Asperger’s syndrome has become one of many sets of symptoms grouped as autism spectrum disorder.
It used to be you might hear someone described informally (not by a doctor) as Aspie. Now you’re more likely to hear a different term — “on the spectrum.”
But some people are proud to call themselves Aspies or Aspergians and like to refer to people who don’t fit this category as neurotypicals.
What is Asperger’s syndrome?
In 1944, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger described four young boys with normal-to-high intelligence who were clumsy, lacked social skills, and had extremely narrow interests. When British psychiatrist Lorna Wing published a series of similar case studies in 1981, she coined the term “Asperger’s syndrome.”
That term, with criteria for diagnosis, appeared in the big book used for diagnostic codes in psychiatry in 1994.
By 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was grouped together with other sets of symptoms under the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). About a third of people with ASD are intellectually disabled. People who see themselves as Aspies are high-functioning with normal or high verbal skills and intellectual ability.
Children with other kinds of ASD tend to seem aloof and uninterested in others. Aspies usually want to fit in — but are socially awkward. They may seem tactless or rude, and making friends can be difficult. They may not understand metaphor, irony, or humor, and forget to keep secrets.
They also miss body language: Some stand too close, talk too loudly, or avoid eye contact.
Their interests can seem obsessive. An Aspie child might have an enormous rock collection and know the Latin name and origin of each rock. He might memorize baseball statistics but struggle with abstract concepts. In conversation, he may forget normal give and take and lecture, sometimes speaking in a formal or rhythmic way.
Children with Asperger’s may dislike change, preferring to follow routines. For instance, they may insist on eating the same food for breakfast every day.
Like other children with ASD, he may be hypersensitive to lights, sounds, and tastes; clumsy; and burdened with anxiety or depression.
Despite social difficulties, a high-functioning person with ASD is likely to want romantic relationships. In a study of 229 high-functioning adults with ASD in Germany, 73 percent had had romantic experiences, while only 7 percent had no desire to be in a romantic relationship. They were more likely to be satisfied in relationships with someone who also had ASD.
What causes Asperger’s?
The main cause is genetics. If the whole range of ASD symptoms from mild to severe is included, 90 percent of matching twins both have ASD. About a third of the parents of a child with Asperger's syndrome will have at least some related symptoms.
The differences extend to how their brain works. When we respond to facial expressions, the amygdala, a center of emotion, lights up on brain scans. In people with Asperger's, a different area tied to judgment and planning, the prefrontal context, lights up, suggesting that that they have to think about the cue the way you’d read a train schedule.
Famous men who may have had Asperger's
Often Aspies excel at skills early in life and some achieve renown. They may have remarkable focus and persistence, aptitude for recognizing patterns, and attention to detail. Some experts and Aspies speculate that Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein, for example, were all on the spectrum. Mozart, who began composing music at a young age, had a limited number of facial expressions and behaved inappropriately. One well-documented story describes him acting out when he was bored at a gathering: He began meowing out loud, and doing cartwheels and vaulting over tables.
Thomas Jefferson was said to have had trouble relating, sensitivity to loud noises, and peculiar routines. He kept a mockingbird on his shoulder and wore slippers to meetings. Then there’s Albert Einstein, who as a young man repeated sentences to himself, an ASD symptom called echolalia.
In our own times as well, Asperger’s is not an obstacle to success if you find the right field. Bill Gates has not said he has been diagnosed on the spectrum, but he has a distinct rocking motion when he concentrates, a monotone speech pattern, and avoids eye contact.
September 23, 2021
Janet O’Dell, RN