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Asperger’s syndrome’s link to autism often baffles parents

Signs of Asperger’s syndrome

Characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome that a child might display include:

The most distinguishing symptom of Asperger’s is a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other.

Repetitive routines or rituals

Peculiarities in speech and language

Socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior

Inability to interact successfully with peers

Problems with nonverbal communication

Clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements

They may approach other people easily, but make normal conversation impossible by inappropriate or eccentric behavior or by wanting only to talk about their singular interest

History of developmental delays in motor skills such as pedaling a bike, catching a ball, or climbing outdoor play equipment

Source: National Institutes of Health,

Institute for Personal Development
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The main character in “Rain Man” who did not have direct eye contact, was monotone and who spoke unemotionally was a good example of someone with a syndrome that a parent may see in a child but cannot quite identify.

Institute for Personal Development psychiatrist Dr. Ronald Wuest sees it all the time. Asperger’s syndrome can present itself in those ways, he said. He has many Asperger’s patients, some in their 40s, who always knew something was wrong but never got a diagnosis. Patients with Asperger’s syndrome begin showing signs of the disorder in early childhood.

“When parents come in for the first time,” Wuest said, “They tell me something seems wrong with their child and they can’t pinpoint it. They don’t play with kids their own age or they play with kids who are younger or older than them ... Their play is not usually interactive with their playmates. It tends to be in parallel with them and not really interactive with them.”

As toddlers begin to get older, other behaviors that are not quite normal may begin showing. They may have a blank stare when talking to people, Wuest said.

“There is no social-emotional reciprocity ... no connection between him and you,” he said. “They may seem stiff and rigid and robotic and very monotone, very unemotional. You might notice a strange feeling that something’s not right.”

Link to autism

Asperger’s syndrome is a complex and mysterious neurological disorder linked to autism. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic savant named Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man” 21 years ago was a perfect example of someone with Asperger’s, Wuest said.

People with Asperger’s may be of average, low or high intelligence, and their verbal skills are normal, but they have problems with communicating and interacting with others. They also may have intense preoccupations with particular subjects or items.

The syndrome is usually placed on the higher-functioning end of the autism scale.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the autism spectrum is a group of disorders ranging from classic autism to pervasive developmental disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome. Those with any of the autism spectrum disorders are not as good with social interactions, nonverbal communications, and show repetitive behaviors with items of interest.

Unlike other conditions on the autism scale, however, those with Asperger’s syndrome usually have normal language skills.

“Asperger’s is a more subtle diagnosis than autism,” Wuest explained. “On the autistic spectrum, it’s on the milder side of autism.”

Diagnosis improves

More and more children are being diagnosed with Asperger’s, but many experts believe it’s not necessarily more common today, just better diagnosed.

“Asperger’s has been recognized for years, but those who had it were always just thought of as odd or strange or just different,” Wuest said. “It’s a developmental disorder that begins in infancy or early childhood ... It’s a neurological disorder, not a psychological problem, where they can’t process social and emotional information and can’t respond in an appropriate way.”

Those with Asperger’s may also have, as the character Raymond Babbitt did with the show “The People’s Court,” an intense preoccupation with certain subjects. There also may be pockets of genius or, conversely, some mental retardation.

“They may have a narrow range of interests and activities,” Wuest said, “and have to stick with their normal routines. It can be terribly upsetting to them to get Cheerios for breakfast, for example, instead of Special K.”

Someone with the syndrome may also have hoarding behavior, he said, and become upset if anyone tries to take away an object in the collection. “They can become irritable or even violent,” Wuest said.

There is no cure for Asperger’s, but Wuest said there are treatments.

“You’re not going to change the brain in any major way,” Wuest said regarding treatments, “but it can be influenced with behavioral changes or medication.”

Medications, for example, can help with irritability and violent tendencies and with some of the obsessive-compulsive behaviors and social anxiety, Wuest said.

A therapist may be able to help, as well, he said, and older children can benefit from social skills training, which can teach them such lessons as the importance of personal space.

“The earlier you start,” he said, “the better.”

Typically, though, Wuest said those with Asperger’s syndrome never really fully fit in with their peer group or in work situations unless their condition is relatively mild. They tend to do best in jobs that don’t involve a lot of interaction with others, he said.

Besides “Rain Man,” other movies about people with Asperger’s syndrome are “Adam,” which was given the Alfred P. Sloan prize at last year’s Sundance Festival for outstanding feature film focusing on science and technology, and the animated feature “Mary and Max.”

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