Asperger syndrome was treated as a standalone diagnosis for decades. But since children with Asperger’s are today considered to be on the high end of the autism spectrum disorder, it’s essential to understand the differences and similarities between the two conditions. This article explains in detail the criteria for each.
Asperger’s vs. Autism
Asperger syndrome or Asperger’s was identified by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944. He noticed that some children with autism had better social and motor skills and fewer language challenges than their peers, leading him to establish a diagnosis separate from what was known as “autistic disorder”. Asperger syndrome first appeared in the 1994 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
Today, Asperger syndrome is officially classified under the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), along with conditions that were formerly labeled “pervasive developmental disorders” such as severe autism, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Rett’s syndrome. Asperger syndrome was incorporated into the diagnosis of ASD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) in 2013.
Autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorder is currently the only diagnostic category used for autism, regardless of where on the spectrum a child is. This means that a child with characteristics of Asperger’s will today receive a diagnosis of ASD because the condition falls under the broader classification. Autism spectrum disorder can range from mild to severe and its symptoms may vary significantly from child to child.
The term Asperger’s is still occasionally used to describe children and adults who have only certain symptoms of autism, but lack some of the other defining characteristics.
Differences between Asperger’s and autism
So what exactly are the differences between Asperger syndrome and autism? Although both conditions can affect behavior, social interactions, and relationships, they differ when it comes to language abilities, cognition, and the typical age of onset.
Speech and language
Children who previously may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s have good language skills. However, they may have difficulty fitting in with their peers and feel uncomfortable or awkward in the presence of others.
On the other hand, most children with autism experience speech delays, as well as verbal and nonverbal communication challenges. For example, they may have trouble understanding what another person is saying or they may be unable to pick up on nonverbal cues like hand gestures and facial expressions. Furthermore, children with autism typically use rigid and repetitive language and limit conversations to very narrow topics of interest.
Children with Asperger’s don’t experience significant cognitive delays. On the contrary, they usually have average to above-average intelligence.
Autism, however, is associated with varying degrees of cognitive deficits. According to the Center for Autism Research, around 40% of individuals with autism have some form of intellectual disability and an IQ score below 70. At the same time, the intellectual disability rate within the general population is only 1%.
Age of onset
The average age of diagnosis for a child with autism is four, while a person with characteristics of Asperger syndrome may not receive a diagnosis until their teenage years or even adulthood. One of the main reasons for a delayed diagnosis is that the difficulty in responding to and understanding social interactions is not always obvious in young children, but it becomes more pronounced with age.
Criteria for Each Diagnosis
Many symptoms of Asperger syndrome are similar to those of autism. Since these are neurodevelopmental disorders, there are no significant physical differences in appearance between children on the autism spectrum and their neurotypical peers. Instead, symptoms are mostly related to social communication and behavior, both of which are affected by brain dysregulation.
Children with Asperger syndrome rarely experience difficulties with language or cognitive skills, however, they may have significant challenges when it comes to social and communication abilities.
The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s in the DSM-IV included:
- Neurotypical intelligence and language development
- Severe impairment in social interaction
- Restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities
- Intense interest in particular topics or objects
It is important to note that since Asperger’s is not classified in the DSM-V, it is no longer used as an official diagnosis in itself. Instead, depending on the extent and severity of autism traits, your child will be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and given a severity rating ranging between 1 (mild/requiring support) and 3 (severe/requiring very substantial support). Your child will subsequently receive an in-depth diagnosis that will be used to develop a personalized treatment plan.
Common symptoms of autism include repetitive behaviors, impaired social communication, and restricted interests. Behaviors that may cause a child to be diagnosed with autism include:
- Experiencing cognitive delays
- Having delayed speech or language skills
- Speaking in atypical ways, such as:
- Singsong or high-pitched voice
- Repetitive or rigid language
- Monotonic speech
- Uneven language development that consists in having an extensive vocabulary only within a specific area of interest
- Challenges understanding other people’s facial expressions or emotions
- Difficulty understanding and responding to social cues
- Having difficulty engaging in everyday conversations
- Expressing emotions or sharing interests less frequently than peers
- Trouble developing or understanding relationships
- Having deep and sustained interests in specific topics
- Having a need for predictable structure, routines, and order, like following the same schedule each day or organizing items a certain way
- Experiencing challenges in processing sensory experiences
- Engaging in repetitive movements or behaviors (stimming), such as hand flapping or rocking back and forth.
Asperger syndrome and autism are classified under the autism spectrum disorder. The signs and symptoms of both conditions are primarily based on social communication and behavior, which can make relating to others extremely difficult.
However, children with Asperger’s don’t experience the same problems with language and cognitive development as their peers with higher-severity autism. Understanding the difference between Asperger’s and autism is essential in order to implement a customized intervention that will help improve long-term outcomes and the overall life quality of your child.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.