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Asperger's Syndrome: How Is It Different From Autism?
The May Institute

"Asperger's Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder named for Hans Asperger, a Viennese physician who described the condition in 1944," says Jane Carlson, Ph.D., clinical director of the May Center for Child Development in Braintree, Massachusetts, a school for children with autism and other special needs. "Many professionals consider Asperger's to be a mild form of autism. In fact, it was not formally recognized as a separate disorder from autism in this country until 1994, when it was included in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)."

Autism and Asperger's Syndrome are both categorized as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). Other PDDs include Rett's Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Asperger's, autism, and other PDDs occur in approximately one in 500 individuals.

Children with Asperger's, like those with autism, have difficulty with social interactions, have sensory impairments, and develop unusual repetitive behaviors. According to the Autism Society of America, what distinguishes Asperger's from autism is severity of the symptoms and differences in linguistic abilities.

In most cases, children with autism are also diagnosed with mental retardation in the moderate range (IQ 35-50), while children with Asperger's have average to above average intelligence. Children with autism seem to be aloof and uninterested in others; children with Asperger's usually want to interact with others, although they may be very awkward in social settings.

"Not only do children with Asperger's Syndrome exhibit normal language development, they often have impressive vocabularies," explains Carlson. "They may have difficulty, however, with subtleties in language such as irony and humor. Children with autism, on the other hand, experience delays in language development."

Another difference between the two conditions is that Asperger's Syndrome is usually recognized later than autism. Asperger's is commonly diagnosed between the ages of 5 and 9, while autism is usually diagnosed in the first three years of life. Asperger's is not as easily recognizable as autism, and many children with the syndrome are misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders (ADD and ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

"Most researchers agree that the sooner children with Asperger's and autism are diagnosed and begin intervention programs, the better," continues Carlson. "At this time, the best approach for the treatment of children with autism and Asperger's involves special educators, psychologists, and speech and occupational therapists. Although medications are sometimes used to manage problematic features of various conditions, there are currently no medications that effectively treat the core symptoms."

A mainstay of an effective intervention program is applied behavior analysis or ABA. In ABA, scientifically established principles of learning and behavior are combined to address the primary areas of concern in autism and Asperger's: communication, social development, learning, and behavior problems.

Carlson recommends that parents look for a program that provides direct consultation by senior clinicians, an experienced staff, and approaches, such as ABA, that are referenced in professional literature. "In addition," Carlson says, "families should strive to create a professional working relationship with educators and clinicians. Look for professionals who are knowledgeable, caring, and can work well with school administrators."

The May Institute offers early intervention services, school and home-based consultation, parent information, and federally funded research and education programs. May operates schools for children and adolescents with autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and other developmental disabilities in Arlington, Braintree, Chatham, and West Springfield, Mass., and in Freeport, Maine. For more information, contact the May Institute at 800-778-7601, or at www.mayinstitute.org.

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