What’s the Difference Between Asperger’s and Autism?

Once considered its own diagnosis, Asperger's is now recognized as the higher end of the autistic spectrum. Here's how autism and Asperger's are similar—and different.

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Two puzzles and two miniature men standing up.
Photo: Hyejin Kang/Shutterstock

Reclassifying the spectrum

In 1996, Gale Cohen sobbed uncontrollably when her toddler was given a diagnosis of pervasive development delay (PDD), the lower end of the autistic spectrum. She spent the next several years of his life looking for clues that he was a higher-functioning “Aspie,” the nickname for those with Asperger’s syndrome on the high end of the spectrum. Cohen was repeatedly told by professionals in the field that labelling kids on the spectrum was iffy at best, and not an indicator of future success. Even so, she breathed a sigh of relief when her son’s teachers started referring to him as an Aspie, several years later.

All that changed in 2013, when the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 reclassified all types of autism, including PDD (pervasive developmental delay) and Asperger’s, as a single spectrum. Luckily for Cohen and her son, the early warnings about not holding onto labels held true. He went on to graduate from college, and pursue a successful music career. She went on to realize that labelling people on the spectrum was an inaccurate science, at best.

How does Asperger’s differ from autism?

Autism is also referred to as ASD, or autism spectrum disorder and, according to Autism Speaks, ASD is comprised of many subtypes. This can help explain why Asperger’s syndrome became a category of its own. Unlike many children on the lower end of the spectrum, kids with Asperger’s have average-to-high, or very high intelligence. Many also exhibit talents in a wide range of fields, including tech and the arts. As was the case with Cohen in the 1990s, this diagnosis was comforting. It also may have been ultimately misleading, since many children at all levels of the spectrum go on to live happy lives and achieve great things. “Autism is now understood to occur on a spectrum of severity. When they were considered to be separate diagnoses, Asperger’s was differentiated from autism in two main areas:

  • Severity. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s were higher functioning and typically had average to superior IQs, requiring less support than those diagnosed with autism.
  • Language. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s had no speech or language impairment, explains Tia Kern-Butler, PhD.

What are some common characteristics of Asperger’s?

“Often, TV shows will portray an individual with Asperger’s, such as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, or Max Braverman in Parenthood. The common characteristics of Asperger’s that these shows seize upon is the display of inappropriate social interactions and repetitive, self-stimulating behaviours, such as hand flapping,” explains Janet Ferone of Ferone Educational Consulting.

Especially when they are young, some people with Asperger’s may appear obsessed with a specific interest, such as trains or stamp collecting. Many can’t handle intense, sensory stimulation such as loud noises or bright lights. Others follow the same predictable routine, even into adulthood. “Given the right work atmosphere, people with Asperger’s are often successful and known for attention to detail, plus an uncanny ability to recognize patterns. There are now companies advertising for workers with this condition, particularly in technical fields where social skills are not needed, but precise attention to detail is,” she adds.

Here are more things experts wish people knew about autism.

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Difference between Asperger's and autism
Photo: Nixx Photography/Shutterstock

How are Asperger’s and autism similar?

Children at all levels of the spectrum may have social awkwardness and experience isolation. People with Asperger’s have better language skills but still may have difficulty conversing with others. Identifying social cues can be difficult, although kids with Asperger’s often have an easier time making eye contact, which aids in social interaction. One similarity that all people across the spectrum have is the human ability to love, and the desire to be loved in return. (Find out how one woman is supporting families affected by autism.)

When did Asperger’s and autism start to show up in the population?

Many people will tell you that autism was unheard of before the 1970s. This isn’t actually true, although this condition has seemed to become much more widespread over the last several decades. Autism is now thought to affect 1 in 66 Canadian children, according to the 2018 report of the National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System. Observance and diagnosis of both autism and Asperger’s started, however, during the 1940s. “At that time two doctors, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, came across a number of pediatric patients who shared a unique combination of impairments,” explains Tasha Oswald, PhD. “Appearing to be obsessively focused on objects and sameness, the children ranged from nonverbal to [having] language abilities like that of ‘little professors.’ This divergence in language abilities led to the split between autistic and Asperger’s, or low and high functioning. However, over the last 15 years, growth in research on autism, mirroring the growth in the prevalence rate, have led to a shift from a categorical to a spectrum view,” she explains. “A growing community of advocates has begun to further shift our view of autism spectrum from a focus primarily on impairments to a focus on neurodiversity, which acknowledges and celebrates the strengths that stem from differences in the way people process and perceive information.”

What causes ASD and Asperger’s?

There are many theories, but no conclusions, about the exact cause of Asperger’s syndrome and autism. A new brain-tissue study indicates that people with ASD have more connections (synapses) between their brain cells than neurotypical people do.

According to Autism Speaks, ASD has no one cause, but is brought about by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. These may include:

  • Family history of autism
  • Familial or parental diagnoses of conditions such as bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder
  • Advanced paternal or maternal age
  • Being part of a twin or triplet set
  • Prematurity of less than 26 weeks
  • Low birth weight
  • Prenatal exposure to heavy metals and toxins

Many people who have one or more of these potential risk factors do not have autism or Asperger’s. Conversely, others with no apparent risk factors will ultimately get this diagnosis.

What does the future hold for people with Asperger’s?

A popular fiction book, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, puts forth the question, would you cure your Asperger’s if you could? Without giving up the book’s ending, some Aspies would say yes, and others, no. In real life, being different simply means you are different, not better and not worse. People with Asperger’s, such as the popular poster child for this condition, Temple Grandin, continue to make incredible contributions to society and the growth of culture. Armchair historians posit that Renoir, Churchill, and Einstein, among others, had this condition. Comedian and actress Amy Schumer and husband Chris Fischer recently went public about his high-functioning ASD diagnosis. Schumer all but gushed about his autistic traits, expressing that it was those traits which made her love him in the first place.

Whether it is recognized as its own diagnosis or not, for many, being an Aspie is a thing. For others, it is simply an ingredient in the soup of personality which makes them who they are. Scientific discoveries about ASD continue to unfold. For those on the spectrum, no matter where they are, the future holds the same level of promise that it does for all of us.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest