What are Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism?

If a child seems a little eccentric or quirky or you can’t understand how they operate at times, there is a possibility that they might be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Maybe they have high functioning autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome

Autistic boy walking with his close friendEvery child is unique - some, more so than others. Perhaps a child – or an adult – seems a little eccentric or quirky. Maybe you can’t understand how they operate, at times. If so, there is a possibility that they might be somewhere on the autistic spectrum – maybe with high functioning autism, known as Asperger’s Syndrome. This guide will tell you all about Asperger’s syndrome and autism.

How many people are autistic?

Approximately 700,000 people in the UK have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome is just at one end of the spectrum. However, many people with high IQs and verbal ability go undiagnosed or manage their condition, living perfectly successful lives. Many intelligent famous people like Mozart, Einstein and Jane Austen are said to have had Asperger’s. You probably know someone with Asperger’s. Indeed, you might have it yourself.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician specialising in children’s mental health, defined Asperger’s in 1944. He studied children who displayed certain characteristics and behaviour (in fact, he was said to display some of the characteristics, himself). The children he studied found it a challenge to handle social situations, and to understand other people. Asperger’s can be difficult to identify. But some signs include:

  • trouble developing relationships or integrating with others
  • averting eyes or avoiding eye contact
  • taking things very literally – not understanding metaphors, puns or jokes
  • difficulty understanding other people’s feelings – missing subtle facial expressions or saying things without appreciating that they might be hurtful
  • a need for routine
  • emotional when faced with change
  • focused or obsessive interest in certain things – e.g. dinosaurs, fantasy worlds, cars or cartoons
  • heightened senses

The level of Asperger’s varies. Some people are mildly affected – so it is imperceptible. Others are severely affected. Asperger’s children can feel frustrated by it – or by people’s responses – which can lead to depression, alienation or anger issues. Some aspects of Asperger’s can be misunderstood as bad behaviour. For example, 17% of children with the condition have been suspended from school at some point.

How is Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosed?

Diagnosis is rapidly increasing. 1 in 100 people in 2009 were recorded as being on the Autistic Spectrum, compared to 1 in 1000 in 1999. Although children can be diagnosed at the age of 2, it often takes longer before it is recognised, and sometimes it never is.

Asperger’s is more frequently recognised in males than in females. It has been suggested that the ratio is 16 boys for every 1 girl with the condition. However, Dr Judith Gould, the Director at the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre, believes that the ratio is more like 2.5 to 1 and that there are many girls with Asperger’s undiagnosed. The condition can be missed in females, who are usually better at communicating and socialising with their peers.

There is no simple test to diagnose autism. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned, and request assessment.

How does autism affect communication?

Communication can be a problem for those with autism. Most people have the ability to read other people’s expressions and body language and to respond accordingly, but many people with Asperger’s or autism cannot do this. They may have trouble conveying their emotions. Although they are often eloquent in their speech, they might use complicated words without fully knowing their meaning and they can misunderstand the use of metaphors. ‘Pull your socks up!’ can mean exactly that.

Some people with Asperger’s might speak in a monotonous voice. Talking about unfamiliar topics often fills them with apprehension, so their own interests often dominate conversation.

How can autistic people cope with social situations?

Maintaining friendships and relationships can be difficult for children with Asperger’s because they don’t always recognise social cues. They might push normal social boundaries or give the impression they are detached from a conversation. In an attempt to deal with nervousness in tense situations they might make a noise, or fidget with something to try to combat their anxiety. They may behave inappropriately in certain contexts – for example, speaking loudly in a library.

Can people with autism live normal lives?

If your child has autism then it needn’t hold them back. Many people with autism can live perfectly normal lives. Have patience with your child, accept their differences and gather knowledge about Asperger’s. A diagnosis can offer relief for some people.

Children with Asperger’s sometimes need help knowing how they should interact with people or how to make friends – so remind them to give eye contact, to ask how people are and to show an interest in what they say. Remind them to listen, and not to monopolise conversations with their own interests or thoughts.

Since routine reassures them, it may help to plan timetables for day-to-day activities. Where possible, give them plenty of notice and support before trying anything new.

Children with Asperger’s can be extremely sensitive. The realisation that they are different might make them frustrated and angry. Mental health can be affected, making them more prone to depression. Emotions may be intense and they could suffer ‘meltdowns’ in which they lose control, often out of frustration or fear of change.

Sadly, some children are intolerant of difference, and children with Asperger’s are more likely to be a target of bullying. 34% admit that bullying is the worst factor in living with Asperger’s.

Due to their frank, upfront nature, people with Asperger’s are often extremely trustworthy and dependable.

What support is there for children with autism?

Sensitive young autistic girl crying

There is a wide network of support and information available for individuals with autism and their families. Here are some useful links:

The Austism Parenting Magazine published an extremely interesting article on Social Stories for Autistic Children. We thoroughly recommend it to you.

If your child is struggling, programmes to develop their social skills and behaviour can be useful and will help them integrate into society. Talk to the school and ensure that your child’s needs are met. Some websites also give guidance on supporting your child at home.

So, what are Asperger’s Syndrome and autism? They’re ways of seeing the world differently. If your child is on the autistic spectrum, then understanding them will help them to feel supported and secure. Help them to understand themselves and others, and how to act in the world. You might find that your child has a high IQ, incredible focus and is good at absorbing information. They could have a particular talent, or acquire expert knowledge in their area of interest - or they could have average IQ and an obsession with soap operas. Everyone is different. Embrace your child’s uniqueness. But help them to connect in the world, too.

For further reading you’ll find answers to your education questions in our Knowledge Bank. We have dozens of articles which aim to inform and advise parents on all aspects of schooling and child raising. It’s a great weapon to have in your armoury!

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