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Asperger's Syndrome and Autism

You've probably heard of autism, but what is Asperger's syndrome?

Potential Causes

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.

How would fetal hormone testing be used if parents could find out ahead of time about the possibility of Asperger's syndrome, and might parents consider the termination of a pregnancy based only on this indeterminate possibility?

"I'd certainly be very concerned if the test was used in that way," Baron-Cohen says. "Autism isn't necessarily a condition where quality of life is in any way decreased, especially when it comes to AS. These individuals -- if they are given the right support -- can lead a very valuable life."

Researchers can only speculate for now about how this link, if proven, might impact future treatments. "Some people think we might be able to intervene at the hormonal level," Baron-Cohen says, "by changing the hormones in the womb, but again this is ethically very complex." After all, a lot of people with AS want to be better understood and accepted by others, not treated or cured. "AS is not just a disability. People with AS might have an unusual memory for detail or an ability to focus on things for hours and hours," he says regarding the many positive and at times puzzling aspects of this condition.

Treatment and Diagnosis

One of the most important things to remember when talking about Asperger's syndrome is how different each case is, Newman says. "To hear that a person is autistic really gives you next to no information. The person's language abilities, their ability to interact with others, their behavioral patterns all vary greatly."

Treatment typically involves behavior modification and therapy, and sometimes medications for other co-existing mental health conditions. "The best treatment that is available is something called applied behavior analysis," Newman says. "The New York State Department of Health did a test for analyzing all of the available treatments, and they came to the conclusion that this is really the only form of treatment that had peer-reviewed data to strongly support its effectiveness."

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