Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. It is one of several developmental disorders on this spectrum, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. Asperger syndrome, sometimes referred to as Asperger’s syndrome, is usually present from early childhood, with symptoms appearing around the age of 2, although a diagnosis may not be made for several years. Asperger syndrome is generally considered to present less severe symptoms than other autism spectrum disorders, with most people being fairly highly functioning.
Because Asperger syndrome can have less obvious symptoms than some other developmental disorders, children are often not diagnosed until the ages of 5 or 6. The prevalence of Asperger syndrome is not well established, but it is estimated that 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The disorder is four times more common among males than females. Autism spectrum disorders persist into adulthood and are lifelong. Comorbidity – multiple psychiatric diagnoses – is common with Asperger syndrome.
Symptoms of Asperger Syndrome
NINDS lists social and communication deficits, and fixated interests and repetitive behaviors, as being the two main features of autism spectrum disorders. People with Asperger syndrome may have trouble maintaining the back-and-forth of a typical conversation, have trouble with eye contact and nonverbal communication, and struggle to maintain friendships. They may display repetitive behaviors or interests, and be very attached to daily routines. People with this diagnosis can also be sensitive to their environment and have strong preferences for or against certain sensory experiences.
Some common symptoms of Asperger syndrome include:
- Lack of rhythm in speech, a monotone pitch, or trouble controlling voice volume
- Social isolation due to lack of social skills and narrow interests
- Strong interests in specific subjects, which the person may seem to talk about obsessively
- Trouble with motor skills, such as riding a bike, catching a ball, or outdoor play
- Comorbid diagnoses of anxiety or mood disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), tic disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
The cause of Asperger syndrome is not known. Some studies have shown structural differences in the brains of children with autism spectrum disorders, suggesting abnormal development of the brain during fetal development may be responsible. Studies have found that children with this disorder use different parts of their brains when asked to use their judgment or interpret facial expressions, as compared to the brain activity of children without the disorder. It is likely that these differences in brain structure and function are due to genetic factors, but a specific gene responsible for this disorder has not been identified.
Asperger Syndrome and Addiction
Substance use and addiction are not common among people with Asperger syndrome. People with this disorder typically display less risk-taking or thrill-seeking behaviors than others their age, making them a low-risk group for substance use disorders. It is likely that those people who do have Asperger syndrome and participate in substance use do so in response to obsessive thoughts or interests, or out of a desire to appear socially “normal.” One recent study found that individual personality traits typically associated with this disorder, including introversion and inhibition, acted as protective factors to prevent substance use.
While addiction among this group is uncommon, the repetitive behaviors and obsessive interests associated with the disorder can contribute to the formation of an addiction. An article published by NBC News reported that children with autism spectrum disorder spend about twice as much time playing video games as children without a developmental disability and are at a much higher risk for becoming addicted to video games. It is possible that this same pattern of repetitive behavior could lead to other addictions, such as substance use disorders.
Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder and cannot be cured, but symptoms can be managed. Therapies for this disorder are tailored to the specific individual, and it is recommended that early intervention be offered for treatment to be the most effective. Predictability and reliance on step-by-step instructions are important when treating this disorder. Treatment should build on children’s interests to keep them engaged and reinforce positive behaviors. Some commonly recommended treatment methods include:
- Social skills training: This typically takes place in a group setting and encourages interaction with other children.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This model can help manage strong emotions and repetitive or obsessive thoughts and behaviors.
- Medications for co-occurring disorders, such as depression or anxiety
- Speech therapy: This can improve a child’s ability to maintain conversations.
- Occupational or physical therapy: This therapy improves coordination and motor skills, and it helps with sensory problems.
Some of the interventions commonly used to treat Asperger syndrome, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other behavior-based interventions, can also be used to successfully treat addiction. It is important to address all the diagnoses an individual might have, as different disorders can affect each other. For example, an untreated anxiety disorder can make it difficult for an individual to manage symptoms of Asperger syndrome, while simultaneously contributing to substance use.
Intervention for Asperger syndrome can be very effective, and children with this disorder often go on to live successful and fulfilling lives. The Asperger/Autism Network lists many qualities of people with this disorder that can be beneficial to an individual’s life, including attention to detail and a strong work ethic. People with Asperger syndrome are typically of normal to high intelligence, with their struggles being rooted in social skills and “big picture” thinking. Because this is a lifelong disorder, continued support may be necessary.