Asperger’s Syndrome

Origins and Diagnosis

In 1944 the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger first described the sort of typical behaviour patterns which have come to define Asperger’s Syndrome, although at the time there was a particular focus on individuals’ lack of empathy and poor nonverbal communication skills.  More formal diagnosis came about much later, but there remains debate concerning the particular nature of Asperger’s Syndrome and how (if at all) it differs from high-functioning autism in older children.  Indeed it has been proposed that the definition of Asperger’s Syndrome should be eliminated entirely and be subsumed within the autistic spectrum in the next (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental  Disorders, to be published by the American Psychiatric Association in May 2013, seen by many as the foremost international diagnostic manual.  Already some from with the Asperger’s Syndrome community are expressing concern about the potential loss of identity which this might create, and it is not yet clear if the diagnosis will be retained or not.

Irrespective of the future direction of the diagnosis, currently Asperger’s Syndrome is recognised to represent an autistic spectrum disorder.  As such, the criteria for ASD are based on the triad of impairments in social interaction, communication and imagination (see article on autism for more detail on the triad of impairment).  However, unlike in the case of autism, a medical diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome does not require abnormal language development under 3 years of age.  Indeed children with Asperger’s Syndrome are verbal and often highly articulate, even if their use of language is sometimes inappropriate or formal.

Often descriptions of Asperger’s Syndrome have focused on negative aspects.  Lorna Wing (1983) identified the following:

  • lack of empathy
  • naive, inappropriate one-sided interaction
  • little ability to form or maintain peer friendships
  • pedantic, repetitive speech
  • poor non-verbal communication
  • intense absorption in certain subjects
  • clumsy and ill-coordinated movements and odd postures.

More recently, Winter and Lawrence (2011) have highlighted some of the more positive traits associated with Asperger’s Syndrome:

  • honesty
  • reliability
  • original thinking
  • dedication
  • determination

What should I look out for in class?

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, because of their linguistic abililty, will often be diagnosed later than other children on the autistic spectrum.  However, the guidelines for primary schools developed by the National Initiative for Autism: Screening and Assessment Working Group (NIASA 2003) are useful and identify four key features which staff should be aware of:

  1. Communication impairments: ‘odd’, inappropriate or formal use of language; ability to talk freely only about topics of special interest
  2. Social impairments: inability to join in with others during play, or inappropriate attempts to play together with other children; easily overwhelmed by social interaction.
  3. Impairments of interests, activities and behaviours: lack of creative play; lack of flexibility and inability to cope with change in routine.
  4. Other factors: unusual profile of skills, where high linguistic ability may be accompanied by poor motor skills.

Often the difficulty which pupils with Asperger’s Syndrome experience become particularly acute in the post-primary phase.  Luke Jackson (who has Asperger’s Syndrome) has written very lucidly about this in Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).  In his book Luke outlines some of the frustrations he encountered at school with a lack of understanding by peers and teachers and encourages parents to tell their children as soon as possible.

Case Studies
Teaching Strategies
People who can help: SENCO/Resource Teacher

Further Information

Attwood, T. (2008). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Frith, U. ed. (1991). Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Winter, M. and Lawrence, C. (2011) Asperger Syndrome: what teachers need to know. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.