Autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s syndrome have long been lumped together, although they have different names. Both are developmental disorders that affect the way in which a child relates to the world. Recently, psychiatric experts made their connection official by declaring that Asperger’s is a type of autism.
The declaration has proven to be controversial and has generated a lot of discussion. Now, new research is uncovering important differences between autism and Asperger’s. The results are helping the critics prove their point: Asperger’s needs to be kept as a separate disorder from those of the autism spectrum.
Asperger’s and the Autism Spectrum
Autism is described as a spectrum of disorders because there is so much variation in the severity of symptoms. Children who are on the spectrum may be very functional, or they may have trouble doing anything on their own. The symptoms include difficulty communicating and relating to others, problems with language and behavioral issues. The behaviors characteristic of autism include repeating movements, craving routines and rituals, becoming focused on details, and being sensitive to sounds, lights, or touching.
Asperger’s syndrome is also a developmental disorder and has long been considered a milder form of autism. Children with Asperger’s have awkward social skills and struggle to relate to their peers. They often obsess over certain narrow subjects or focus on certain topics. They fail to get social cues and normal humor and are sometimes clumsy or uncoordinated.
Neither autism nor Asperger’s have cures, but they can be treated. Therapy, especially when started at a young age, can help these children learn to change their behaviors and to develop better communication, social and language skills.
The symptoms of Asperger’s are very similar to those of autism, but less severe. For this reason, it has been classified together with autism and is thought by many to be at the mild end of the autism spectrum. The connection has even been made official. The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the guide that most professionals use to make diagnoses, classifieds Asperger’s as a part of the autism spectrum.
Some experts in the field of autism and Asperger’s, however, do not agree with the connection. New research is showing that they may be right to disagree. Researchers at Boston’s Children Hospital used electroencephalography, or EEGs, to look at the electrical activity in the brains of children with autism, with Asperger’s, and with neither disorder. They looked at approximately 1,000 children in total.
The EEGs gave researchers a look at how the children’s brains were signaling between different areas. There are distinct connections between areas of the brain in children with autism that differ from those that have no developmental disorder. The study authors did find some similarities between the kids with autism and those with Asperger’s: both had weaker connections in the area of the brain associated with language.
More importantly there were significant differences. Certain connections in the brains of Asperger’s children were stronger than in the kids with autism and the kids with no disorder. The results clearly show that while autism and Asperger’s are similar, there are important differences. Although the research is preliminary and needs to be repeated, the researchers believe the evidence so far is very clear.
Separating the Disorders
Because of the distinctive differences seen between the brains of children with Asperger’s and with autism, the researchers are calling for a separation of the two disorders. They believe that the differences are significant enough that they should be considered similar, but distinct disorders. Just because the symptoms overlap, they say, does not mean they are the same disease.
Those involved in the latest brain study are not the only ones calling for a separation. Other experts have long declared that Asperger’s should be considered and studied on its own. By separating it from autism, researchers will have the chance to learn more about the disorder.
It will also give experts the opportunity to develop treatments that are specific to the needs of children with Asperger’s. By lumping the two disorders together, many fear that children with Asperger’s will get left behind while those with autism will receive more research and more targeted treatments. By separating the disorders, each child will have a better chance to receive needed treatment.