms of difficulty with social communication and interaction, restricted or repetitive behaviors, but no significant language or cognitive delays.
They considered it a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD),
- autistic disorder
- Asperger’s syndrome
- childhood disintegrative disorder
- pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
- Rett syndrome
All of these conditions featured similar social and behavioral symptoms.
Asperger’s syndrome is no longer an official diagnosis, but some people still prefer this terminology or self-identify as “Aspies” over the latest diagnostic language.
The symptoms of Asperger’s were often indistinguishable from ASD, requiring minimal support, now known as ASD level 1.
Dolly Ferraiuolo, a licensed clinical social worker from Clearwater, Florida, explains, “The decision to remove the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ was based on research suggesting that there was significant overlap between Asperger’s and other forms of autism.”
While diagnostic clarity was the driving factor for change, the switch in diagnostic language also considered social sensitivities related to how experts originally named Asperger’s.
“Though the reasons for this change resulted from unclear distinctions between diagnoses under the original ASD umbrella, it occurred around the same time that more information came to light that Hans Asperger, the person for whom the diagnosis was named, was a German medical officer during World War 2 and was a Nazi collaborator,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, a psychologist and director at the Help and Healing Center, Glenview, Illinois.
Now that Asperger’s is formally under the ASD banner, many people also feel it helps promote inclusion, rather than division, among the neurodiversity community. This unification of diagnoses helps eliminate the stigma that ASD is synonymous with low intelligence.
“Some believe that by keeping Asperger’s or ‘Aspie,’ we continued that divide, keeping autism as associated with low intellect,” says Lacey Cottingham, a licensed clinical social worker from Raleigh, North Carolina.
When did the term ‘Asperger’s’ stop being used?
In 2013, experts officially
The DSM, which provides diagnostic guidelines for mental health and medical professionals, eliminated PDD and its subtypes in the 5th edition, merging most of them under a new category called autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Instead of subtypes, the DSM authors gave ASD three levels of severity to show how much support might be necessary to assist with social and behavioral difficulties:
- Level 3: requiring very substantial support
- Level 2: requiring substantial support
- Level 1: requiring support
The DSM authors didn’t move Rett syndrome under the ASD banner due to unique, defining genetic factors researchers discovered at the time.
Under the DSM-5 diagnostic guidelines, Asperger’s syndrome meets the criteria of ASD level 1, but that doesn’t mean that’s the preferred language in casual conversation.
“What was diagnosed as Asperger’s in the past is now part of autism spectrum disorder, and many people who have been diagnosed with autism prefer to be called autistic,” Myszak says.
“Along with the change in diagnostic language, there has also been a shift from person-first language [saying ‘a person with autism’] to identity-based language [saying ‘an autistic person’].”
“Asperger’s” is still a term in use today, especially among people who formerly received Asperger’s syndrome diagnoses. Myszak explains that many people strongly identify with the term and resist changing it.
While some of this may relate to the ongoing stigma surrounding ASD and intelligence, Cottingham explains it likely has more to do with how the brain functions in ASD.
“People online like to accuse people of having ‘Aspie supremacy,’” she says.
“I’m not going to dismiss their lived experiences because rude people come from every corner of the planet and internet. My personal opinion is that it boils down to the autistic need to speak in a very specific way. It feels more comfortable to have every word have exactly one meaning.”
ASD, under the current terminology, is often criticized for its lack of specificity. Severity scales can show the significance of certain symptoms, but they don’t encompass all the possible experiences within ASD.
Experts consider ASD a spectrum disorder because it can present with various symptoms that range in frequency, intensity, and type. It’s a diagnosis that can mean something different for each person.
“The term ‘autism spectrum’ emphasizes the diversity and range of experiences within the condition,” Ferraiuolo says. “The diagnosis of ASD includes a range of characteristics, from social difficulties and communication challenges to restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.”
“Asperger’s syndrome” is an outdated diagnostic term used to describe what’s known today as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) level 1. It was once a part of five PDDs, conditions sharing symptoms related to difficulty with social skills and restricted repetitive behaviors.
The lack of diagnostic differentiation between Asperger’s and certain types of ASD eventually led to its elimination from the DSM and inclusion under the banner of ASD.
Some people who previously received an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis continue to prefer the term, and it likely has more to do with familiarity and clarity than an avoidance of being associated with autism.