What Is the Difference Between Autism and Asperger Syndrome?

Mental disorders have been classified and reclassified over the years as science and medicine expand research with more targeted and innovative studies. New ideas as to what qualifies as a mental disorder are regularly arising and being tested for better classification. 

Our understanding of mental health disorders evolves as the definitions and categorizations change. Mental health has become an umbrella for everything from depression and anxiety to Down Syndrome and autism, from personal well-being to cognitive and behavioral disorders.

As of 2013, Asperger Syndrome (or Asperger’s) is no longer diagnosed as an individual condition and has been brought under the umbrella of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with similar traits to what was previously categorized as autism. Understanding autism and its many complexities can be challenging, as the autism spectrum is vast and varies from case to case. Despite many of the same communication and behavioral traits as those with autism may have, individuals with Asperger’s may show some other characteristics as well. 

When faced with a situation involving someone that falls on the autism spectrum, it’s important to know how to handle it accordingly. From communication variations to cognitive functioning, there are different traits in individuals with Asperger’s that don’t necessarily coincide with the umbrella diagnosis of autism. In this article, we will cover three of the main differences between autism and Asperger’s.

Autism Vs. Asperger’s: Speech and Language 

When comparing autism and Asperger’s, it is important to note that Asperger’s is not characterized by language delays. While language delays are absent, children (and adults) with Asperger’s may appear to have a speech issue due to difficulty fitting in. 

Communication is uncomfortable for those with Asperger’s, as they don’t understand conventional social rules and tend to be alone (because they can’t fit in). For example, humor and irony aren’t things that someone with Asperger’s would not pick up on in a conversation. They may also seem disengaged or show a lack of empathy with others, displaying a lack of social interaction skills. These expressive and nonverbal cues may slow with age and decrease the structure of functional communication over time.

With autism, however, speech and language/communication are common problems. This isn’t just relative to conveying what someone with autism is trying to say. Individuals with autism may not always understand what someone is trying to tell them verbally or nonverbally. 

People with autism may also show repetition with language, namely when it comes to what they talk about. If there is a cause, activity, subject, etc., that they are interested in or a person they admire, it may be the only thing they talk about. In some cases, language and communication skills may not develop at all. 

Autism Vs. Asperger’s: Cognitive Development

Cognitive function, or mental capability, is another noticeable difference between autism and Asperger’s. This is a critical trait to note when diagnosing correctly, as there are distinguishable cognitive differences between the two. 

Significant cognitive function delays aren’t present in Asperger’s as they are with autism, as Asperger’s is considered a form of high-functioning autism. By definition, individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s cannot have a significant cognitive delay and must have average to above-average intelligence to be diagnosed with Asperger’s. 

There may be signs of other cognitive impairments, such as ADHD or dyslexia that aren’t necessarily related to the diagnosis. Asperger’s is also characterized by a firm adherence to routines. Adherence to “sameness” in what individuals with Asperger’s do brings comfort.

With autism, IQs are generally average to above-average, and major cognitive impairments are not associated with autism. However, children on the spectrum are prone to challenges such as anxiety and depression and sensitivity to sounds, light, and other stimuli. 

Autism Vs. Asperger’s: Age of Onset

Healthcare providers generally have a checklist of criteria that is used for any diagnosis. This is critical when diagnosing autism/Asperger’s, as this checklist and the age an individual is can be deciding factors for a proper diagnosis. Regardless of the diagnosis, the phrase “the earlier, the better” applies well when finding the right course of action, treatment, or intervention for someone with autism or Asperger’s. 

The onset of autism symptoms, both mild and high-functioning, is more prominent in children at a young age. In addition, language and social delays are key indicators during developmental stages as a child, making it an early (and often quick) diagnosis of autism (ASD). 

However, in some cases, the diagnosis may be changed as the child grows older. As we age, we develop more traits that aren’t seen as a child, including social and cognitive skills. These traits are typically noticed once a child hits a more social setting, such as school, sports, child counseling, or playgroups. 

If a lack of awareness of social cues, repetition in behaviors, or social separation becomes prominent with an individual who had previously been diagnosed with autism as a child, reassessment may be necessary. 

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