About Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism

Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder and is a condition at the upper end of what is known as the Autistic Spectrum.  The term Asperger’s Syndrome (AS from here on in) is often used interchangeably with high functioning autism (HFA) (although there is some debate as to whether AS and HFA are the same condition or separate); basis is often made upon whether the individual learnt to speak after the age of three (HFA) or before (AS).

Please note, AS is not a mental health condition or a learning difficulty.  Both the above can also be present but are not part of the official diagnosis.  It may be that dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or dyspraxia conditions are present, or that the person also has depression, these are not part of AS itself.

AS has the same three core characteristics as does autism.

  1. Communication difficulties
  2. Social interaction problems
  3. Trouble with imagination (such as imagining what will happen and dealing with change)

It is important to remember that although there are many common traits, every person with AS is an individual and some may struggle in one area of difficulty more than another and everyone is unique.  The person with AS should not be defined by their condition, nor do they suffer from it.

There are also other areas not included in the core characteristics above that are often present.  Senses are often heightened and there can be problems with emotional understanding, these are described below.

It is essential to be aware that there are many positive aspects to AS. Typically (not everyone as there are always external factors) people with AS are:

  • Punctual.
  • Honest.
  • Loyal.
  • Determined.
  • Dedicated (often knowledgeable in one particular subject area, which can be a positive trait with regard to employment.)
  • The need for things to be equal and fair.
  • Strong visual memory, particularly for past events and places and pictures.
  • Excellent long-term memory skills.  This can often be with a talent for remembering dates or factual information (such as lists, timetables and events that have happened to them and externally.
  • A good knowledge of the exact meaning of words, often using extraordinarily longer words than are required for the situation, language can be formal, this can be both advantageous (e.g. for English writing at school) and disadvantageous (communicating with friends or a person with AS can be overly pedantic).
  • Good at collecting things.
  • Strong abilities with computers, mathematics, art or music (please note these are only common and not defining of AS).
Theory of Mind

This a primary concept applicable to all people on the Autistic spectrum and pertains to the person on the spectrum not realising that other people have thoughts and opinions that are different to their own.  This is why it makes it harder to understand other people and decipher their intentions and feelings.  This can sometimes lead a person with AS to think that they are always right!!

Communication and Social Interaction

Nonverbal (body language and / or facial expressions may be misunderstood or misinterpreted).  A person may not be able to work out subtle hints when a person wishes to end a conversation,

The above means that a person with AS may not be able to pick up on another person being upset for example.

Eye contact can sometimes be too much (staring) or too little.

Sarcasm may be not understood as a person with AS can have the tendency to interpret things literally.  This can cause confusion when metaphors and idioms are used, imagine taking the phrase; “let’s toast the bride and groom” and you can see the situation!  Alternatively how about being told to “pull your socks up” at school” when the teacher may be implying an entirely different meaning and they wish you to put more effort into your work.

Tones of voice can often go unnoticed by a person with AS, thus if you say, “that was good”, when you in actual fact you mean “that was bad” it is the tone of voice that indicates this.

Intense concern of “fitting in”, concern of “ acting different” in public or “looking stupid” (perhaps disliking being looked at) as well as being very sensitive to criticism.

Not actually listening to what a person says to them, so that it needs to be repeated (or written down) so they can remember.

Emotions

It can be harder for a person with AS to express their emotions or understand what it is that they are feeling.  They may appear not to be upset by something when in reality they are.

There may be some problems in expressing their own emotions, for example laughing when crying could be more appropriate and vice-versa.

Emotions themselves may be hard to interpret both from the person with AS and of other people, such as being able to respond to a person that is upset, this does not come naturally to a person with AS.

Imagination

This does not imply that a person with AS does not have imagination, that is untrue.  Difficulties with imagination mean that it is hard to predict that outcome of something for example.

There is an intense need for routine and a dislike for change.  If there is a sudden change, for example you cannot meet then this can be upsetting for a person with AS.

Physical problems

Like all aspects mentioned above not all physical characteristics are present in everyone with AS.

  • Co-ordination difficulties, e.g. balancing.
  • Odd gait when walking or running, a person with AS may not swing their arms when walking, but hold them by their side.
  • “Messy” handwriting.
  • Difficulties with going up and down stairs (stairs may look like a long slope).
Sensitivity

Sounds, lights and smells may be perceived as unbearable, for example the sound of crockery or the buzz of an electric light (which may not even be heard by a person not on the spectrum).

In terms of light flashing lights can often cause a feeling of unpleasantness.

Sudden noises can be very frightening.

Nauseous feelings to certain smells.

Tactilely some fabrics may be extremely uncomfortable.

It may be that a person with AS will dislike touch from another person (even just shaking their hand), as it will really hurt them.

What causes AS?

This is an area of ongoing research and many theories are being investigated.

It is not caused by “bad upbringing”.

Brain scanning is proving to be a useful tool into the causes of AS and autism as there are thought to be significant difference in the brains in the people with AS compared to those who do not.  Genetics is also thought to be important.

Getting a diagnosis

ASGMA cannot provide diagnosis of AS.

If you think that you may have AS, then you need to contact your GP and ask for referral to a psychologist, outlining why you or someone you know you think has the condition.  It is not always easy to obtain an accurate diagnosis and you may be required to travel outside of Greater Manchester to another county in order to be diagnosed.

Diagnosis is improving and has done since the condition was first diagnosed in the 1990’s in the UK.

Can AS be cured?

No!

The simple answer is no.  This is because you can only cure disease and illness. AS is neither of these.

AS does not define a person and is simply part of the person himself or herself, it makes them who they are.

The best way to help a person with AS is to learn things from their point of view and to listen to them and to be patient.  Many aspects such as manners in social situations can easily be learned given time.

Finding More Information

What is Asperger Syndrome? – The National Autistic Society

High functioning autism and asperger syndrome: What’s the difference? – The National Autistic Society