Asperger's Syndrome, often referred to as high-functioning or mild autism, is a heritable disorder that stems from structural abnormalities in several regions of the brain. Interestingly, researchers are now learning that Asperger's Syndrome is not linked to other forms of autism, but rather, is closely related to another genetic illness, Bipolar Disorder. Diagnosed in two of every 10,000 people, Asperger's affects four times as many boys as girls and is most noted for affecting a person's ability to socialize and communicate.
Like other disorders of the brain, laboratory testing for Asperger's is still on the horizon. Diagnosis is usually based on direct observation and collection of anecdotal information from caregivers and teachers, combined with assessments by a general practitioner, a speech and language professional and a psychologist or psychiatrist.
The information collected usually includes:
* A complete developmental history, noting anything out of the ordinary.
* Assessment of social interaction and communication skills, including an ability to make and maintain friendships.
* Intellectual and academic abilities.
* Speech and language development.
* Vision and hearing.
* Visual-motor problem solving.
* Possible emotional, behavioural and psychological issues.
Unfortunately, many people with Asperger's Syndrome are first misdiagnosed with another problem, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or an emotional-behaviour disorder. Often they are labelled as wilful or malicious troublemakers, so it's important to talk to a doctor if a child is having difficulties at school or displays two or more common signs and symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome include:
* Lucid speech before age 4 years; grammar and vocabulary are usually very good.
* Monotonous, rigid or unusually fast speech.
* Conversations revolve around self.
*Engaging in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener's reactions.
* Unusual nonverbal communication, including lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, awkward body postures or odd gestures or tics.
* Poor coordination or clumsiness.
* Odd posture or rigid gait.
* Obsessing on one or two specific, narrow subjects, like sports statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes.
* I.Q.'s fall along the full spectrum, but many are in the above normal range in verbal ability and in the below average range in performance abilities.
*. Many have dyslexia, writing problems, and difficulty with mathematics.
* Lack common sense.
* Concrete thinking (versus abstract).
* Odd forms of self-stimulatory behaviour.
* Sensory problems appear not to be as dramatic as those with other forms of autism.
* Socially aware but displays inappropriate reciprocal interaction.
* Appearing not to understand, empathize with, or be sensitive to others' feelings.
* An inability to 'read' other people or understanding humour.
* Often described as eccentric.
Once diagnosed, people with Asperger's can't be cured, but most benefit from early specialized interventions that focus on behaviour management and social skills training. A good doctor or the special education department at a local school district can identify available resources.
Some highly successful treatment strategies include:
Communication and Social Skills Training.
Many people with Asperger's can learn the unwritten rules of socialization and communication when taught in an explicit and rote fashion, in much the same way students learn foreign languages. People with Asperger's Syndrome may also learn how to speak in a more natural rhythm, as well as how to interpret communication techniques, such as gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, humour and sarcasm. These things can be taught by family members with the help of a speech and language specialist.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.
This general term encompasses many techniques aimed at curbing problem behaviours, such as interrupting, obsessions, meltdowns or angry outbursts. Cognitive behavioural therapy also helps individuals to recognizing feelings, understand language nuances and cope with anxiety. Cognitive behaviour therapy usually focuses on training a child to recognize a troublesome situation - such as a new place or an event with lots of social demands - and then select a specific learned strategy to cope with the situation.
Asperger's Syndrome does not require medication, but some medicines may improve specific behaviours - such as anxiety, depression or hyperactivity - that can occur in many people with Asperger's Syndrome.
Asperger's Syndrome can be a difficult, lonely disorder. It brings difficulties socializing and communicating and may also mean fewer social opportunities and more stares at the grocery store from people who don't understand that a meltdown is part of a disability. Luckily, as Asperger's gains widespread recognition and attention, more resources are available.
Here are a few suggestions if someone you care for has Asperger's Syndrome:
* Learn about the disorder. Just 20 years ago, most paediatricians hadn't heard of Asperger's Syndrome. Now, dozens of books and Web sites are dedicated to the disorder. Do some research to better understand the challenges and range of available services.
The signs and symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome are different in every person, and young children have a hard time explaining their behaviours and challenges. But, with time and patience, you'll learn which situations and environments may cause problems for the person you care for, and which coping strategies work. Keep a diary and look for patterns to increase your understanding.
* Find a team of trusted professionals, including teachers and therapists who can help evaluate the options in your area and explain the federal regulations regarding people with disabilities.
* Help others help your loved one. Most people with Asperger's Syndrome have no visible sign of disability, so you may need to alert others to your loved one's special needs. Otherwise, a well-meaning person may lecture him on 'looking at me while I'm talking' - something that can be very difficult for someone with Asperger's syndrome.
* Help your loved one turn his or her obsession into a passion. The tendency to fixate on a particular narrow topic is one of the hallmarks of Asperger's Syndrome, and it can be annoying to those who must listen to incessant talk about the topic every day. But a consuming interest can also connect a person with Asperger's syndrome to schoolwork and social activities. Oftentimes, people with Asperger's syndrome turn their childhood fascination into a career or profession.
About the author: Kate McLaughlin writes, speaks and advocates for mental health awareness. She is available to speak at events for high school & college students and faculties, as well as mental health support groups. Kate McLaughlin is the author of Mommy, I'm Still in Here: One Family's Journey with Bipolar Disorder.