Aspergers: Diagnosis and Clinical Features

The diagnosis of Aspergers requires the demonstration of qualitative impairments in social interaction and restricted patterns of interest, criteria which are identical to autism. In contrast to autism, there are no criteria in the cluster of language and communication symptoms, and onset criteria differ in that there should be no clinically significant delay in language acquisition, cognitive and self-help skills. Those symptoms result in significant impairment in social and occupational functioning. In some contrast to the social presentation in autism, children with Aspergers find themselves socially isolated, but are not usually withdrawn in the presence of others.

Typically, they approach others but in an inappropriate or eccentric fashion. For example, they may engage the interlocutor, usually an adult, in one-sided conversation characterized by long-winded, pedantic speech, about a favorite and often unusual and narrow topic. They may express interest in friendships and in meeting people, but their wishes are invariably thwarted by their awkward approaches and insensitivity to the other person's feelings, intentions, and non-literal and implied communications (e.g., signs of boredom, haste to leave, and need for privacy).

Chronically frustrated by their repeated failures to engage others and form friendships, some children with Aspergers develop symptoms of an anxiety or mood disorder that may require treatment, including medication.

They also may react inappropriately to, or fail to interpret the valence of the context of the affective interaction, often conveying a sense of insensitivity, formality, or disregard to the other person's emotional expressions.

They may be able to describe correctly, in a cognitive and often formalistic fashion, other people's emotions, expected intentions and social conventions; yet, they are unable to act upon this knowledge in an intuitive and spontaneous fashion, thus losing the tempo of the interaction.

Their poor intuition and lack of spontaneous adaptation are accompanied by marked reliance on formalistic rules of behavior and rigid social conventions. This presentation is largely responsible for the impression of social naiveté and behavioral rigidity that is so forcefully conveyed by those with Aspergers.

Although significant abnormalities of speech are not typical of children with Aspergers, there are at least three aspects of communication patterns that are of clinical interest:

1. The communication style of children with Aspergers is often characterized by marked verbosity. The youngster may talk incessantly, usually about a favorite subject, often in complete disregard to whether the listener might be interested, engaged, or attempting to interject a comment, or change the subject of conversation. Despite such long-winded monologues, the child may never come to a point or conclusion. Attempts by the interlocutor to elaborate on issues of content or logic, or to shift the interchange to related topics, are often unsuccessful.

2. Speech may often be tangential and circumstantial, conveying a sense of looseness of associations and incoherence. Even though in a very small number of cases this symptom may be an indicator of a possible thought disorder, the lack of contingency in speech is a result of the one-sided, egocentric conversational style (e.g., unrelenting monologues about the names, codes, and attributes of innumerable TV stations in the country), failure to provide the background for comments and to clearly demarcate changes in topic, and failure to suppress the vocal output accompanying internal thoughts.

3. Speech may be marked by poor prosody, although inflection and intonation may not be as rigid and monotonic as in autism. They often exhibit a constricted range of intonation patterns that is used with little regard to the communicative functioning of the utterance (e.g., assertions of fact, humorous remarks). Rate of speech may be unusual (e.g., too fast) or may lack in fluency (e.g., jerky speech), and there is often poor modulation of volume (e.g., voice is too loud despite physical proximity to the conversational partner). The latter feature may be particularly noticeable in the context of a lack of adjustment to the given social setting (e.g., in a library, in a noisy crowd).

Young people with Aspergers typically amass a large amount of factual information about a topic in a very intense fashion. The actual topic may change from time to time, but often dominates the content of social interchange. Frequently the entire family may be immersed in the subject for long periods of time. This behavior is peculiar in the sense that oftentimes extraordinary amounts of factual information are learned about very circumscribed topics (e.g., snakes, names of stars, TV guides, deep fat fryers, weather information, personal information on members of congress) without a genuine understanding of the broader phenomena involved. This symptom may not always be easily recognized in childhood since strong interests in certain topics, such as dinosaurs or fashionable fictional characters, are so ubiquitous. However, in both younger and older kids typically the special interests become more unusual and narrowly focused.

Children with Aspergers may have a history of delayed acquisition of motor skills such as pedaling a bike, catching a ball, opening jars, and climbing outdoor play equipment. They are often visibly awkward and poorly coordinated and may exhibited stilted or bouncy gait patterns and odd posture. Neuropsychologically, there is often a pattern of relative strengths in auditory and verbal skills and rote learning, and significant deficits in visual-motor and visual-perceptual skills and conceptual learning. Many people exhibit high levels of activity in early childhood, and, as noted, may develop anxiety and depression in adolescence and young adulthood.

My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns

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