Up until 2013, Asperger’s syndrome and autism were considered different conditions. For years, these conditions were diagnosed separately, but they now fall under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder.
Both conditions have relatively similar symptoms. People suffering from either of the two exhibit similar communication and behavioral patterns, which makes the distinction between the two diagnoses fuzzy. The American Psychiatric Association therefore has since made a change to the manual practitioners use to diagnose mental health conditions. In the new edition, Asperger’s syndrome is incorporated into the diagnosis of ASD.
This article explores the differences between the two conditions. We’ll also look at the criteria used for each diagnosis. But before we get to that, let’s check out each condition separately.
Autism disorder is a complex, lifelong developmental condition. It impacts how you perceive and socialize with others. This leads to social interaction, communication, self-regulation, and relationship problems.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what autism is, let’s have a look at Asperger’s.
When Asperger’s syndrome was added to the DSM-4, it was described as having the same characteristics of autism, but with one key exception: People diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome didn’t have delays in language and communication, as was seen with autistic patients.
As such, many medical professionals believed that Asperger’s was a form of “high-functioning” autism. Typically, this meant that a person’s development and language skills were considered “normal” according to neurotypical standards.
But as mentioned, the publication of DSM-5 in 2013 saw Asperger’s syndrome folded into Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
So, what’s the difference between the two?
The Differences Between Autism and Asperger’s
Both conditions are now listed under the umbrella of ASD. However, Asperger’s has milder symptoms. Let’s see how they compare.
Speech and Language
The major difference between autism and Asperger’s is that the latter has milder symptoms and a general absence of language delays. In most cases, children that were diagnosed with Asperger’s have good language skills. However, they may find it challenging to fit in with their peers.
On the other hand, children with autism typically exhibit difficulty in speech and communication. In most cases, they have difficulty understanding what someone is saying to them. And in some cases, they might also have trouble picking up non-verbal cues like facial expressions and hand gestures.
Autistic children also frequently exhibit repetitive language. They might also have narrow topics of interest. For example, they may only be interested in cars and thus, only talk about cars.
Unlike in autism, children diagnosed with Asperger’s cannot have a clinically significant cognitive delay. They generally have average or above-average intelligence. Autistic children, on the other hand, may have significant cognitive delays.
Age of Onset
On average, autistic children are diagnosed at four. However, individuals classified under Asperger’s may not show any symptoms until they reach teenage or adulthood.
This is mainly because children with Asperger’s don’t have lower IQs. They also don’t exhibit any language delays. As such, you may not realize that your child has a developmental delay until they start engaging in more social interactions.
And how are these two conditions diagnosed? Read on to find out.
Criteria for Each Diagnosis
There are currently no specific tests that can diagnose Asperger’s. However, Asperger’s was commonly diagnosed in childhood. This is because the possibility of an individual fully reaching adulthood without an Asperger’s diagnosis was somewhat limited but not impossible.
Here is a summary of the diagnosis criteria for Asperger’s in children from the previous version of DSM.
- Severe impairment in social interactions
- Repetitive behaviors or movements
- Difficulty with verbal or nonverbal communication
- Lack of interest with others or taking part in activities
- Few to no long-term relationships with peers
- Immense interest in specific aspects of objects
- Strict adherence to ritual behaviors or routine
- Difficulty in maintaining jobs, relationships, or other aspects of daily life
- Showing little to no response to emotional or social experiences
Like with Asperger’s, there are currently no standard diagnostic criteria for autism in adults. But those are in development. In the meantime, medical professionals diagnose adults with autism through a series of in-person interactions and observations. They also consider any other symptoms that the individual is experiencing.
If you think you have ASD, you should consult your family doctor. They will perform an evaluation to ensure there isn’t any underlying medical condition affecting your behavior. They might then refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a more in-depth assessment.
The medical professional may want to talk to you about any issues you have regarding emotions, communication, range of interests, behavioral patterns, and more. You’ll also have to answer questions about your childhood. And in some cases, they might ask to speak to your parents or any other older family member to get a perspective about your lifelong behavior changes.
Your doctor might determine that you didn’t display symptoms of autism as a child but instead began experiencing them as a teen or adult. In this case, they might evaluate you for other possible effective or mental health disorders.
Here is a summary of the diagnosis criteria for autism.
- Difficulty with everyday conversations
- Having difficulty understanding or responding to social cues
- Sharing interests and emotions less often than peers
- Having delayed language or speech skills
- Speaking in atypical ways, for example, in a singsong voice
- Having difficulty understanding other people’s emotions or facial expressions
- Doing repetitive actions such as rocking and flapping
- Experiencing intellectual delays
- Becoming angry or overwhelmed with new situations
- Having trouble understanding or developing relationships
- Sensitivity to certain stimulants like bright lights or loud noises
- Becoming intensely interested in certain topics
- Having a significant need for a predictable order and structure
The Bottom Line
Since 2013, medical professionals have considered Asperger’s as part of a broader classification of ASD. That being said, a person with an Asperger’s diagnosis might not necessarily identify as having ASD.
Learning the difference between the two is helpful. But taking action is even more important. If you or your child is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should seek guidance as early as possible. Early intervention, such as ABA therapy, can provide valuable opportunities to learn practical independent life skills.