The Characteristics of Asperger Syndrome
Not everything that steps out of line, and thus “abnormal,” must necessarily be “inferior.” Hans Asperger (1938)
The doorbell rang, heralding the arrival of another guest for Alicia’s birthday party. Her mother opened the door and looked down to see Jack, the last guest to arrive. It was her daughter’s ninth birthday and the invitation list had been for 10 girls and one boy. Alicia’s mother had been surprised at this inclusion, thinking that girls her daughter’s age usually consider boys to be smelly and stupid, and not worthy of an invitation to a girl’s birthday party. But Alicia had said that Jack was different. His family had recently moved to Birmingham and Jack had been in her class for only a few weeks. Although he tried to join in with the other children, he hadn’t made any friends. The other boys teased him and wouldn’t let him join in any of their games. Last week he had sat next to Alicia while she was eating her lunch, and as she listened to him, she thought he was a kind and lonely boy who seemed bewildered by the noise and hectic activity of the playground. He looked cute, like a young Harry Potter, and he knew so much about so many things. Her heart went out to him, and despite the perplexed looks of her friends when she said he was invited to her party, she was determined he should come.
This fictitious scene is typical of an encounter with a child with Asperger Syndrome (AS). A lack of social understanding, limited ability to have a reciprocal conversation and an intense interest in a particular subject are the core features of this syndrome. Perhaps the simplest way to understand AS is to think of it as describing someone who perceives and thinks about the world differently than other people.
Children with AS can also have signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They may seem hyperactive, but this is not necessarily due to having ADHD. The hyperactivity can be a response to a high level of stress and anxiety, particularly in new social situations, making the child unable to sit still and relax.
A young child who has AS may first be recognized as having a delay in the development of speech. He or she may exhibit a delay in language development and specific characteristics that are not typical of any of the stages in language development. For example, children with AS may have relatively good language skills in the areas of syntax, vocabulary and phonology, but poor use of language in a social context (i.e., the art of conversation or the pragmatic aspects of language).
Motor problems may also be prevalent. A young child may be identified by parents and teachers as being clumsy, having problems with coordination and dexterity. The child may have challenges with tying shoelaces, learning to ride a bicycle, handwriting or catching a ball, and an unusual or immature gait when running or walking. Some children with AS can develop involuntary, rapid and sudden body movements and uncontrollable vocalizations that resemble Tourette Syndrome.
One of the problems faced by children with AS who often use their intellect rather than intuition in social situations is that they may be in an almost constant state of alertness and anxiety, leading to a risk of mental and physical exhaustion. Some children with AS can become clinically depressed as a reaction to their realization of having considerable difficulties with social integration. Blame may be directed inward: “I am stupid,” or toward others: “It’s your fault.”
Eating disorders for children and youth with AS can include refusal to eat foods of a specified texture, smell or taste due to a sensory hypersensitivity. There can also be unusual food preferences, and routines regarding meals and food presentation. Serious eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa can also be associated with AS. Approximately 18 to 23 percent of adolescent girls with anorexia also have signs of AS.
An individual may be recognized as having an unusual profile of intellectual and academic abilities. Challenges may exist adapting to novel situations, time perception and comprehension. There are relative assets in auditory perception, word recognition, rote verbal learning and spelling.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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