Most parents aren’t sure what to think when they hear their child has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, also known as high-functioning autism. There’s so much information available online, some of it conflicting and contradictory, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some pointers on how you can support your child and give them the best possible chance of leading a fulfilling life in school and beyond.
Understand autism spectrum disorders
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are characterized by problems with social interaction, communication, and imaginative play—and often lead to a number of other issues, such as anxiety and depression. Here’s what parents should know about ASDs.
In children diagnosed with an ASD, common signs include repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities (such as being bothered by loud noises), self-injury (for example, pinching or head-banging), difficulty taking turns in conversation or playing group games, low eye contact when interacting with others, lack of interest in peer relationships without a particular child serving as an intense focus or anchor for interactions or activities.
Autism affects each individual differently. The intensity of these symptoms can range from mild to severe. There is no known cure for autism, but therapies can help individuals cope with symptoms and improve their quality of life. If you suspect your child may have an ASD, talk to your pediatrician right away.
Asperger’s syndrome is different from autism
Autism is a developmental disorder that prevents a child from communicating and interacting effectively with others. Children with autism usually have normal intelligence and language development, although their skills can be significantly below average in some areas.
On the other hand, children with Asperger’s syndrome are often highly intelligent and have language development that’s typical or even above average; but they still struggle to interact socially in typical ways. There are many similarities between Asperger’s syndrome and autism. The primary difference between them is socialization.
Children with autism may also have difficulty making eye contact, starting conversations or responding appropriately to questions or comments from others. They may appear aloof and disengaged when people talk directly to them (in contrast, those with Asperger’s syndrome don’t tend to avoid eye contact).
They also may use words idiosyncratically, not understanding what it means when another person uses an expression differently than how they would use it. And both disorders share common characteristics like irritability, rigidity and repetitive behaviors.
Problems in social interactions
Children with autism may not be able to understand rules for social interactions, such as taking turns in games. Children with high-functioning autism sometimes have difficulty socializing and making friends. They might also have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings.
They may react negatively if someone touches them unexpectedly or approaches them from behind. Also, children with Asperger’s syndrome often pay attention to only one part of a situation or conversation, rather than seeing it as a whole picture. For example, they might focus on details like what someone is wearing rather than his facial expression when he talks with them.
Some children with Asperger’s syndrome repeat certain words or phrases over and over again (called echolalia). This type of behavior makes it difficult for others to have conversations with them.
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests
Children with AS often display restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Examples include: They may like to collect items, such as baseball cards or matchbox cars. They might play computer games all day or watch videos over and over again.
These children may talk a lot about their special interest; however, they often lack basic social skills, such as being able to make eye contact while talking or understand humor. Despite high levels of intelligence, these children have poor executive functioning and have difficulty planning, organizing or sequencing tasks. Therefore, they are unable to see projects through from start to finish without help.
Difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication
You might notice delays in your child’s speech development, such as inability to engage in back-and-forth conversation or an unusual tone of voice. Children with AS can also struggle with using gestures, facial expressions and eye contact when communicating.
If you suspect your child has autism or AS, watch for these signs. It’s critical that children with AS receive an evaluation from a licensed health care professional early on so they can receive appropriate support and intervention. Speak with your pediatrician about concerns you have about your child.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist who will help evaluate whether your child may have AS or another developmental disability that affects communication skills.
Children with autism spectrum disorders typically have a heightened or decreased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as loud noises, bright lights, certain textures, and strong smells. When your child is going through sensory overload—say at a birthday party or in a crowded store—intervene.
Tell him to close his eyes for five minutes and breathe deeply (use a soft toy as an anchor). Make sure there’s time for your child to relax when you get home. Try meditation; give him time outside where he can engage in quiet play. These are things that make all kids feel better, but they can be especially helpful when your child has Asperger’s syndrome.
Side effects of medications on children with aspberger’s syndrome
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are some of the most frequently prescribed medications for treating depression in children with Asperger’s syndrome. Both of these drugs have been found to decrease social skills, increase physical aggression, and interfere with peer relationships.
Non-drug treatment options can be as effective as medication, but don’t carry side effects that can hurt your child socially. Only consider drug therapy if you’ve already exhausted non-drug therapies; or only after trying a number of different strategies.
Remember that taking medications is one part of a full treatment plan; it should not be your first option. Also, speak with all members of your team (including your doctor) about any concerns you might have before starting any medications on a child who has AS; everyone involved should be aware of possible side effects and safe dosages.