Harry knows everything about the Star Wars movies who directed and starred in them, each key character’s family tree and even the different Lego sets available around the Star Wars theme.
At school, he tends to be quiet and solitary – unless he’s talking about Star Wars with his teacher – and has difficulty making friends his own age. On one hand he seems amazingly articulate and advanced, but on the other, he comes across as rude and unaware of his environment.
His mum, Gayle, knew something wasn’t quite right ‘she’d been worried since he was about three’ but because Harry was such a good talker, everyone told her he was just ‘quirky’.
True, he is quirky, but he also has been diagnosed with having Asperger’s Syndrome.
What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
An autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s is a psychological disorder characterised by troubles with social interaction, misunderstanding social cues and misinterpreting language. At the same time, those with Asperger’s Syndrome can have highly developed language skills and can often communicate at great length on their favourite topics. While it’s hard to find information on how prevalent the condition is, it’s believed to affect as many as one in 250 children.
Asperger Services Australia describes those with the syndrome as looking at the world differently from everybody else. They find the rest of us strange and baffling. Why don’t people say what they mean? Why do people say so many things they don’t mean?
The condition was named after Dr Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician who originally described the syndrome in 1944. Recently, the Asperger’s was classified as an autistic spectrum disorder.
What are the symptoms of Asperger’s?
Asperger’s can be difficult to diagnose because children with the syndrome, like Harry, can show very advanced language skills, particularly when talking about a favourite topic.
Here are some of the symptoms parents should look out for:
- Difficulties forming relationships with peers
- Lack of ability to pick up on social cues
- Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings and emotions
- Problems adjusting behaviour to fit in with others
- Conversation can tend to be one-sided (all their way)
- Literal interpretation of language
- Repetitious language
- Limited use of body gestures
- Have restricted or obsessive interests that make them seem like ‘walking encyclopaedias’ about particular topics
- Can be fascinated by shapes like hexagons and octagons
- A preference for rules and routines
According to one of the fact sheets available through Asperger Services Australia, a child with Asperger’s is usually a loner ‘who never quite fits in and is sometimes referred to as if a little professor or like a child just landed on earth’.
Who’s at risk?
Statistics show that there are three to four boys to every girl with Asperger’s syndrome. At one stage, the World Health Organization claimed Asperger’s was eight times more common among boys than girls. However, many now believe this apparent ‘gender bias’ may be due to the fact that girls with Asperger’s are better at learning and copying social skills and are so more able to disguise their lack of skill.
A genetic link has also been suggested ‘that is, Asperger’s can run in the family. And some claim that if a family has one child with Asperger’s they are five times more likely to have another child diagnosed with the same condition.
What’s the treatment for Asperger’s?
Asperger’s is not curable, as such, but early treatment and intervention can greatly help the child and carers.
As behaviours and problems associated with Asperger’s can differ widely from child to child, there isn’t a typical or prescribed treatment regimen. However, children may benefit from the following forms of treatment:
- parent education and training
- specialised educational interventions/programs for the child
- social skills training
- language therapy
- behavioural/cognitive therapy, particularly for older children
The difference between Asperger’s and autism
While Asperger’s Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder, and sometimes called a high-functioning form of autism, the two conditions have distinct differences.
Children with Asperger’s do not experience the same language or cognitive deficits as children with autism and for this reason are able to interact more with the people around them and demonstrate interest or knowledge in particular subjects.
While children with autism often (but not always) have some form of intellectual disability, children with Asperger’s Syndrome do not, by definition, have significant intellectual problems.
What to do if you’re concerned
If you think your child may have Asperger’s, the important thing is to get help and support as soon as possible. The sooner children receive some form of treatment, the better the outcomes.
The professionals who can diagnose an autism spectrum disorder include paediatricians, psychologists and psychiatrists. But start with your GP who will probably need to provide you with a referral.
For diagnosis, health professionals often refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), which is a tool that breaks down the signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders into categories. It also states how many of these must be present in each category to confirm a diagnosis in children over three years of age.
This article was written by Fiona Baker for Kidspot, New Zealand’s best family health resource. Sources include Asperger Services Australia and Raising Children Network.