More about Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are now collectively diagnosed under the heading Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are described as neuro-developmental disorders because there is evidence to suggest that the central nervous system of the individual is affected, which in turn affects many aspects of the individual’s early, as well as later, development.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or more recently described as an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) is another term widely used when referring to Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.

We prefer to use the term Autism Spectrum Difference in line with neurodiversity thinking.

What is Autism?

Autism was first identified in 1943 by Dr Leo Kanner. Although our understanding of autism has greatly improved in the past 20 years, the definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder, as it is now described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (DSM – V 2013), has changed only slightly since then.

Individuals who are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulties in the following:

  1. Persistent difficulties in social communication and two way social interaction across multiple contexts.
  2. Absence or impairment of true flexible imaginative activity with a substitution of a narrow range of repetitive stereotyped pursuits. Within this criterion individuals may also display differences in sensory processing.

Other differences

The range of skills and abilities for people on the Autism Spectrum can be diverse. Some people will have an additional learning disability, which can compound their ability to learn, whilst others may have average to above average intelligence. In each case, difficulties associated with autism can make life for the individual very challenging. In general, people with autism tend to be better at tasks related to puzzles and patterns (visual-spatial ability) but can show difficulties in language-related or empathy tasks.

Around 10% of adults or children with autism may have some unusual ability, such as drawing, playing a musical instrument, memorising or mathematical acumen. These abilities are usually described as savant skills and tend to be isolated from the individual’s general development.

What is Asperger's Syndrome?

Although Asperger’s Syndrome was first identified by Hans Asperger in 1944 it was not officially diagnosed until the 1980’s. Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and Autism share diagnostic features, although the degree of severity of these features might vary. For example, individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome appear to have no difficulty in verbally expressing themselves, but do show some communication difficulties mainly related to the understanding of non-verbal communication cues (i.e. body language, facial expressions).

Social interaction is the area that individuals appear to struggle with most. There is a difficulty in making sense of social rules and boundaries. As a result, people with AS find it difficult to form friendships and relationships, which can sometimes lead to isolation. Difficulties with imagination involve problems with planning and organisation, to the extent that some individuals might find it difficult to carry out everyday tasks.

As opposed to autism, the majority of individuals diagnosed with AS show little or no intellectual disability. Because of this, and also because of no obvious language difficulties, it is difficult to diagnose early; therefore many individuals receive a diagnosis later in life. Women in particular are being missed; statistics indicate that for every ten males diagnosed only one female will receive a diagnosis. A possible reason for this is that women are better at masking their difficulties by way of mimicking social skills. In addition, their areas of obsessive interest may be seen as being more in line with girls’ general interests: e.g. an interest in ponies, soap operas and dolls.

What causes autism?

A single cause for autism has not yet been identified. There is strong evidence that suggests autism is a genetic condition (Geschwind & State, 2015), but the specific genes involved are yet to be identified.

As for environmental causes, the evidence for this is very mixed and inconsistent. It is possible that some environmental factors might interact with specific genes and therefore might determine the severity and expression of the condition in some individuals.

Research is under way to identify both the genetic as well as the environmental factors that contribute to autism.

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