A Guide to Asperger's Disorder in Children
Children with Asperger's Disorder are likely to show two main traits: difficulties with social interaction and highly focused interests or recurring behaviours. This is because Asperger’s Disorder is actually part of what we now call Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which is defined by social and behavioural differences that can range in severity from mild to extreme.
Asperger’s Disorder was once a separate diagnosis used to describe individuals who had these differences, but did not show the deficits in cognition and language that children with “classic” autism did. In 2013, the guidelines used by many mental health practitioners (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, 5th Edition, or DSM-5) were updated to reflect the current understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders. Autism became Autism Spectrum Disorder to capture the diversity of the autistic experience, while Asperger’s Disorder was removed and a new diagnosis - Social Communication Disorder - was added.
Today, a child with Asperger’s Disorder is likely to be diagnosed by a clinician as having ’ASD without accompanying intellectual or language impairments”. This means that they are typically developing in terms of speech and cognitive milestones, but may show an obsessive interest in certain topics, repeat specific movements and struggle to connect with their peers (Myles & Simpson, 2002).
What is Asperger’s Disorder or ASD?
ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning it arises in early childhood and produces developmental changes that can result in lifelong differences in personal, social and occupational functioning. Individuals with ASD have impaired social communication and interaction, and show “restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Recently, researchers and activists have challenged the way ASD and other neurodevelopmental diagnoses are framed. Rather than viewing individuals with autism as having deficits in “normal” functioning, we can instead broaden our understanding of normal to include more variation. This is called neurodiversity - the idea that our brain functioning and behaviour are infinitely diverse and being autistic is just one way for this diversity to manifest (Singer, 1998). What many people consider “normal” is referred to as being neurotypical, while having unique differences that may once have been considered abnormalities requiring correction is referred to as being neurodivergent.
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Is my child on the autism spectrum?
Parents may notice that their child is “different” from others at an early age (Robinson et al., 2015). For parents wondering if their child meets the criteria for Asperger’s Disorder or ASD, it can be helpful to compare how their child behaves with the symptoms of the disorder.
Here is a list of key indicators of ASD:
- Difficulty using non-verbal behaviours to express themselves, such as eye contact, facial expressions, body postures and hand gestures
- Unusual speech style or patterns, such as being overly formal or verbose
- Difficulty developing and maintaining friendships
- Difficulty sharing their emotions, interests or achievements with others
- Preoccupation with a particular topic of interest at an unusually sophisticated level for their age
- Inflexibility with routines or rituals, or difficulty dealing with change
- Clumsiness or difficulty coordinating movement
- Repetitive body movements, such as hand or finger flapping or twisting
- Unusual sensitivity to lights, sounds or textures
How is Asperger’s Disorder or ASD diagnosed?
Parents who believe their child may meet the criteria for ASD can seek a professional diagnosis. This process involves an initial screening, which indicates whether a child should be referred for a more in-depth assessment. The assessment includes interviews to determine family history and current behaviour, and evaluations of communication, cognition and physical health, depending on the child’s age.
For more information on the diagnostic procedure in Australia, read our article on Autism Spectrum Disorder Assessments.
What does living with Asperger’s Disorder or ASD look like?
ASD is a lifelong condition and can impact how well individuals are able to form relationships with others, regulate their emotions, plan ahead and deal with change, among other issues (Levy & Perry, 2011; Lopez-Perez et al., 2018; Xie et al., 2020).
The prospect of having a neurodivergent child may be a source of anxiety or fear for parents. However, while having an ASD diagnosis can be challenging, there are many reasons to embrace the uniqueness that comes with it. In a recent NPR interview, the award-winning Australian comedian and writer Hannah Gadsby describes her diagnosis as being essential to her success. “It's incredibly helpful in the perspective I have, because I don't see things ... and process it in the same way as a neurotypical person, so there is an off-kilter angle to it.” (Krenzel et al., 2020)
Parents can also be reassured by the fact that their child is not alone. According to Autism Spectrum Australia, approximately 1 in 70 people are autistic (Autism Spectrum Australia, 2018). There are many ASD-specific advocacy groups and support networks that exist to help diagnosed individuals and their families, and allow them to connect with one another. Digital communication has made connection even easier, especially because it removes some of the issues with face-to-face communication that autistic people struggle with.
How can I help my child with Asperger’s Disorder or ASD?
Early intervention is the most effective way to help children develop the skills necessary for navigating the everyday (Bieleninik et al., 2017). While it is common for parents to worry that their child will always struggle, children who receive the support they need are likely to lead healthy, fulfilling lives (Zachor & Ben-Itzchak, 2020). There are a number of ways parents can support their affected children. Options include targeting specific skills or behaviours, making changes to the child’s current structure or routine and learning more about the condition.
Here are some of the most common support pathways for ASD below with quick explanations of what they involve:
- Developmental therapy allows children to create meaningful and positive relationships with others, improve social competence and develop daily living skills.
- Speech and language therapy uses specialised exercises and activities to address problems producing and understanding speech.
- Behavioural therapy is used to develop necessary behaviours and skills that autistic children may struggle with through specific techniques.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) teaches children healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the stress and negative emotions that can come with being on the autism spectrum.
- Family-based therapy provides families with knowledge and training so they can best support their autistic family member while being supported themselves.
- Special education classes enable a rewarding academic experience through greater structure and one-on-one attention to focus on specific areas of difficulty.
- Medication can be used to address specific symptoms, such as agitation, mood swings and aggression.
How can the Quirky Kid Clinic help your child?
The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions. If you think your child shows signs of Asperger’s Disorder or ASD, or if your child already has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder or ASD, you might consider one of the following options that we provide:
- Assessment and Diagnosis of ASD including the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule
- Booking an individual session with our experienced child psychologists
- Register for a social skills group or ASD-specific workshop
Contact us for more information.
View article references
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
- Autism Spectrum Australia. (2018). Autism prevalence rate up by an estimated 40% to 1 in 70 people. Autism Spectrum Australia. https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/news/autism-prevalence-rate-up-by-an-estimated-40-to-1-in-70-people-11-07-2018
- Bieleninik, L., Posserud, M.-B., Geretsegger, M., Thompson, G., Elefant, C., & Gold, C. (2017). Tracing the temporal stability of autism spectrum diagnosis and severity as measured by the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS ONE, 12(9), e0183160. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A505755418/AONE?u=usyd&sid=AONE&xid=dae0572f
- Krenzel, L., Seth Kelly, & Gross, T. (2020). Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Helped Comic Hannah Gadsby 'Be Kinder' To Herself [Audio recording]. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/05/26/862081893/autism-spectrum-diagnosis-helped-comic-hannah-gadsby-be-kinder-to-herself
- Levy, A., & Perry, A. (2011). Outcomes in adolescents and adults with autism: A review of the literature. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(4), 1271–1282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2011.01.023
- López‐Pérez, B., Ambrona, T., & Gummerum, M. (2018). Emotional preferences and goals and emotion dysregulation in children with Asperger’s syndrome and typically developing children. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57(3), 274–290. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12173
- Myles, B., & Simpson, R. (2002). Asperger Syndrome: An Overview of Characteristics. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17(3), 132–137. https://doi.org/10.1177/10883576020170030201
- Robinson, C. A., York, K., Rothenberg, A., Bissell, L. J., & L. (2015). Parenting a child with asperger's syndrome: A balancing act. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(8), 2310-2321. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/10.1007/s10826-014-0034-1
- Xie, R., Sun, X., Yang, L., & Guo, Y. (2020). Characteristic Executive Dysfunction for High‐Functioning Autism Sustained to Adulthood. Autism Research, 13(12), 2102–2121. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2304
- Zachor, D., & Ben‐Itzchak, E. (2020). From Toddlerhood to Adolescence, Trajectories and Predictors of Outcome: Long‐Term Follow‐Up Study in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Research, 13(7), 1130–1143. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2313