There is a growing recognition among healthcare professionals and the public regarding the prevalence of pervasive developmental disorders in children, particularly Asperger’s Syndrome and autism. Asperger’s Syndrome is often regarded as a mild variant of autism. This classification may provide parents and caregivers with a basic understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome, as considerably more has been written about, and growing awareness has also occurred through greater discussion in the media.
However, there are clear differences in both disorders which fall along the autism spectrum. Asperger’s Syndrome is considered a higher functioning form of autism, enabling such children to live a more mainstream lifestyle than those who suffer from moderate to severe autism.
There are many differences in the needs and treatment goals of each level of disorder, though overall, enhancing communication skills and social abilities are most important for all children who suffer from mild to severe autism. For this reason, it’s important to outline some basic differences between a diagnosis of autism and that of Asperger’s Syndrome. Understanding such differences between these two diagnoses will provide loved ones, educators, and caregivers with a better grasp of the specific deficits and challenges experienced by children with Asperger’s Syndrome when compared with children diagnosed with more severe autism.
Is it Asperger’s or autism? Comparison of symptoms in children who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome consistently demonstrates that while such children may display some of the more severe autistic symptoms, including unusual or inappropriate behavior and ritualistic tendencies, many of the cognitive challenges may be absent or reduced. Thus, such children may show high aptitude and be quite bright in school, and articulate well verbally.
The main challenges for a child with Asperger’s Syndrome may occur on a social level, and lead such children to have difficulty in relating to peers and acquaintances, and in fostering both casual and intimate relationships. This may include difficulty in understanding basic as well as more abstract social cues and behaviors and nuances of body language, thus limiting the child’s ability to connect or join in social situations. Engagement in unusual and/or repetitive behaviors may lead to criticism and ridicule from peers, and exclusion from social groups.
The inability to connect with others in social situations, behaviors that are central to autism, are also present in children with Asperger’s syndrome. However, children with Asperger’s typically do not have difficulties in language and communication, may appear to be “normal,” and thus may not elicit the compassion and understanding other individuals may provide for a child who displays more obvious and severe cognitive challenges.
Children with more severe autism often have significant deficits in speech that can impact their ability to communicate effectively with others, and as such, they may avoid social contact all together. In contrast, children with Asperger’s Syndrome may seek peer relationships and acceptance and be more aware that they are excluded and often ostracized for their challenges. This may impact self-esteem, increase anxiety and depression, and cause loneliness and isolation, often to the child’s lament.
Additionally, many children with Asperger’s Syndrome may display normal levels of general intelligence and have greater opportunities to succeed in academic goals and certain occupations. Children with more severe autism typically do not have such choices and often remain dependent for their basic needs.
What does it all mean? The differences that exist between Asperger’s Syndrome and autism do at first appear to be subtle. However, one must be cautious in assuming that the higher functioning child with Asperger’s Syndrome is capable of understanding basic social skills and behaviors and navigating mainstream social situations.
As such, interventions to improve the functioning and lives of children with Asperger’s Syndrome should focus on teaching and coaching basic social skills and empathy, appropriate behavior, self regulation, and self-control strategies. Because children with Asperger’s Syndrome often have normal levels of general intelligence, these children are better able to grasp basic concepts and foundations for social interaction, to learn how to act in social milieus, to be taught how to regulate stress and anxiety, and to be coached on how to improve the ability to socialize with peers and make friends. Though challenged, they often seek help and may be coachable at varying levels.
Through the eyes and experience of a child with Asperger’s, they, like all children, want to ﬁt in and feel special and included. Therapists working with children with Asperger’s can help them to realize their well-deserved potential through caring, motivation, encouragement, and good social skills coaching.