What Do You Know About Asperger's?

What Do You Know About Asperger's?

Last update: 27 January, 2023

You’ve probably heard people talk about Asperger’s before. Maybe you even know someone who has it or have it yourself.

Asperger’s is a disorder that falls under the autism spectrum. However, it can be clearly distinguished from typical autism. The clearest difference lies in the individual’s ability to be independent in adult life.

In this article, we’ll address the characteristics of this disorder, its neurobiological bases, and some interventions and simple strategies to help the person with Asperger’s better understand the world in which they live.

Asperger’s is a neurodevelopmental disorder

Asperger’s is a neurodevelopmental disorder with an important genetic basis in which certain brain structures are damaged. 

gears in head

Neurodevelopmental disorders are a mixed group of neurological problems that cause alterations in different processes. For instance, cognition, communication, behavior, and motor skills. These alterations are caused by atypical brain development.

This means that the brain of an individual with Asperger’s functions differently, in many respects, from the brain of someone who has no alterations in their neurological development. It’s not necessarily good or bad, the brain just simply functions in a different way when it comes to processing and perceiving information.

“Sometimes I used to repeat the same word over and over as this made me feel ‘safer’.”

-Therese Joliffe-

You might like to read I'm Not a Robot, I Have Asperger's

People with Asperger’s see the world in a different way

It’s almost like people with Asperger’s have different codes that they use for interpreting the world and their environment. These codes cause them to live in a way that might seem strange to some of us.

However, who hasn’t met people who sometimes act differently than would be expected? You might even perceive reality in a distorted way at times causing you to act in ways that other people may consider a little strange.

We’re going to be a little more specific and talk about the most typical characteristics of people with Asperger’s syndrome. Confederación Asperger España  (Asperger’s Confederation, Spain) points out the following:

Characteristics of Asperger’s

  • Social awkwardness and difficulty interacting with other children and/or adults. They might be naïve and gullible.
  • They often aren’t aware of other people’s feelings and intentions. Therefore, they often have difficulty understanding people’s emotional reactions.
  • They have great difficulty achieving and maintaining a normal rhythm of conversation.
  • They’re easily upset by transitions and changes in routine.
  • They interpret language literally. This means they don’t understand sarcasm or metaphorical language. Everything is literal. For example, they’d interpret the sentence “he has such a big heart” as literally meaning that his heart is huge.
boy with toy boat

In addition:

  • They’re extremely sensitive to strong sounds, colors, lights, smells, and tastes.
  • They tend to develop a strong interest in or fixation on a subject and become real experts in it. For instance, many children with Asperger’s can look at a landscape for just a few minutes and completely reproduce every detail of it with astounding precision.
  • Their psychomotor skills aren’t particularly good, so they’re not usually too adept at sports.
  • They often struggle to make and maintain friendships with people of their own age. This is pretty much because they don’t perceive the world in the same way, which frustrates them. However, much the same can happen to any of us. For instance, when you don’t fit in well with certain other people because the way you see and experience the world conflicts with theirs.

It should be noted that experts have pointed out, in an article published in Basic and Clinical Neuroscience, that there’s no significant linguistic and cognitive delay in people with Asperger’s. In addition, they display an average or higher verbal IQ and obtain high scores on vocabulary tests. They also score better on tests of fluid reasoning.

Other characteristics of Asperger’s

Continuing with our description of this syndrome, let’s examine some more of its outstanding qualities. According to an article published in Nova, people with Asperger’s:

  • Display marked social disturbance, communication difficulties, play deficits, and repetitive behaviors and interests.
  • Don’t have good eye contact.
  • Tend to have one-sided conversations on defined and routine topics.
  • Get upset when their expectations aren’t met.
  • Stick inflexibly to their routines.
  • Find it difficult to act intuitively and spontaneously.
  • See the parts, but not the whole of a situation.
  • Accumulate and search for a great deal of information on any subject that interests them.
  • Demonstrate delayed motor skills. They also have impaired coordination and abnormal gait.
  • Don’t reciprocate in their social and emotional interactions.

Neurobiological bases of Asperger syndrome

The causes of Asperger’s syndrome are still unknown. That said, it’s believed that they’re biological. We’re going to review the neurological bases of this syndrome based on an article published in Basic and Clinical Neuroscience.

Biochemical markers

People with Asperger’s have different concentrations of neurotransmitters. This affects the functioning of their brains. In fact, a higher level of N-acetyl aspartate/choline has been observed in the right anterior cingulate in those with this syndrome.

Alterations in serotonin levels in the brain have also been found due to tryptophan depletion. This could generate the way in which people with Asperger’s syndrome process any changes in people’s faces when displaying different emotions.

Changes in the brain

The syndrome affects the gray and white matter of the brain. Therefore, people with Asperger’s have smaller gray matter volumes in the bilateral amygdala, hippocampal gyrus, prefrontal lobe, medial frontal gyrus, and left occipital gyrus.

On the other hand, they have a greater volume of white matter around the basal ganglia and the left parietal lobe. Moreover, at the structural level, abnormalities in the volumes of the hippocampus, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex have been reported.

Functional changes in the brain

Asperger’s syndrome has been linked to an atypical and reduced connection between nodes in the default mode network and the executive control network. There are functional abnormalities in the cerebellum, the frontal and temporal lobes, and the limbic system. Likewise, there are problems in the functional integration of the amygdala and the parahippocampal gyrus.

Interventions in Asperger’s syndrome

Any intervention must be carried out based on the strengths and needs of each individual. As an article published in Comprehensive Psychiatry points out, work on this syndrome should be multidisciplinary and include:

  • Educational approaches. Both the individual’s strengths and weaknesses should be covered. They should be taught the meanings of non-verbal and verbal expressions to improve their social interactions.
  • Behavioral intervention. This approach focuses on identifying and modifying behaviors. It also seeks to direct or channel certain behaviors.
  • Psychotherapy. It’s appropriate for higher-functioning patients, especially when they’re experiencing really explicit problems in problem-solving.
  • Psychopharmacological interventions. In principle, they’re used in cases in which anxiety, depression, or OCD appear as comorbid disorders.

In general terms, any intervention should promote learning and reduce behaviors that interfere with interactions with other people or with social integration.

Strategies for helping a person with Asperger’s

There are many things that can be done to help people with Asperger’s, especially children, to better understand their surroundings. Here are some strategies recommended by the aforementioned Confederación Asperger España:

  • Speak simply and clearly.
  • Give specific, clear, and simple instructions
  • Check that they’ve understood what was said by asking them to repeat it.
  • Limit their options when they must make a choice so that the process is easier for them.
  • Limit the time allowed for their special interests.
  • Prepare in advance any changes and keep them informed in advance. For example, “When you’re done playing, we’ll go grocery shopping”.
  • Identify any upsetting stimuli and ensure they’re not exposed to them.
  • Teach them to differentiate between private and public places and the rules that must be followed in each. They need to know what is and isn’t allowed.

Asperger’s Syndrome in the DSM-5

The DSM is used in clinical settings for the diagnosis of mental disorders. In this publication, we find the criteria used to diagnose depression, anxiety, neurodevelopmental problems, etc.

In one of its versions, more specifically the fourth (DSM-IV), the diagnostic criteria for autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorders were defined. However, in 2013, when the DSM-5 was published, these disorders disappeared and were grouped under a single category called autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

A DSM-5 note reads: “Individuals with well-established DSM-IV diagnoses of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified should be given the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder”.

According to an article published in Frontiers in Psychology, from the outset, the inclusion of Asperger’s in the DSM-IV was surrounded by much controversy. The contradictions inherent in its diagnosis became evident over time. This led to its disappearance from the DSM-5, although not without the generation of some controversy.

As a matter of fact, its elimination as an independent disorder remains controversial and many associations and people still recognize its existence. Indeed, although the diagnosis is no longer used in clinical settings, on a societal level, many people still accept it and use it to refer to those who meet the criteria defined in the DSM-IV.

Do you know someone with Asperger’s? Put yourself in their place and you’ll understand them

We have to be able to look beyond the disorder and understand that people with Asperger’s often feel misunderstood. In effect, they feel like strangers in a world that works with certain rules that often clash with theirs. Moreover, they don’t understand the meaning of many of the actions we carry out.

“The fact that someone looked me in the eye was like an attack.”

-Nony, 1993-

Therefore, we need to show empathy toward them. We must understand that their way of perceiving reality is different from ours. This doesn’t imply that it’s good or bad, just different.

We live in a wonderful world where, luckily, we’re all different and we can learn from those differences. In fact, they enrich our relationships and help us to be more tolerant. Furthermore, they allow us to discard many of the prejudices we carry around.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.