Asperger’s syndrome is a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) on the autism spectrum. If you understood that definition you probably already know a fair bit about Asperger’s syndrome and autism. If you’re still confused you’re certainly not alone: the exact nature of Asperger’s and its place on the autism spectrum is a matter of debate even amongst autism and Asperger’s syndrome experts.
What is a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD)
To understand what an Asperger’s diagnosis means you have to know a little about pervasive developmental disorders and the autism spectrum. A pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD, is a lifelong neurological disorder that impairs three key areas of development: social skills, language and communication, and behavior.
Different pervasive developmental disorders impair the three developmental areas to greater or lesser degrees depending on the PDD type. Asperger’s symptoms, for instance, cause less impairment than classic autism.
Pervasive developmental disorders are grouped together and referred to as autism spectrum disorders. The “autism spectrum” describes a wide range of PDDs whose symptoms all cause some degree of impairment in social skills, communication and behavior.
It’s common to visualize the autism spectrum as a straight line, with classic autism at one extreme and “milder” disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome and high functioning autism at the other extreme, closer to “normal” development.
Although an effective way to demonstrate the relationship between Asperger’s and other PDDs, a linear view of autism spectrum disorders oversimplifies issues. A wide range of symptoms and symptom severity occurs within every PDD, and one pervasive developmental disorder tends to blur into the next. There are no cut-and-dried diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Two people with Asperger’s syndrome can have significant differences in the severity and presentation of symptoms.
Asperger’s Syndrome and the Autism Spectrum
Asperger’s Syndrome is one of the “milder” autism spectrum disorders. Unlike classic autism, where the individual displays an almost complete removal or disinterest in society, most Aspies want to be social and make friends, but their impaired social development interferes with their ability to socialize “normally.” (Aspies, by the way, is the term some people with Asperger’s syndrome use to differentiate themselves from “normal” or “neurotypical” people).
Asperger’s syndrome does not impair communication as severely as classic autism. Many Asperger’s children have remarkable vocabularies for their age. Asperger’s effect on communication manifests in social situations. Difficulty reading non-verbal cues, tone of voice and a tendency to take things literally are all aspects of Asperger’s communication impairment.
Limited Interests and Asperger’s Syndrome
Restricted areas of interest are a common symptom of pervasive developmental disorders. In severe autism this may manifest as an overriding attachment to a specific object. Aspies tend to focus on an area of interest to the point of obsession. A child with Asperger’s may develop an interest in buses, for instance, and memorize every bus number and route in town. He or she may also be able to recite the makes and model yea of every bus in the fleet.
The restricted interests of people with Asperger’s are mixed blessings. Many Aspies channel their interests and specialized knowledge into their careers, and can be very successful. On the other hand an Aspie child may talk incessantly about, say, clocks, while lacking the social perceptiveness needed to spot when a listener is bored or frustrated.
As with so many PDDs, the causes of Asperger’s syndrome are unclear. A genetic component seems to exist, but environmental factors may also play a role. Asperger’s is more common in males than females, although exactly why gender plays a role in Asperger’s is unknown.