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Understanding Asperger's syndrome

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By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

What causes AS?

The cause of autism and AS has not been established, nor has the reason for the startling rise in autism cases.

"What we do know about autistic disorder, and this would include all the categories, is that it has an extremely high heritability rate," notes Dr. King.

Studies have shown that there is a greatly increased chance of having a second child with autism if the first sibling has it. In fact, the chances are about one in 15 that the second child will also have autism. Many parents of AS children have indicated the existence of undiagnosed relatives with similar traits.

Other researchers suggest that toxins in the environment might be the culprit. Most likely, it could be a combination of both factors.

How do children with Asperger's perform in school?

Even though they are often very intelligent, and may even show exceptional talent in certain areas, their inability to understand common verbal and non-verbal cues is a major obstacle to fitting in. AS kids are frequently branded as "odd," both by peers and by adults who don't understand the neurological deficit involved.

Unlike most autistic children, AS children want to have friends. They just don't know how to go about getting and keeping them. Patty Romanowski Bashe, co-author of The OASIS Guide to Asperger Syndrome,, and a mother of an AS child, explains, "These kids are not unconnected. They're not unemotional. They just don't have an innate ability to pick up cues from the environment that you and I have. They have a hard time reading voice tones. They have a hard time reading facial expressions. They have a hard time with language that's not concrete. They tend to be more comfortable in what's concrete, what's logical." For example, Bashe remembers saying to her son, "I've told you this until I'm blue in the face." To which he replied with confusion, "But Mom, your face isn't blue."

Asperger's kids can be trained how to form relationships and interact in social situations. "The kids can learn social skills, but you have to teach it like you would teach math," Bashe says.

Common traits of AS children

In addition to having to deal with social deficits, AS kids tend to be:

  • Excessively attached to routines and many have obsessive interests
  • Extremely sensitive to sensory input, to the extent that they become agitated by noisy rooms or intense smells and tastes
  • Easily upset by sounds or sights that would go unnoticed by most people
  • Longwinded about their favorite interests and topics of conversation

To complicate matters, about half of AS children also have Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Bashe notes, "They also have a high rate of co-morbidity for things like anxiety disorder, which makes perfect sense when you consider that they have a hard time understanding what's going on with the people around them. So that complicates the picture a lot, too."

Is there a treatment for Asperger's sydrome?

There is no cure for AS. There are, however, many interventions and behavior modifications that can yield positive results. Currently, the treatments include:

  • Individual psychotherapy to help deal with depression, anxiety and/or the inability to handle emotions
  • Parental education
  • Behavioral modification techniques
  • Trainings in acquiring social skills
  • Learning techniques for educational success
  • Drugs for hyperactivity, irritability, aggression, compulsions, and anxiety

Comments from readers

"My son is 15 he was first diagnosed with Sensory Prossesing Dysfunction when he was four. He also had NOS's in communication dysfunction, ADHD and Anxiety Disorder. When we moved to our current area during his second grade year he had an IEP and Speech and OT services. His current district decided since he was doing so well that he no longer needed services. Not fully understanding my rights as a parent I let them bully me into signing off on his IEP. Big mistake, I have fought for years no to get his services reinstated. When puberty hit his sensory integration and anxiety levels went into overload and he started getting in trouble, due to high anxiety. The school kept on wanting to label him ED, I knew he wasn't ED. Bottom line is he is a smart kid who needs to be accepted, and the school district does not have a program for these kids. -Frustrated in CA "
"Dear Parkville, Fl., Look up Twice gifted site. Has letters from US Dept. Ed. stating that special ed. services are to be given and not denied to child if disabled and gifted the same as if just labeled disabled. Good luck It would be nice if the schools didn't fight against helping these bright children. especially in light of Chardon, OH. What a waste... Did anyone in school really try to help that gifted child before it was to late? From going to graduate two years early to killing others and destroying his own bright future.... Wish US school system would get it's act together. Too many extremely bright and gifted students are not taught the essential coping, social and life skills they need to succeed in life. "
"I would like to know WHY everyone thinks that Aspergers kids DON'T MAKE EYE CONTACT?!! These kids do make eye contact. They ARE affectionate! Helllooo!! Wake up people!! STOP generalizing! "
"This article is TRULY a GOD-send! Thank you! "
"To bj Thomas look up section 504 every school has one and has to help and give you info on it its for students that are not diagnosed yet but can still give them special needs help untill they are if the school tries to say they dont have one they are lying mother of a son with Aspergers "
"As a 74 yr old Aspi I feel somehow cheated that I never knew why I was different. How different could life have been? Still believe AS cause is a brain function shortfall that prevents listening, when thinking. My father was and daughter is an Aspi. "
"Alright so my 5 yr. old with AS is not ready for a general kindergarden class after 9 months of preschool, but after observing a special ed class of K-1 in MAY, she's been doing this stuff since she was 2!! where do I put her????"
"aaaah haaa... got to laugh, cause this is so true. it only took 2 years to convince my family that there really was something going on. And I knew from the time he was an infant that there was something wrong. I figured it out when he was 5. Now, he's gotten help after I went to prison (15 months incarceration) and he was in family care. He'll be back with me as soon as I have housing and have found a school for him in San Francisco. California and SF have more options and resources for us both to start fresh. My Point is...? everytime I read something about AS I confirm what I've always known. Loved the information!!"
"I have a 17yr old son who has been diagnosed with AS. I also have a 8yr old daughter with AS. All together I have five children, of which, four have been diagnosed with ADD. This may be a stupid question, but nonetheless, one that I feel the need to ask, but are these two conditions that are hereditary? "
"To the poster of 10/27- It is my opinion that you are enabling your child's behavior. Teaching your children that they do not have to function in the mainstream because they are disabled makes the disability a crutch. My also highly intelligent Aspie ADHD son with sensory issues has learned, and it has resulted in a higher-functioning mainstream child- that he does have something different about him that means he has to work HARDER and accept MORE than other kids who are not bothered by smells and the itchies and what-have-you. But if you are going to live, you must learn to deal with the good and the bad, what you like and what you don't. Skip how he 'feels' and concentrate on what HE is doing and what HE is capable of. If he CAN do it he SHOULD do it and since he's so clever, he should be able to outperform his peers. Oh, and do you really think you should give a teenager one drug to stay awake and another to sleep? How much exercise is this child getting? I bet if you ask! him to run three miles after school he'll sleep like a baby. I mean no insult, but I think the person who needs the assistance here is Mom. You're giving in and teaching your son to do the same. "
"To the 12/27 poster... it may be a dysgraphic disorder (a writing disorder)that confounds the child you mentioned. My son is Asperger's and found writing letters difficult on many levels- one, lack of strong fine motor controls (writing numbers tend to be less complicated), a sense of perfection- 'why bother if it I KNOW I can't do it in such a way that OTHER people understand?', issues with spatial perception (sideways letter S, not being able to visual an imaginary line, etc). Success has required a LOT of OT but we're functioning at grade level now- in first grade but has had OT since age 3.5 yrs... so it's been a LONG time and a LOT of work. I'm sure it's harder for older children. Please consider suggesting having this child tested. "
"If you are having problems getting what your child NEEDS with the public schools. Get an advocate! I went in to our meetings without the advocate and did not get anywhere. As soon as I had my advocate with us they gave us everything my son needed. I believe that is the key to getting what your child needs. "
"To the person of 10/27/2009: There are a few things you might consider. First, if your child is at one new school now, and you're already thinking of uprooting your family to move him to another one, how is this going to help his anxiety? Or your other children? Or your household, which you said was already in chaos? I don't know that overall, changing schools is a good idea. As Brer Rabbit said, you can't run away from your troubles. Second, you're considering changing schools because he's gifted. But I think it's more important that he's also panicking. I would focus on his emotional health at this time and not his intellectual capabilities. His brain and talents will not atrophy if you let him take some time off from school till you get the panic attacks under control. Last, you wrote, 'I've considered home-schooling-but have 4 other kids and my home and life are just too chaotic. ' You said you have a chaotic home life. I saw a psychologist about my child's an! xiety attacks and was told first thing to make sure I was not exhibiting undue stress and that the house was functioning smoothly because children pick up cues from their environments. If your house is chaotic, how do you expect your child to not have anxiety issues? I think getting your house under some kind of control would be the first step. There are some good tips at"
"I have a 12 year old boy thet I teach at my workplace. He cannot write any word but he is able to do mathematics. I don't know what is wrong with him but I have a reason to believe its a certain disorder Because he has been to and is currently enrolled in one of the best schools in the country. Please reply."
"I have a 13 year old son w/ PPD-NOS, anxiety/mood disorder and ADD. He has a gifted profile with an IQ of 143. He is extremely creative, with a passion for digital animation, movie-making and recently Greek Mythology. He also writes beautiful poetry and is an extremely kind and empathetic individual. He has always been an anxious child, but at the end of the year started having panic attacks when falling behind in school. He is at a new school this year and has missed so much class time due to anxiety and panic attacks that I fear he won't be able to progress. His doctor from the Anxiety clinic feels it's in his best interest to 'tough it out' and have him face his fears. When discussing a different academic setting, I've been told that the 'grass isn't greener' and that as long as this new school (small, private) is working with us to stick it out. He's loaded up now with meds: Prozac, Concerta and Ativan with Trazedone at night to try to get him to sleep. Does any! one have any suggestions? I was considering a move to Roeper in Birmingham, MI which is supposed to be geared toward the gifted child. I've considered home-schooling-but have 4 other kids and my home and life are just too chaotic. "
"Hello. i am the parent of a recently diagnosed 6 year old with aspergers. His school evaluated him for an IEP last year, and said he did not qualify. How can get them to put him under an IEP if they say there is no academic need for one?"
"Hello, I am a parent of a child with Aspergers. I am currently looking for a high school for him to attend. He will be in the ninth grade. He was currently enrolled in a charter school since kindergarten, and adapted very well. Ikinow he needs more support for high school and in need of some desperate help. If ther is anyone out there with suggestions. Please let me know.I reside in Southfield. Thanking you in advance. "
"My daughter was suspected to have Asberger's in the second grade when we lived in the Fort Drum, NY area. Then when we moved that year to the Fort Bragg area the doctor's and psychiatrist said she only had seperation anxiety from her dad being deployed. Even once I took her to the ER for saying no one in school understands and wrote she wanted to die in school. The ER doctor would not give her a psychiatric test and sent us on our way saying there's nothing wrong with her everyone is hung up on labels. I finally, after years of misdiagnosis, ISS, punishments in schools, bullied and mistreated, I finally found a good team at Scott and White in Temple and a helpful staff at Harker Heights elementary school in Texas. As of last month she has her IEP for Asberger's. The problem is she's 11 and because she fell throught the systems cracks we are much further behind. It has to be very hard on the all inclusive teacher because i know how demanding it is even when my daughter ! and I are one on one. Although the school district does what then can I think a national awareness and further education of Asberger's and it's symptoms is way past overdue. My daughter can not tolerate a full day of public school and would learn better in a much smaller, less stimutlating environment. She has been known to hide under stairways when either afraid of the bullies making fun of her or when it all gets too much. My heart bleeds for her each day I send her to school even though the staff is doing all they can. As for private schools.. piff..everyone I contaced nationwide apologized but they were not equiped to handle a child with Asberger's. The few that are specialized are boarding and way too expensive for the average Joe family. I'm sorry public school is just too stimulating for Asberger's children (at least mine). They do not have enough Asberger children to justify a special class. They only fund one Autistic specialists per schoold district. The only real positive word of mouth for Asberger's schools I have heard is the Wilmington, NC schools supposedly are great with our Aspies. I wanted to go try but my husband is stationed here in Texas and doesn't forsee another PCS (move). I pray for strentgh to each of us as parents. I pray for the world to become better aware that they don't know what they are missing by misdiagnosing, mistreating, punishing Aspies just because the look perfectly normal yet when you least expect a surpise reaction, ecpect it. There is a long list of famous extrodinary induviduals that went undiagnosed with Asberger's symptoms. Reference check: Famous Asberger's Syndrome people, you may be surpised. "
"Do not believe what florida schools in Brevard County tell you. They do NOT provide support services (such as para support). You must fight tooth & nail for services, and they will most likely retest your child & tell you he isn't even ASD. They will then label him EBD. They did it to our son, with the diagnosis of PDD, later on to become Aspergers & it has been a nightmare & still is today. My advice to you, would be not to relocate to Florida schools for any kids in the spectrum. Friendly advice...if you come you will be like many of the families here who already suffer tremendously, when having to educate their children with ASD."
"My family may possibly re-locate to the Melbourne,Fl area and am researching schools. My 12 yr old son (diagnosed with PDD-nos......behavior matches description of Aspergers syndrome). He is presently part of a full inclusion program at a public middle school (5th grade). He attends all classes, activities,and lunch/recess with regular-ed students, however; he does have a para or shadow with him for assistance with staying ' on task'. I am looking for guidance as to what schools might best meet his needs and offer much support. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated! Thanks, Melanie Burke Madisonville, La."
"Dear GreatSchools: I looked at this site for general school information for my 9 year old, 3rd grade son. After reading the AS section, describing over and over my sons actions and behaviors, and reading others postings I actually cried from relief. This is the clearest, most concise presentation I've run across in years and I cannot thank you enough. I have been fighting the school system to provide educational help as he seems to excel in math but has difficulty comprehend written or verbal directives that don't literally specify what is required. This means his math is at an 8th grade level while his reading interpretation and comprehension is about 1st grade - he can spell and read words but doesn't comprehend them when put together unless it's literal. I am told he's so good at math he can't be learning disabled therefore doesn't qualify for special reading help. We have social interaction issues as well, as much as he loves making and having friends, there's the classic difficulties there as well. In the midst of trying to get the school system on my side of this fight, I have no sound advise for anyone at this point other than to say thanks to all posters and to this site for giving me renewed hope; and sometimes, that means the difference between giving up and going on. sincerely, bj thomas "
"I would like some information on a colledge and career that my daugter can persue her goals in animation illistration . I donnot mean it casually either, She is also a writter , she has already wrtten two childrens books and illistrated them. She was excepted in moore colledge of Art and Design. she attended there since she was nine years old in the young artist work shop. She was excepted with a 4.o gpa and a Dean Scholarship, After enrolling unpon in moore faced with liberal arts and 8 classes it left her overwhelmed and depleated emotionally and mentally deranged. Now she is in aart career school, and the demands are 10 percent less stressful then moore.I am begging for some imformation that would help her to continue her goals in recieving her degree in art. Also I am looking forward to seeing her restoraton of wanting to live an not want to die I don not mean suiside either. She is truly a wonderful person."
"Hello: I am a mother of a lovely and great kid diagnosed as gifted with asperger. His name is Jake and he is 6 years old. As a kid with asperger it is very hard to him to understand social behaviors and espress himself properly. I am just feeling that my son's school is not capable to understand and deal with my son issues. He is getting more frustated ,anxious,and depressed just thinking that as soon he does something wrong{for us,not for him} he is going to be out of the classroom and send him to the office.He is in a gifted program but he is also asperger and he is being judge it like the other kids.We need help! I don't want that my son turns in a unhappy , depressed and nervous kid just because the school is not treat him and understanding properly. He is the sweetest boy and veery smart .His school is Riverglades Elementary in Parkland,FL and i need to find the perfect place for my son, where he can feel safe ,understanded and motivate to learn. att. Diana Ocasio"
"I am really glad I found this site, it has alot of information in just a few pages. Being thegrandparent of an AS child it gave me infomation on a few places to go to get help for myself so that I can help him. I think it is very important to help the caregiver the skills to help our kids succeed in life. I had no idea what to do to make his life better and I know that I am not alone in this. So thank you for posting this information it is so very important."
"I work as a one on one in a New Hampshire School district. (BACKGROUND) I have a son on the Spectrum w/ an IEP (High Functioning), he attends a private school for children with Alternative Educational needs. I also have a daughter with a 504 (due to cancer). I have had experience on both sides of the 'TEAM'. I do NOT have my BA Degree, but do have 3 years Formal Education in Elementary Ed and Psych. I DO have Graduate Level Certification in ASD and have studied under some of the finest Professionals in the country. I love what I do but as a 'Tutor' noone ever asks my perspective on things. This concerns me as... We are the folks down in the trenches, often keeping the other students from badgering and laughing at the AS and ASD kids. We are the ones that see the best and the worst and work with your children everyday. We are the ones that try to implement the 'EXPERTS' plan. (in our district the plan can change in a week). The 'EXPERTS' that spend 15- 30 minutes Assessing your childs behavior are not there for the 'Melt downs' when their Plan doesn't work.. If you are pleased with your childs tutor ask that they be involved with the 'TEAM' discussions. It is very difficult to service AS and ASD children and to allow them to act like children, for example allowing them to blurt out an answer that they know and just can't other 'Typical' children do when we are forced to hold them to a higher standard than we hold our 'regular' students. I encourage schools to hire people with experience and eduaction in the field of AS and ASD and to ask and cons! ider their thoughts and oppinions. I encourage Parents to ask for the tutors input. WE ARE THE SECOND most important Player on the TEAM, next to you. You are the voice that they need and we can help , if we are asked. Best wishes to all of you that are struggling. FYI - There is an OPRAH website that Jenny Mc Carthy and several other high profile moms are invovled with.Google away and get some help from each other. Don't stand for being intimidated or being called 'crazy'... BE the VOICE in this misunderstood and very REAL Disorder. "
"My son is 12 and started Jr. high this year.We have only known about his AS for about 1 and half years. He has always been an 'A' student but this year has been full of what appears to be laziness. He has improved so much in his social setting but has suffered in his grades and he does'nt seem to care. Its hard to know what is kid stuff that just needs a firm hand and what is AS stuff that needs help.I think we need a school in north Fort Worth, Texas that can help children like my Son. If there is such a school please inform me. We are pretty new at this."
"I want to offer hope to your readers with a shot of reality. Autism is very different for each person but there is a baseline and/or many similarities among AS. My son's cognitive reasoning for MOST things will not go beyond age 7, BUT he has a college level vocabulary; has difficulty knowing 'which' cartoon is 'real'; and plays the piano with full compositions by hearing them. This is a talent he started a year ago and has since played professionally. His understanding in a few things is now at age 11 and 3/4. He will learn, by habit and being told answers, what is correct. He wants to talk with everyone but it is about HIM. Chris' great progress was due to putting him in a smaller, special school with much less chaos and more one-to-one attention.IEP suggestion: won't work with you, find another school and report it to the Board of Education and your local Senators. Know what is possible; accept what can't be changed (with your child); find the talents and make the skil! ls direct the job or contribution that your child will make in life; if something you need does not exist, create it; and above all, be thankful that your child has you and you have your child as your teacher (and they will teach you much};for your sanity, enjoy life to the fullest. Chris is almost 18 and I learn something every day! I hope this helps someone."
"We are currently in the process of relocating to Detroit, MI from South Africa and have a 7 year old mildly apergers son. Could anyone please recommend schools that might be suitable, preferably mainstream, as we have a 12 year old unaffected daughter and would ideally prefer to place them together if possible. With thanks "
"I have a 28-year-old Aspie son that was diagnosed about one year ago. He was in mainstream school all his life but had social difficulty for most of it. My wife and I felt that he always just needed to grow a little older and most problems would be eliminated. After graduating from college, he was not able to find employment. He went back to school and obtained a Master Degree but still found no employment. Therefore, we encouraged him to go back to school and get a teaching certificate. After receiving his certificate, he was not even able to get an interview to teach (they say they need teachers all the time). This left him feeling totally lost and he became more angry and emotional. We finally had to take him to see someone that diagnosed him with AS. He did gain employment but is under-employed (has very little wages and no benefits). Being under-employed is a common problem with AS. We help him a little when he needs it and is now living in an apartment and trying to ta! ke care of himself. I feel that we will never eliminate all the problems of AS but we can understand it and dial with it better. "
"I live in Copperas Cove, Texas, services here are just no there. My husband is military so we do not always have athe chance to be where a good school is. I do however have a chance to move in the next few months. I am looking for a school that will offer my son what he needs and a price I can afford. My advice for parents comming to Texas, it is a hard fight here, one not often won. "
"I live in Rochester, NY and have a 12 yr old Aspie. I homeschooled him until 10 yrs old and then put him in PS. The school is great! They have him mainstreamed with lots of extra help!!! I couldn't have asked for a better district. BUT! you have to keep after the school and keep in contact with all the teachers to ensure that your child is continueing to do well no matter what is in the IEP. My best advice is to have patience and understanding with your child and don't back down to the school when getting things your child needs in his IEP or 504 plan. all in all haveing an Aspie as my child is amazingly wonderful!"
"These are great and informative articles; whether or not parents have a child with these conditions, it is interesting to read about the conditions on this website."
"My son was diagnosed with Asperger's in Kindergarten. We have been very fortunate to have a teacher that recognized the signs and a school that jumped on it right away. Along with Speech therapy, he also receives Occupational Therapy for his handwriting and daily living skills. Thank you for the keen eye and quick help."
"Great article and comments. My 8 year old daughter has Asperger's. She was diagnosed at almost 5 years of age. We moved to TX from FL and she is getting A LOT of wonderful help at school! She is fully mainstreamed into 2nd grade has a 'buddy' of the day to help her out. I am amazed at what our little country school is doing for her every single day! She also is in her third year of dance classes and I'm signing her up for Brownies. Putting her around 'regular' kids has been the best thing for her. When she was 2 or 3 years old I'd have never imagined all her progress!"
"I have a 12yrs old son with AS. I knew something was different by the time he was 3. I tried getting him tested and everyone just passed the buck. Finally, when he was 7 I pushed the school into getting him tested.The testing experience was a mix of emotions. I was thankful to finally get a diag. but, sadden by news. Now, I can proudly say my son is doing fine. I've really been working with the school and we have developed a program that works for him. My advice is learn your rights and be your childs voice. Get involved in the IEPs, make suggestions and ask for an autism inclusion specialist every school district should have access to one. They have great ideas on how to adapt the lessons to meet your childs needs"
"Hello, I am moving from Maine to Massachusetts and would like to know if anyone is able to tell me if there are any schools in the Boston area that specialize in teaching Asperger's syndrome children? I know that there are programs within public schools in the Newton area that have programs as part of their special ed curriculum. Is there any resource that rates/ranks or outlines public schools with specialized programs? Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. "
"My son is 16 and I wonder if he may have a mild form of AS. He makes friends easily but tends to miss social cues that someone is offended or angry. His grades are very good and all his teachers like him, but his organization skills are horrible. His handwriting is small and sloppy. He tends to be very forgetful and is always losing things. He keeps himself neat and clean, but is very sloppy and careless with school papers and important documents. He is all thumbs when it comes to tools and mechanical dexterity, yet he excels in sports. He also tends to get fixated on something and can't get it out of his head, and he can't stand still without rocking. He also has certain ticks he occassionally does uncontiously with his hands. When he was two, he was obsessed with flags. By three he knew every state flag, and then learned every national flag in the United Nations. We got him miniature sets of each from a Rand McNally store. I worry that we may have neglected addressing his ! special need. Any thoughts or comments? THX"