Asperger’s Characteristics To Watch For In Your Child
Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder that falls under the autism spectrum. It’s on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum and the symptoms can range from mild to severe. The syndrome has been recognized in Europe as a medical diagnosis for nearly 60 years, but it has only been recognized in the US as a medical diagnosis since 1994.
Children who are affected by Asperger’s are impacted in a variety of ways, they all have some degree of difficulty with social interactions and exhibit a limited range of interests and/or engage in repetitive behaviors. Additionally, their motor development can be delayed, which can lead to uncoordinated movements and clumsiness.
Being that it is an autism spectrum disorder, the signs and symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome can vary widely. One person may exhibit minimal signs, such as minor difficulty with responding appropriately in social situations, and another person may exhibit several, more severe signs and symptoms, such as difficulty with processing sensory stimuli and being, what appears to be, obsessed with certain topics/objects.
It is estimated that 1 in 500 people have this mental development disorder, or .2% of the general population. Given the high incidence, it is important to have a firm understanding of Asperger’s syndrome.
It’s important to understand that when children do display any signs and symptoms of Asperger’s having them assessed by a professional is crucial to their well-being and development. Additionally, parents should understand that while a diagnosis of Asperger’s does mean that certain accommodations will need to be made for their child, it is not a tragic diagnosis. Countless adults lead successful lives with Asperger’s.
There isn’t a set test used to diagnose Asperger’s syndrome. Instead, there are several “checklists” that are used to determine if a person fits the “definition” of Asperger’s. A trained clinician who has extensive experience diagnosing the condition will be able to provide you with the best diagnosis.
The first step in diagnosing Asperger’s syndrome is to perform a thorough assessment of the child, including a development history and an observation. The information gathered will allow the medical professional to accurately diagnose the child and provide effective treatment options.
Often, children with Asperger’s require occupational therapy, need assistance with developing social interaction skills, and need help learning different coping mechanisms.
Is there a Cure?
There isn’t a cure for Asperger’s, meaning that if your child is diagnosed with it, he will have it for life. However, with that said, there are many different therapies and methods that can be used to assist your child in his development, and that can help him learn how to cope with his Asperger’s.
For example, if a child is having difficulties with motor development, occupational therapy can help him develop his muscles and learn how to use gross and fine motor skills. Likewise, someone who has difficulty with social skills could benefit from taking social skills classes.
Can They Succeed?
Absolutely! There are many highly successful adults who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. In fact, some people suspect that many prominent figures in history may have had Asperger’s, including:
- Thomas Edison
- Albert Einstein
- Thomas Jefferson
- Vincent van Gogh
If your child is diagnosed with Asperger’s, there is no reason to panic. With the proper assistance and with understanding, you and your child can work together to come up with effective ways to handle the symptoms that are associated with the disorder.
Routines Are Vital
Children with Asperger’s crave routine. For example, they may need to eat the same breakfast, at the same time, every day. Or, they may need to have a very specific schedule to follow at school. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Rainman,” in which the lead character, Raymond has Aspeger’s, his routine is the same every day and it must be followed.
The bed always has to be in the same spot, bedtime, lunch and even watching television shows has to occur at the same time every day.
If the routine is broken, a meltdown may occur. Again, in the movie “Rainman,” Raymond melted down when he couldn’t watch his favorite TV show at the time he always watched it.
Though the reason for needing a routine is not clear, it is thought to be a comfort mechanism. By knowing what to expect and when to expect it, Asperger’s kids may be less anxious and may be able to better cope witht he world around them.
If there is a need to break from routine, it is best to start preparing the child a few days ahead of time. Doing so will allow the child to understand that there is going to be a change, and will let him have a better time accepting the change.
How Can You Help Your Child?
If your child is diagnosed with Asperger’s, the best way to help her is to gain as much understanding about the disorder as possible.
Do your research; meet with professionals who have experience dealing with Asperger’s; come up with solutions that will help your child – and you – successfully cope with the symptoms. Most of all, love and accept your child. People with Asperger’s may have a difficult time processing social cues, but they certainly have feelings, and they need to feel loved and accepted, just like anybody else.
Another symptom associated with Asperger’s is body tics.
Tics are rapid, sudden, uncontrollable urges to move certain parts of the body. Some common tics include arm flapping , rocking back and forth, foot tapping, or humming. More severe tics may include hitting oneself, pulling hair, jumping up and down, touching other people and pulling on clothing.
Because tics are involuntary, they are difficult to control; and, because they can be seen by others, they may make the Asperger’s child seem “weird.”
Currently, it is unclear why people with Asperger’s exhibit these tics; however, it is thought to be a result of the way the child is processing his or her emotions. For example, when an Asperger’s child is stressed, anxious or tired, his tics may act up because they may comfort him.
However, tics may also be a response to positive emotions, such as anticipation and excitement. The good news is that tics seem to subside when the child becomes more calm and the child usually feels a sense of relief when they are over.
Meltdowns are not uncommon for children with Asperger’s. These meltdowns can occur for a variety of reasons, from being emotionally overwhelmed to experiencing a break in the normal routine.
It is believed that these tantrums are a result of the stress and anxiety that Asperger’s children often experience. When they are exposed to a stressor, they experience a variety of emotions, including:
- Feeling out of control
- Emotional vulnerability
- A hard time predicting outcomes
Because the Asperger’s child may not know how to handle these emotions, when exposed to a stressor, the result is often an emotional meltdown.
Meltdowns can range from mild to severe. A child may insist on doing things his way, or he may have a tantrum. The tantrum may lead to physical violence toward himself or someone else, screaming and yelling, extreme rage, crying, or causing damage to items within the child’s reach.
The movie “Rainman” is another excellent example of how smart people with Asperger’s are. The main character, Raymond, who had Asperger’s, had an exceptional rote memory and appeared to be brilliant. He was able to recite facts and conduct calculations at the drop of a hat.
Because children with Asperger’s become fixated on items or topics, they tend to become masters of those topics. As a result, they often have an exceptional memory. For example, if a child with Asperger’s becomes very interested in numbers, he may become a mathematical prodigy because he spends so much time focusing on numbers and mathematical equations.
The same is true for any topic that an Asperger’s child becomes fixated on; bugs, reptiles, cars, and so forth.
Do note, however, that while the child may be extremely intelligent in certain areas, he may be lacking in other areas. Why? – Because he may not vest as much interest in other topics, which means that he may not retain as much information about other topics.
Kids with Asperger’s syndrome tend to be completely fixated on one or a few things. They find something that interests them and become completely preoccupied on it. They can focus on the things that interest them for hours on end, and talk about them incessantly.
For example, if a child is interested in cars, he may talk about cars non-stop, research them fully, play with them constantly, and aspire to work on real cars.
While all chilren can certainly become fixated on certain objects and topics, if you notice that your child’s fixation seems to be lasting for an exceptionally long period of time (several years,) and that she doesn’t display any interest in other objects and topics, it could be a sign of Asperger’s.
Lack of Empathy
Children with Asperger’s tend to have a lack of empathy. It is difficult for them to understand when other people are sad, mad, frustrated, or happy. They find it difficult to relate to other people’s emotions.
Why do people with Asperger’s often exhibit a lack of empathy? Put simply, it has to do with the very definition of the word. Empathy is comprised of two important characteristics: 1) an ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes; 2) being able to imagine what another person is feeling about something, and then wanting to care about those feelings.
Because people with Asperger’s have a difficult time seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, it can be difficult for them to understand how to be empathetic. For this reason, children with Asperger’s are often thought to be “socially awkward” because it can be difficult for them to relate to other people.
Often referred to as “little professor” speech, children with Asperger’s tend to have a verbose, pedantic style of speech. They often have advanced verbal skills and speak in a more formal manner than their “typically developing” peers.
Like so many other characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, the reason why these children speak so formally is not completely understood. It is believed, however, to be associated with their fixation on certain topics. If the child focuses on language, he may develop a large vocabulary and use words that his typically developing peers may not use.
Minimal Eye Contact
A tell-tale sign of Asperger’s Syndrome is an inability to make eye contact.
Though the exact reason children with Asperger’s syndrome have difficulty making eye contact (no, it’s not because they are just being rude,) new research suggests that it could be because the way their brains process visual information.
A recent study found that children on the spectrum displayed activity over a larger area of the brain’s cortex when an image was place in their periphery visual field (side vision,) compared with when the same image was placed in the middle of their visual field. The exact opposite was true for children who did not have Asperger’s.
What does this mean? It means that Asperger’s kids may simply not react to or see images that are in front of them as they do to images that are in their periphery vision. For that reason, they may not make direct eye contact because they are possibly looking away to get a better view of what is in front of them.
Hard to Read Social Cues
Because children with Asperger’s have a difficult time making eye contact and they lack empathy, they have a hard time reading social cues.
Since Asperger’s kids have a difficult time understanding inferential reasoning skills, like humor and implied meaning, they are often confused by the ever-changing landscape that occurs with social interactions.
For example, a peer may use the phrase “you’re killing me” to mean that you are really making me laugh, or you are frustrating me; however, because the Asperger’s child has a difficult time with inferential reasoning, he may not understand that the phrase is just that – a phrase.
Instead, the Asperger’s child may interpret the literal meaning of the phrase and think that they typically-developing child means that the Asperger’s child is, quite literally, killing the other person.
As a result, a child may engage in a one-sided conversation, not understanding that someone else may have something to contribute to the conversation. This difficulty with social cues can cause children with Asperger’s to become isolated from their peers.
Delay in Motor Development
Kids with Asperger’s are often delayed in gross and fine motor development. This means that they are seldom athletic, they are often clumsy, they may have a difficult time holing a pencil properly, catching a ball, riding a bike, climbing, swinging or doing any other physical task that requires coordination and balance.
Asperger’s kids also commonly exhibit hyptonia, a generalized muscular weakness that impacts posture, movement, strength and coordination.
It is not clear why kids with Asperger’s syndrome have difficulty with their motor skills; however, a recent study suggests that it could be because some of their reflexes do not develop at the right time, if at all. Because of this delayed motor skill development, Asperger’s kids often have difficulty completing tasks that their typically-developing peers have mastered.
With the help of an occupational therapist, you and your child can learn techniques that will improve issues with motor skill development.
Because Asperger’s is a neurological disorder, the brain may not be able to properly process sensory information. As a result, children with Asperger’s may become over-stimulated by certain sensations.
For example, a child may have a meltdown when she hears loud noises, feels a certain texture, or sees bright colors.
Why does this happen? Because the part of the brain that processes sensory stimluation may be impacted by Asperger’s syndrome. For this reason, kids with Aspgerer’s may not be able to properly process sensory stimuli. While a loud noise may make a typically developing child cover his ears, it could be downright scary, overwhelming and cause severe anxiety in a child with Asperger’s.
Likewise, feeling a scratchy fabric or a label on a shirt could be extremely painful because the child’s brain does not know how to properly process such a stimuli.
Resources: Kids Health, ASPEN, Autistic Not Weird, AANE.org