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's 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's 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's syndrome obsess over unusual things, and communication can be a great challenge. People with Asperger's 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).
Rett syndrome is a rare, severe, "girls only" form of autism. It's usually discovered in the first two years of life, and a child's diagnosis with Rett syndrome can feel overwhelming. Although there's no cure, early identification and treatment may help girls and families who are affected by Rett syndrome.
Asperger's 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 3 years of life, according to the diagnostic manual.
What Makes Asperger's Syndrome Different
There are two main differences between classic autism and Asperger's 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. People with Asperger's 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," Baron-Cohen says. People with Asperger's syndrome might be more aware of what they are not achieving socially.
There are about nine males with Asperger's 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's 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.