You might remember Dustin Hoffman's powerful portrayal of an adult with autism in the movie Rain
Man. Even if he gave you some idea of what it's like to be autistic, you
probably have never heard about the many forms autism takes -- or about Asperger syndrome (AS), one of
two main types of autism that often goes
unrecognized until late in childhood, or is even missed through adulthood.
Like with classic autism, children with Asperger syndrome -- which is
getting recognized more frequently later in life now -- often find themselves
disconnected from others, seemingly in their own world. While researchers have
yet to understand what causes AS, there is likely a genetic component. Some
folks with Asperger syndrome obsess over unusual things, and communication can
be a great challenge. People with Asperger syndrome are at times especially
talented in a certain area, even brilliant but that's not typical. "It
depends who you talk to, but it's a fairly low number of cases," says Bobby
Newman, PhD, BCBA, the president-elect for the Association for the Science in
Autism Treatment (ASAT).
A person who has autism often has trouble communicating and interacting with other people; his or her interests, activities, and play skills may be limited. Occupational therapy may help people with autism develop these skills at home and in school.
Asperger syndrome is less about having extraordinary talents, and more about
having difficulties with three main areas that Newman says are required for you
to get diagnosed with any form of autism: socialization, communication, and
behavior range. The symptoms of autism would also have to be present, even if
missed, within the first three years of life, according to the diagnostic
What Makes Asperger Syndrome Different
There are two main differences between classic autism and Asperger syndrome,
according to Simon Baron-Cohen, the co-director of the Autism Research Centre
in Cambridge, England. First, folks with autism tend to have a language delay
or start talking later in life, and they also have a below average IQ. Whereas
people with Asperger syndrome tend to have an average or above average IQ, and
they start speaking within the expected age range.
"I think depression may be more of a
problem with AS. People with classic autism may be much more focused on their
own private world, and unaware of what they are missing out on," says
Baron-Cohen. Meanwhile, people with Asperger syndrome might be more aware of
what they are not achieving socially.
There are about nine males with Asperger syndrome for every one female with
the disorder. As a result, Baron-Cohen and colleagues are conducting ongoing
research about the potential connection between fetal testosterone levels and
Asperger syndrome. "There are a whole set of factors that suggest that this
hormone might play a role in AS," he says. Yet if what has been referred to
as "excessive maleness" pans out, there will be many unanswered ethical
questions regarding just how the findings could impact the treatment and
diagnoses of people with autism.