What is Asperger's Syndrome? What is an ASD?

The terminology surrounding this area is confusing, partly for historical reasons.

Where does the word autism come from?

The term 'autism' was first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Bleuler was attempting to define another new concept schizophrenia and noted the "autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance.

Why Asperger's Syndrome?

In 1938 the Austrian Dr Hans Asperger (1906-1980) took the term 'autism' in  a different direction when he described an 'autistic psychopath' in a lecture on child psychology. The term 'psychopath' did not imply moral judgement here -   Asperger was describing a child whose self-absorption created problems in social interaction.

Five years later another specialist in this area, Leo Kanner, wrote a breakthrough paper on 'early infantile autism'. Crucially he described cognitive impairment as a defining characteristic of the condition.

But in 1943 Asperger identified a  group of high achieving children who appeared to contradict Kanner's thesis. Though intellectually advanced, these young people appeared to have key autistic traits: a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.

Asperger later noted that these 'odd' characteristics were sometimes combined with exceptional gifts, particularly in the ability to process and analyse information.  

Why do we talk about Autistic Spectrum disorders?

The consensus has been that there is a continuum of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). At one end is what might be termed 'fully blown' autism. This is associated with moderate to severe learning difficulties. 

Asperger's Syndrome is at the other end of the spectrum and is sometimes called 'high functioning' autism. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recognised Asperger's Syndrome in 1981.

But what the DSM gives ...

In 2013 the revised fifth edition (DSM-5) decided to remove Asperger's syndrome as a separate diagnosis and replace it within the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’.

In the terminology of the DSM-5, what was formerly know known as Asperger's syndrome would now be described as the ‘upper end’ of the autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). This form of ASD involves unaffected intelligence and language development, and milder symptoms affecting social interaction, behaviour and language comprehension.

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