Healthy Kids    

Child Behavior: Understanding Asperger syndrome

Symptoms and treatments for this controversial syndrome

Because these ‘little professors,’ as they are sometimes called, are odd or different in their behaviors, they may also become victims of bullying and teasing.

Asperger syndrome has recently been the source of much controversy and confusion among both parents and professionals.

Is Asperger's a milder form of Autism? Is it a separate and distinct disorder that should be considered a social communication disorder, or social disability?

There is no uniform agreement among experts, and children and adults who are “different” — somewhat socially awkward with quirky interests in mundane statistics  — are often labeled as having Asperger’s. 

Asperger syndrome is one of a group of disorders, along with Autism, called pervasive developmental disorders, with Asperger's being the mild end of the spectrum. 

It was named for Hans Asperger, who in 1944 identified a pattern of behavior found in a group of boys who had normal intelligence and language development, but showed significant deficiencies in social and communication skills, as well as other patterns of disordered behavior. 

However, Asperger’s wasn’t recognized by the medical and psychology communities until 1994. Since then, the number of children diagnosed with this disorder has increased significantly.

Although each child with Asperger's is different, the following are the most commonly seen characteristics exhibited by school-aged children:

Social difficulties

• Difficulty making and keeping friends

• Lacking social perceptive ability to read nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, which are crucial to the development of effective social interaction, especially in adolescence

• Displaying a lack of empathy or insensitivity to others' feelings. This lack of empathy often makes them seem egocentric or self-absorbed.

• Communication with others may lack eye contact or exhibit few facial expressions, body postures or hand gestures, making them appear socially inadequate or aloof.

• Although language skills and vocabulary are often good or even extremely well-developed, they have difficulty understanding the nuances of language, often taking things literally. Many children with Asperger's are described as having a different way of using language — or marching to a different drummer.

Obsessive interests

Children with Asperger's also tend to have a preoccupation with stereotyped patterns of behavior. They may develop obsessive interests in one or more narrow subject areas, such as train timetables, weather fluctuations or other specific statistics.

While all children seem to enjoy the predictability of routines, children with Asperger's may inflexibly adhere to routines, and become extremely upset with changes. A substitute teacher or change in school routine may cause extreme discomfort or even a violent outburst from this child.

Overly literal

Their over-literal use of language impedes their imagination and their development of abstract reasoning can cause school and learning difficulties, despite average or above average intelligence.

Sensory sensitivity

Often children with Asperger's are overly sensitive to lights, sounds, smells or tastes and may develop sensitivities and preferences for certain clothing and foods. They may appear to hear or see or be bothered by sensory stimuli no one else seems to be aware of. 

Their odd or unusual behavior is due to these neurological differences and the child shouldn’t be seen as purposefully rude or exhibiting “bad” behavior or that there is a lack of discipline at home.

Because these “little professors,” as they are sometimes called, are odd or different in their behaviors, they may also become victims of bullying and teasing by other children in school or on the playground.

Types of treatment

While Asperger's is classified along the Autistic spectrum of disorders and can’t be cured, children with Asperger's have demonstrated significant improvement with the following types of treatment:

Teaching social skills, although not as natural to them as others, may result in great benefits.

• Behavior modification techniques have also been shown to decrease many of the behavior problems children with Asperger's exhibit.

Although Autism is lifelong, people with Asperger's can lead normal, happy, successful lives with early and appropriate treatment. Being a highly focused person, even obsessively so, while pursuing a narrow field of interest can prove to be great for some. Although it is only conjecture at this point, many believe that some of the great geniuses like Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Andy Warhol all had Asperger's.

Vernon Smith, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, has had difficulties due to Asperger's all his life. Despite difficulty adjusting to social situations, he says Asperger's has allowed him to concentrate on a specific task for long periods of time and achieve the success he now enjoys: “We don’t all have to think alike to be communal and to live in a productive and satisfying world.”

Paul Schwartz, PhD., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College. 

Other articles by Paul Schwartz