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Think You Know the Difference between Autism and Asperger's? Think Again!

A Peak under the Umbrella

By Alaina Urbantke

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term used to categorize a variety of conditions, varying greatly in symptoms and levels of function.  With many possible diagnoses, it is important to differentiate among the variety of disorders under its classification.  The intent of this article is to examine two conditions, Asperger Syndrome and autism, in order to illuminate their characteristics.

Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, described the condition in 1944.  He initially called it “autistic psychopathy,” meaning a personality disorder with notable social isolation.  His work, published originally in German, was mostly unknown to the English-speaking world until 1981 when English physician Lorna Wing printed a series of case studies of children with comparable symptoms.  Her writings on “Asperger Syndrome” became broadly published and accessible.  In 1994, Asperger’s was put in the fourth addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-4).  In 2013, Asperger Syndrome along with other autistic subtypes was combined under the single diagnosis ASD in the fifth DSM (DSM-5).

Unaware of previous research into infantile autism, Asperger described four children with normal intellectual capacity but a marked lack of nonverbal communication skills. For example, they struggled with tone of voice, empathy, and tended towards formal, sometimes disjointed conversations. These children were also not withdrawn and showed more development.  He posited the genetic nature of the syndrome and that personality traits were dominantly male transmitted.

A year before Asperger’s research concerning the “little professors,” Leo Kanner reported 11 cases of what he called “autistic disturbances of affective contact.” He saw an “inability to relate” from early life and unusual responses to the environment. In the 1950s and 1960s, a common belief was onset caused by emotionally unresponsive parents.  This hypothesis was called “refrigerator mothers.”  Growing evidence suggested that autism was a brain disorder and was present in all countries, socioeconomic, and racial groups.

However, it was not until 1978 that its classification became more concrete.  Michael Rutter based his definition of autism on four criteria: “1) social delay and deviance, not just a function of mental retardation; 2) communication problems, again, not just a function of associated mental retardation; 3) unusual behaviors, such as stereotyped movements and mannerisms; and 4) onset before age 30 months.” His definition and growing knowledge of autism placed it in DSM-3 in 1980 under a new category of disorders.  They are called pervasive developmental disorders (PDD); the acronym is meant to reflect that autism and similar disorders affected multiple areas of the patient.

Please note the often-occurring word spectrum in association with autism relates to the multiple expressions it manifests in individuals.  Understanding this, perhaps the most significant difference between Asperger syndrome and autism is the association of the former with high function.  Recall Hans Asperger’s nickname for the four children in his study, little professors.  It is generally thought the syndrome belongs to the far right of the spectrum.  A four-year university, full-time job, and independent living are all viable options for those with Asperger’s.  However, there are still notable social difficulties that will need to be addressed.  Provided the individual is surrounded by understanding colleagues and friends, success is possible.  Interestingly, famous figures such as Mozart, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates may have had Asperger’s.  But, there have been no official diagnoses.

On the contrary, those with the lowest level of function are often “largely or entirely mute” and “make few social overtures.”  They may also be prone to self-harm, such as head banging or biting.  In extreme cases, they may even be physically dangerous to family and friends.  Daily care is needed in cases with a low functioning family member.

The reasonable conclusion drawn from the following examination of Asperger’s and “classic” autism is that there are more similarities than differences.  Recall the definition of spectrum in relation to these disorders.  It should also be noted that many other diseases may manifest in different forms yet bear the same name.  Here are some examples: there are two kinds of diabetes, types of malaria, and thousands of different flu viruses. Ultimately, manifestations of ASD and subsequent necessary action will differ by patient.

Works Cited

  1. "10 Famous People Who May Have Been on the Autism Spectrum." Kerry Magro. N.p., 30 May 2016. Web. 24 June 2017.
  2. Klin, Ami. "Autisim and Asperger syndrome: an overview." Revista Brasileira de Psiquitatria 28.1 (2006): 1-9. SciELO. Web. 13 June 2017.
  3. “What is Asperger Syndrome?" Autism Speaks. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2017.
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