What is Asperger’s syndrome?

Asperger’s syndrome, also known as Asperger disorder or Asperger syndrome, is one of a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that have effects on an individual’s behavior, use of language and communication, and pattern of social interactions. Asperger disorder was formerly characterized as one distinct autism spectrum disorder (others included autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified [PDD-NOS]), although Asperger’s syndrome was considered to be at the milder, or higher-functioning, range of this spectrum. There is still some controversy as to whether Asperger’s syndrome should be regarded as a separate clinical entity or simply represents a high-functioning form of autism. In the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published in May 2013, Asperger’s syndrome and autistic disorder have been combined into one condition for diagnostic purposes, known as ASD. This change was controversial, because many experts believe that people formerly diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome will not meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD. Also, many experts feel that Asperger’s syndrome should be preserved as a separate diagnostic entity to represent a condition related to, but not the same as, autism. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder were felt to have a higher-functioning form of autism or autism-related condition. People with Asperger’s syndrome typically have normal to above-average intelligence but typically have difficulties with social interactions and often have pervasive, absorbing interests in special topics.

Asperger’s syndrome is named for Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, who first described the condition in 1944. Dr. Asperger described four boys who showed “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.” Because of their obsessive interests in and knowledge of particular subjects, he termed the boys “little professors.” The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognized Asperger disorder as a specific entity and published diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV) in 1994. Most recently, after significant deliberation, the APA recommended “subsuming” Asperger’s Disorder into Autism Spectrum Disorders for the next edition of the DSM-V.

Today, many experts in the field stress the particular gifts and positive aspects of Asperger syndrome and consider it to represent a different, but not necessarily defective, way of thinking. Positive characteristics of people with Asperger syndrome have been described as beneficial in many professions and include:

  • the increased ability to focus on details,
  • the capacity to persevere in specific interests without being swayed by others’ opinions,
  • the ability to work independently,
  • the recognition of patterns that may be missed by others,
  • intensity, and
  • an original way of thinking.

Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted engineer, author, and professor who suffers from Asperger disorder believes that her condition has been an asset in her professional life. Her life and story was featured in a film that first aired in 2010.

Although the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome is not possible without direct testing and observation of an individual, it has been suggested by some authors that many successful historical figures may have had Asperger’s syndrome, including Mozart, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Marie Curie. Of course, definitive diagnosis of historical figures with Asperger’s syndrome is not possible, and many of the traits exhibited by people with Asperger’s syndrome can also occur because of intellectual giftedness or even attention deficit disorder (ADD).