There’s a good chance you know at least one person with autism, which is now the most well-publicized pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) there is. (1) There’s been an alarming rise in autism rates over the past 20–30 years, leading to a growing body of research and improvements in treatment development.
But did you know that an estimated 31 million people around the world deal with Asperger’s, a similar condition that get’s much less publicity? Some experts believe the prevalence of Asperger’s may even be much higher, around 68 million worldwide. (1)
Asperger’s is a developmental disorder that 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is socially awkward he or she has Asperger’s syndrome; there are many reasons why a child may be shy and socially withdrawn. Still, experts encourage parents to learn the signs and symptoms of Asperger’s so they can monitor if their child is developing appropriately.
Below we’ll take a look at what Asperger’s syndrome entails and identify the most common Asperger’s symptoms. Once diagnosed, can be Asperger’s be treated? There is no cure for Asperger’s syndrome, but there are natural treatments and remedies that have been shown to be beneficial— similar to autism natural treatments.
There are a number of therapy programs that are in place for individuals with Asperger’s symptoms, including cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy. People with Asperger’s can also focus on calming and confidence-boosting activities such as yoga and music therapy. (2)
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 to 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 life that Asperger’s will be diagnosed. Many adults receive a diagnosis only after seeking help for related issues, such as depression or anxiety. (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, which is used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders (the DSM is now in its 5th edition). (4)
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.
6 Common Asperger’s Symptoms
Common Asperger’s symptoms can 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
- Trouble communicating — avoid eye contact, not displaying expressions, neglect body language
- Limited range of interests — obsessive in nature
- Coordination difficulties — clumsy and awkward movements
- Being highly skilled in one area — music or math, for example
Below are more details about some of the most common Asperger’s symptoms:
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 and participating in group activities may be hard for people with Asperger’s. Most people with Asperger’s appear to want to connect with their peers, but aren’t comfortable with these types of social engagements.
A lack of eye contact may also make people with Asperger’s seem unengaged in a conversation. It may seem that 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, but not with strangers. (5) It may seem like they are simply very shy, but the difference is that they also display other signs of being socially withdrawn.
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 can learn the accepted social behaviors and responses. Still, although he/she may react appropriately in the moment, he/she may still 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 misunderstand humor or not pick up on subtleties 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. Difficulty Speaking and 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.
People with Asperger’s usually have good language skills, but they use language in a different way than most other people. Their speaking 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, such as laughing or crying easily and at inappropriate times. They can also have motor skill delays, coming across as awkward or clumsy. (6)
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 typically 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, learning a great deal of information and facts that they memorize and can repeat. (7)
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 and make them feel anxious.
6. Tics and Behavioral Abnormalities
Those 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. (8, 9)
Asperger’s Symptoms vs. Autism Symptoms
As mentioned above, there is a lot of overlap in Asperger’s symptoms and autism symptoms. The most obvious signs and symptoms of autism usually emerge between the ages of 2 and 3, and they include: (10)
- 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 Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) umbrella.
The biggest difference is these two conditions 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 those with autism. In fact, it may be difficult to detect Asperger’s, especially in children, because those who have it often have normal intelligence and near-normal language development.
While this topic is still controversial, when Asperger’s is compared to autism, those with autism typically seem to have more difficulty with verbal communications and sometimes a lower IQ.
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.
1. Individual and Group Therapy (Including) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of therapeutic approach 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 choose to 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 relaxation exercises that can be calming when faced with challenging situation, such as deep breathing exercises and using internal dialogue techniques. Family members can also get involved by joining therapy sessions 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. (11)
2. Group “Social Skills” Programs
Group social skills interventions (GSSIs) are a commonly offered treatment for children with Asperger’s or high functioning autism. They 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 goal of group programs is to offer support and an environment where social skills can be improved. These are open to parents of children with Asperger’s, parents of teens with Asperger’s and adults with Asperger’s.
Online forums, conferences, seminars and workshops are also available online to help with social-skill building. These programs work to empower individuals with Asperger’s, and they build a sense of community.
Group therapy is sometimes called “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 still 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 in general is more difficult to achieve for some patients. (12)
One meta-analysis found that GSSIs helped to improve social communication and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. The GSSIs that had the most impact included parents in the groups and were of greater duration and/or intensity. (13)
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. (14)
Speech therapy can also aid children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome by helping them to communicate their ideas more clearly, which can prevent arguments and misunderstandings, thereby reducing frustration/anger. Finally, speech therapy is beneficial for 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.. 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. (15)
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.
6. Yoga & Other Relaxation Exercises
Studies suggest that yoga benefits include increasing one’s sense of well-being and control; it also has the potential to decrease anxiety, reduce aggression and help individuals regulate their emotions.Additionally, yoga 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. The key is for yoga to be practiced in a calm and comfortable atmosphere that allows participants with Asperger’s to explore different sensory experiences.
One study that tested the effects of an Integrated Approach to Yoga Therapy module that was applied to Autism Spectrum Disorders over a period of two academic years found that the program resulted in significant improvements in imitation and other skills, and in behavior at home and family relationships. The researchers hypothesize that guided imitation of therapist body positions stimulated mirror neuron activation, resulting in an improved sense of self in the children with ASD. (17)
7. Dietary Changes (Including Increasing 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) can helps, as both can aggravate symptoms of Asperger’s because they act as a false opiate neuropeptides 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. (18)
8. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Foods & Supplements
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. Omega 3 foods include wild-caught fish (like salmon, sardines, halibut and mackerel), cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, and walnuts and flaxseeds (in smaller amounts).
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, suggesting they may also help treat Asperger’s symptoms . A dose of 1.5 grams per day for six weeks improved the symptoms of autism with no adverse side effects. (19)
9. Supplements (Including 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. (20)
10. Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender oil has a variety of therapeutic and curative properties. It helps induce relaxation, and studies have shown that it may be an effective treatment of several neurological disorders.
Individuals with Asperger’s are sometimes very sensitive to smells, so it’s important not to 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. (21)
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 that a doctor may be able to recognize.
Doctora 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, a type of biofeedback therapy that is 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. (22)
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.
Antipsychotics affect neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) that allow communication between nerve cells. Antipsychotics are most commonly used to help treat patients with schizophrenia and related disorders.
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. (23)
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. (24)
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 is actually now classified under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder. Asperger’s symptoms affect anywhere from 31 million to 68 million people worldwide.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
8 natural and conventional treatments for Asperger’s symptoms include:
- Individual and group therapy
- Support groups
- Music therapy
- Physical therapy
- Essential oils
- Lifestyle changes like dietary improvement and supplements
- Use of neuro-feedback and medications