What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

What is Asperger’s syndrome?

by Elaine Nicholson, CEO, Action for Asperger’s

It was first described by Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger, whose work was first published in English in 1991.Hans Asperger was a Viennese physician who first brought this condition, now diagnostically named after him, to the attention of the psychiatric community in 1944, and it was based on with work with a small group of children whose social peculiarities and isolation he studied.

He noted that although these children, mainly boys, had certain characteristics that were akin to autism, these particular children had average cognitive and language development.

Lorna Wing, in 1981, resurrected his work, based on the thirty five individuals she had been working with whose ages ranged from five to thirty-five years. Today the condition is widely known as a diagnosis, but my experience is that few professionals working in associated fields really understand Asperger’s syndrome; for example, school teachers, despite knowing the term Asperger’s syndrome, in my experience still castigate Asperger’s children for not giving them eye contact, a physical task Asperger’s children find exceptionally difficult to do.

Instead they perceive an Asperger’s individual to be like ‘Rain Man’, the character Dustin Hoffman played in the film of the same name, and fail to notice that the eccentric chap who is working quietly and dexterously in the corner of their office or laboratory has Asperger’s syndrome.

Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome on the whole have normal, if not slightly above-average intelligence and usually experience normal early language acquisition, although this was not the case for my colleague’s son as you will read below. Their main areas of difficulty lie in (a) they show difficulties with social interactions and (b) non-verbal communications. They may also show obsessive or repetitive behaviours.

The child aged 0-4

A preschool aged child might show difficulty understanding the basics of social interaction. He or she may have difficulty picking up social cues. He will want to make friends but will struggle to do so, and indeed, if he manages to do so, he will struggle to keep those friendships. In my own life experience, this was the period when my own son’s Asperger’s was hardly noticeable, although, regards a colleague’s AS son, it was the time when I noticed the first signs: He would babble rather than speak properly and I recall once taking him to see a magician, and while the other children sat on the floor governed by their own sense of self-containment, in his excitement he was jumping up and down, thereby spoiling the view for some. The magician had to physically sit him down, although thankfully, he did this in a cajoling way.

The child aged 5-13

The child will have poor pragmatic language skills. He will have problems with using the right tone and volume when speaking. He may stand too close for the other person’s comfort or make poor eye contact. He may have a tic; in the case of my son his tic was a physical movement that looked like he was adjusting his pants under his trousers and he did this about 30-50 times a day. This tic lasted 2 years approximately. He/she may have trouble understanding age-appropriate humour and understanding slang will be difficult: Clichés also represent a difficult area of learning during this age group, although once a cliché has been learned its meaning is usually not forgotten. Many have poor motor skills, are clumsy and have visual-perceptual difficulties. Learning difficulties are either subtle or severe but nonetheless are there.

The child may develop an obsession with a particular subject matter and bore others with his repetitive talk about the subject, even when other children have clearly signaled that they are no longer interested in what he has to say. Over the years my son’s obsessive interests have included (and I name them in order of first to current) Thomas the Tank Engine; Pokemon (and this still remains a favourite today) and, as puberty beckons, he has got hooked on the internet and in particular the on-line game ‘World of Warcraft’.

Some have difficulties tolerating changes in their daily lives and so change has to be introduced gradually. If I take my son out on a shopping trip, I have to be clear about our shopping plan: “First we shall go to Tesco’s and then we shall call in to Boots” – woe betide if I should call in to the Co-op without warning! It has to be clear in his head exactly what the plan is, lest panic and fear set in.

The Adolescent

This is perhaps the most difficult time for an Asperger’s individual when social demands become more complex and social nuances become important. As they enter adolescence, they become acutely aware of their differences. This may lead to depression and anxiety.

The depression, if not treated, may persist into adulthood. They do not know who wants to be their friend and may try to date the most popular girl in school which will lead to rejection. Social naiveté will mean that others may try to take advantage of their apparent good nature. They are exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation and peer pressure which in turn could lead to oppositional or aggressive behaviour.


The tide is starting to turn insofar as adults with Asperger’s are concerned as more and more Asperger’s people and their neurotypical families begin to see more clearly what it is that is different about Bob, Bill or Ted. Close family and friends begin to see that it is not arrogance or narcissistic personality disorder, but is actually an autistic syndrome requiring definition and recognition.

By adulthood, the Asperger’s person has learned how to compensate for his neurotypical shortfalls. He has seen relationships played out on television and in real life and as a consequence is able to conduct a courtship via the life scripts that he has learned and which by this time are now firmly entrenched in his head. He may marry, hold a job and have children and this he will do using his intelligence, rather than his intuition. However, this may not be true for all Asperger’s individuals, for some may live an isolated existence as a result of their severe social difficulties and occupational functioning, although as the level of support and understanding by outside agencies and families increases, this particular faction, I dearly hope, will in the future represent only a small minority. Individuals with Asperger’s often excel in jobs that require technical skill and which require little reliance on social graces and etiquette.

So, in summation…

Asperger’s Syndrome: is a differing neurological state which is thought to fall within the spectrum of autism, and possesses enough features to warrant its own label. Characterised by subtle impairments in three areas of development: social interaction, social imagination, social communication, Asperger’s Syndrome affects people in the average to above-average ability range.

Please note that while all references in this text are to “he”, equally, references can apply to “she” also.