There’s a good chance most people are familiar with autism, which is the most well-publicized pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) given the alarming rise in autism rates over the past 20–30 years. But did you know that an estimated 31 million people around the world deal with Asperger’s symptoms — a number that some experts believe may even be higher (like 68 million)? (1)
This developmental disorder can make it difficult for people — particularly children — to interact with others, as social skills are delayed. Now, that doesn’t mean that just because someone is socially awkward he or she has Asperger’s syndrome, but you should know the signs and symptoms of Asperger’s. So let’s take a look at what Asperger’s syndrome entails and identify the Asperger’s symptoms you should look out for.
What Is Asperger’s Syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome is a pervasive developmental disorder that involves delays in the development of basic skills, especially the ability to socialize and communicate with others and use imagination. It often isn’t until a child or adult begins to have serious difficulties in school, the workplace or in his/her personal lives that the disorder can be diagnosed. Many adults receive their diagnosis after seeking help for related issues, such as depression or anxiety. (2)
There are a number of therapy programs that are in place for individuals with Asperger’s symptoms, including cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy sessions. People with Asperger’s can also focus on calming and confidence-boosting activities like yoga and music therapy. There is no cure for Asperger’s syndrome, but there are natural treatments and remedies that have proven to effective — similar to autism natural treatment. (3)
Asperger’s syndrome was named for the Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who first described the disorder in 1944. Dr. Asperger described four patients with similar social difficulties. He noticed that their intelligence levels were normal, but the children lacked nonverbal communication skills and failed to display empathy for their peers. He also noted that they demonstrated an all-absorbing interest in narrow topics, which dominated their conversations with others.
Dr. Asperger’s findings went unnoticed until 1981, when English physician Lorna Wing published a series of case studies involving children with similar symptoms. Wing’s findings were widely published and popularized, and in 1994, Asperger’s syndrome was added to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (4)
1. Failure to Develop Friendships
Children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome may have difficulty connecting with their peers due to a lack of social skills. Social tasks like talking one on one, making eye contact or participating in group activities may be hard for people with Asperger’s, especially because they want to connect with their peers but aren’t comfortable with these types of engagements.
A lack of eye contact may also make people with Asperger’s seem unengaged in a conversation, or they don’t understand the use of gestures and sarcasm, so they appear to be socially awkward. Another Asperger’s symptom is selective mutism, which occurs when young children or adults only speak freely and comfortably with people they know well and not with strangers.
2. Inability to Empathize
People with Asperger’s find it difficult to empathize or understand the feelings of others. For this reason, they may come off as insensitive, when really they don’t understand the appropriate behaviors in certain situations.
Over time, an individual with Asperger’s learns the accepted social behaviors and responses. Although he/she is reacting appropriately in the moment, he/she may not truly understand why the person is upset.
People with Asperger’s may also have trouble understanding the intent behind another person’s actions, so they may miss humor or unease in someone’s use of words and tone. This is why social interactions can sometimes be too overwhelming for people with Asperger’s — because they cannot see things from another person’s perspective, they aren’t able to predict or understand their actions.
3. Eccentric or Repetitive Behaviors
According to Autism Speaks, individuals with Asperger’s syndrome can sometimes have a peculiar manner of speaking. Sometimes they speak overly loud or in a monotone voice.
However, people with Asperger’s have good language skills, but they use language in a different way. Their patterns may be unusual, with a rhythmic nature. They may come across as too formal, or their speech may even be high-pitched. Individuals with Asperger’s may also have trouble controlling their emotions, laughing or crying easily and at inappropriate times, and they have motor skill delays, coming across as awkward or clumsy. (5)
4. Narrowed Interest
A child with Asperger’s may develop a strong, sometimes obsessive interest in a few areas, such as music, weather, math, planes or maps. This serves as the most distinguishing Asperger’s symptom. Children with Asperger’s know everything about their topic of interest, and their conversations with others are about little else. They tend to become exceptionally talented and skilled in this particular area too. (6)
5. Sticking to a Routine or Ritual
People with Asperger’s sometimes develop a routine or ritual that they refuse to alter. They can become fixated on ensuring that their external environment and daily routines remain constant because sudden changes may exceed their coping mechanisms.
Some people with Asperger’s may experience motor or phonic tics in addition to other behavioral abnormalities. Some researchers believe that this is due to sensory deprivation, which contributes to the development of unusual and sometimes involuntary movements. (7, 8)
Asperger’s Symptoms vs. Autism Symptoms
As it turns out, Asperger’s syndrome is actually classified as a autism spectrum disorder and no longer has its own diagnosis. It was eliminated in 2013 as its own individual condition, making it even more difficult to distinguish between classic autism. That’s because many of the symptoms are the same.
The most obvious signs and symptoms of autism usually emerge between the ages of 2 and 3, and they include:
- Need for repeated rituals
- Repetitive and compulsive behaviors
- Repetition of certain motor activities
- Head banging
- Hand or limb flapping
- Body rocking
- Feeling textures
- Teeth grinding
These symptoms also often appear in children with Asperger’s, which may explain why the Asperger’s diagnosis was disbanded and is now instead included in the ASD umbrella.
Common Asperger’s symptoms include:
- Awkward social skills — difficulty interacting with others and maintaining conversations
- Repetitive and eccentric behaviors — hand-wringing or finger-twisting
- Unordinary rituals or preoccupations — getting dressed in a specific order
- Communication troubles — avoid eye contact, don’t display expressions, neglect body language
- Limited range of interests — obsessive in nature
- Coordination difficulties — clumsy and awkward movements
- Highly skilled in one area — music or math, for example
The biggest difference is the way in which these disorders are perceived. While they’re extremely similar in many ways, Asperger’s patients typically function at a higher level than children with autism. In fact, it may be difficult to detect Asperger’s because children who have it often have normal intelligence and near-normal language development.
That’s in contrast to classical autism, which seems to show lower IQ and more difficulty with verbal communications.
However, children with both conditions have trouble expressing their feelings, don’t hold eye contact, and have trouble picking up on body language and gestures of others. They both display obsessive behaviors as well and can be sensitive to outside sense like sounds, clothing and even food. In fact, it can be so difficult to differentiate Asperger’s and high-functioning autism that it can be nearly impossible at times.
Natural Treatment for Asperger’s Symptoms
Individual and Group Therapy
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of therapeutic practice that helps a person to become more aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so he/she can view challenging situations more clearly, thereby responding to these triggers in a more effective way. This type of therapy helps people with Asperger’s shift the way they interpret situations, how they feel about challenging situations and how they respond to them.
With a therapist’s help, the patient is encouraged to challenge his/her beliefs and automatic thoughts through a variety of techniques. He/she may also practice exercises to use while dealing with a challenging situation, such as deep breathing, relaxation and internal dialogue. Family members can also get involved in order to help the patient with his/her therapy techniques when real-life situations arise.
A 2010 systematic review conducted at the University of California evaluated studies involving the treatment of anxiety in people with an autism spectrum disorder using cognitive behavioral therapy. Each study was analyzed and critically appraised before conclusions were determined. Researchers found that every study reported positive outcomes, suggesting that this type of therapy is an effective treatment for individuals with Asperger’s. (9)
2. Group Programs
Group programs can be helpful for working on social skills. They also serve as a support system to individuals with Asperger’s and their families. The Asperger/Autism Network, for instance, offers a comprehensive array of programs and services for the Asperger’s community. The programs offer support, social and activity groups for parents of children with Asperger’s, parents of teens with Asperger’s and adults with Asperger’s. They also hold online forums, conferences, seminars and workshops. These programs work to empower individuals with Asperger’s, and they build a sense of community. (10)
One type of group therapy is social skills group therapy, which is used to better prepare an individual to cope with social and interpersonal expectations. A review of research published in Psychiatry found that social skills group therapy can help children improve their greeting and play skills. Some studies showed that displaying these skills outside of the clinic where the therapy sessions were held was more difficult, but greeting skills improved significantly. The researchers concluded that social skills group therapy can be effective in teaching and reinforcing basic communication skills in the clinic setting, but generalization is more difficult to achieve for some patients. (11)
3. Speech and Language Therapy
Speech therapy may be helpful for children with communication difficulties. These difficulties are not how the children speak or pronounce words, but how they perceive the meaning of other people’s words and respond to them. A speech therapist helps children with Asperger’s understand what other people mean when they speak, and the children practice how to extract the meaning of other people’s speech, which is something that can be difficult for them to understand.
Speech therapy can also aid children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome by helping them to communicate their ideas clearly, practicing problem solving and working on organization.
4. Music Therapy
Using music to reinforce communication can be helpful for individuals with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Music is used to enhance social skills and communication development, and the positive effects on spoken and gestural communication have been noted in small trial studies. Clinical practices often pair music therapy with other interventions, such as group therapy. (12)
5. Occupational and Physical Therapy
Individuals with Asperger’s syndrome may use occupational therapy and physical therapy to maintain their highest level of function in activities of daily living, which includes dressing, bathing, grooming, eating and playing. Occupational and physical therapy can also focus on building work skills, which is important for young adults with Asperger’s who are interested in earning an income and maintaining a job. Play time is another important element of occupational therapy because it contributes to a healthy self-esteem and an ability to communicate with others. (13)
6. Vitamin B6/Magnesium
Vitamin B6 and magnesium have been used as a popular treatment for autism and mental health disorders for over 20 years. A 2006 study conducted in France involved 33 children with clinical symptoms of PDD or autism. The children were followed for at least six months. Another group of 36 children was used as the control group.
Researchers found that B6/magnesium supplementation improved PDD symptoms in 23 of 33 children with no adverse side effects — in addition, 23 of 33 experienced improved social reactions and 24 of 33 displayed improved communication. (14)
7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Polyunsaturated fatty acids, in particular omega-3 fatty acids, are crucial for brain development and cannot be manufactured in the body. Oral supplementation with essential fatty acids has become popular for children with developmental disorders, including those experiencing symptoms of ADHD and autism.
In 2007, a study conducted at the Department of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry in Vienna, Austria found that omega-3 fatty acids may be an effective treatment for children with autism, which may also treat Asperger’s symptoms — 1.5 grams a day for six weeks improved the symptoms of autism with no adverse side effects. (15)
Lifestyle and Diet
Yoga increases the sense of well-being and control; it also has the potential to decrease anxiety, reduce aggression and help individuals regulate their emotions. It’s a calm and comfortable atmosphere and allows participants to explore different sensory experiences.
Yoga also facilitates deeper inhaling and exhaling, which calms the nervous system and works as a natural stress reliever. Experiencing a group yoga class can also help people with Asperger’s make new friends and work on their communication skills.
9. Lavender Essential Oil
Individuals with Asperger’s are sometimes very sensitive to smells, so don’t push the use of essential oils if it makes the person uncomfortable. For those who are comfortable with the fragrance, diffuse five drops of lavender at home to create a calming and relaxing environment, or dilute two to three drops with coconut oil and apply to the wrists, bottoms of the feet and back of neck. (16)
10. Magnesium Foods
Magnesium-rich foods — such as spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, almonds, avocado, figs and bananas — can help fight anxiety and depression. They also increase the production of the antioxidant glutathione and improve nerve function. Making sure to eat at least three servings of vegetables a day can boost one’s daily nutrient intake and provides plenty of vitamins and minerals that may be able to relieve some Asperger’s symptoms.
Some research suggests that eliminating the proteins gluten (found in wheat, barley and eye) and casein protein (found in milk products), which can aggravate symptoms of Asperger’s because they act as a false opiate neuropeptide after being absorbed by a damaged or leaky intestinal lining. Some small studies have found improvements after eliminating these proteins, but it’s not clear if the improvements are due to eliminating lactose in children who are lactose intolerant or other changes that are related to the alternation in protein sources and food compositions nowadays. (17)
Conventional Treatment for Asperger’s Syndrome
If Asperger’s symptoms are present in a child, a doctor will begin an evaluation in order to make a diagnosis. The evaluation involves a complete medical history and physical and neurological exam. There are no specific tests that can detect Asperger’s syndrome, but many people with Asperger’s have coordination issues and low muscle tone.
The doctor may also use blood tests and X-rays to determine if there is another health or physical issue that is causing what seems like Asperger’s symptoms. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) criteria for Asperger’s specifies that the individual must have “severe and sustained impairment in social interaction, the development of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, and interests and activities that must cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”
According to Autism Society, early diagnosis is important as children with Asperger’s syndrome who are diagnosed and treated early in life have an increased chance of being successful in school and eventually living independently. Common conventional treatments include:
Neurofeedback, also called neurotherapy, is a brain-training method that uses real-time displays of brain activity to teach self-regulation of brain function. Sensors are place on the scalp to measure brain waves, which then produce a signal that can be used as feedback. The results are shown as a color-coded map on a computer screen that indicates areas of the brain where there is too much or too little brain-wave activity.
The goal is to teach patients to produce positive brain-wave patterns. The patient wears headgear that is similar to that worn while playing video games. Producing brain-wave activity in specific areas of the brain will show up on the screen for the patient to see. This type of therapy is commonly used on patients with ADHD as well.
A 2010 study published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback evaluated 150 clients with Asperger’s syndrome, and nine clients with autistic spectrum disorder over a 15-year period. Researchers were looking for a change in symptoms as a result of neurofeedback therapy. The client received 40–60 sessions of therapy, which was combined with training in metacognitive strategies relevant to social understanding, spatial reasoning, reading comprehension and math.
These strategies were only taught when the neurofeedback indicated that the client was relaxed, calm and focused. As a result of this type of therapy, significant improvements were found on measures of attention, core symptoms, achievement and intelligence. The average gain for the Full Scale IQ score was nine points, and the positive outcomes included decreased ADHD and Asperger’s symptoms. (18)
There are some potential side effects in neurofeedback. Repetitive overstimulation during treatment can trigger anxiety, agitation and panic attacks. If this were to happen, alterations to treatment would have to be made in order to alleviate these reactions. Of course, any treatment that is intended to alter brain waves can cause temporary side effects and should be used with great care by a qualified practitioner. If the treatments are handled too aggressively or with too much repetition involved, there can be negative side effects.
2. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
These medications are used to relieve anxiety and depression in individuals who display Asperger’s symptoms. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) ease depression by affecting neurotransmitters that communicate with brain cells. They block the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin to the brain, changing the balance of serotonin and boosting the individual’s mood. Some side effects of SSRIs include nausea, nervousness, dizziness, headaches, insomnia, vomiting and diarrhea.
Stimulants are used to increase alertness, attention and energy. They may also elevate heart rate and blood pressure. They’re commonly used to treat individuals with neurological disorders because they’re able to enhance the effects of chemicals in the brain.
Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic increase in stimulant prescriptions over the last two decades and people opt for prescriptions to stimulants such as Concerta and Adderall because they are perceived as safe and effective. But stimulant use may come with withdrawal symptoms after treatment, depression, disturbance of sleeping patterns and fatigue. They can also lead to feelings of hostility or paranoia. (19)
Root Causes of Asperger’s Symptoms
According to estimates for the U.s. and Canada, the range for Asperger’s syndrome cases range from one in every 250 children to one in every 10,000. Because the syndrome is recognized as a unique disorder, the exact number of people with the disorder is unknown.
Asperger’s symptoms are four to eight times more likely to develop in males than in females, and it’s usually first diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 6, as communicative and language skills are beginning to emerge. This is different than autistic disorder, which is usually apparent before the age of 3. (20)
Sometimes Asperger’s symptoms are confused with other behavioral issues, such as ADHD. In fact, many people are originally diagnosed with ADHD until it is realized that the symptoms stem from an inability to socialize properly, as opposed to an inability to focus.
Asperger’s Symptoms Takeaways
- Asperger’s symptoms affect anywhere from 31 million to 68 million people worldwide.
- Asperger’s is actually now classified under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder.
- The most common Asperger’s symptoms include: failure to develop friendships, inability to empathize, eccentric or repetitive behaviors, narrowed interest, and sticking to a routine or ritual.
- Asperger’s and autism have many of the same symptoms, however people with Asperger’s tend to have higher IQs and normal intelligence, near-normal language skills, and are more high-functioning.
- Natural treatments for Asperger’s symptoms include individual and group therapy, supplements, and lifestyle and diet changes, whereas conventional treatment involves neurofeedback and medications that often have adverse side effects.
- It’s easy to confuse Asperger’s with other disorders, so it’s important to diagnose early — early treatment can lead to better treatment and quicker development for those with Asperger’s.
Read Next: Why Autism Rates Are Rising
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