Asperger's Syndrome: Separating Myth From Reality

In recent years, Asperger's syndrome has gained notoriety as a rare, yet sometimes socially debilitating, syndrome.

But despite recent attention, many remain unaware of the true nature of this unusual disorder.

To find out more, we talked to two experts who study Asperger's and deal with children who have the disorder.

Wendy Stone is professor of pediatrics at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, while Henry Roane is a specialist in the treatment of behaviors associated with autism and Asperger's at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at the Munroe-Meyer Institute in Omaha, Neb.

What Is Asperger's Syndrome?

Though its symptoms were first identified in 1944, Asperger's syndrome was not widely known until recently.

In short, the syndrome is a developmental disorder most often characterized by certain social deficiencies or "quirks." This often includes an unusual preoccupation with a particular subject, repetitive routines or rituals, peculiar speech patterns, and other behaviors that may make interacting with peers difficult.

"Basically, you get an individual who might have a real restricted repertoire of things they are interested in," Roane said, adding that those with Asperger's may attempt to engage in conversations with others that focus only on their particular area of interest to the exclusion of all other topics.

However, what separates this disorder from many others is the fact that in most cases, those with Asperger's have normal, or even above normal, intelligence.

For this and other reasons, the underpinnings of Asperger's remain a puzzle to researchers.

"Right now, the cause is largely unknown," Roane said.

But though the exact causes of Asperger's remain a mystery, studies suggest a genetic component to the disorder. Researchers are trying to determine the gene or genes responsible, and current evidence suggests that structural abnormalities in areas of the brain that control interaction and behavior may be to blame.

How Asperger's Is Diagnosed

The signs of Asperger's usually manifest by the time of a child's third birthday, though some children may exhibit symptoms as early as infancy. While children with Asperger's retain their early language skills, certain delays in motor development -- such as clumsiness or late commencement of crawling or walking -- are often the first signs of the disorder.

Conservative estimates put the prevalence of Asperger's at two out of every 10,000 children, and researchers have found that boys are three to four times more likely than girls to have the condition.

Interestingly, though the syndrome is most often diagnosed in children, a growing number of adults who seek medical help for depression and other mental health conditions are being diagnosed with Asperger's.

The Effects of Asperger's

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the underlying causes of the disorder, the effects that Asperger's can have on its young sufferers is no mystery.

"It is really hard for any child, who looks like other children but acts a little differently, to find their place in this world," Stone said. "That's what children with Asperger's face on a daily basis."

Common problems that confront children with Asperger's include social isolation and ridicule by their peers. Worse, these problems persist into adolescence and adulthood in many cases.

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