Lesser-known things about Asperger's syndrome

Albert Einstein writing an equation on a blackboard Albert Einstein is believed by some to have had Asperger's syndrome

When people hear the words Asperger's syndrome, they often think of children or Albert Einstein - even though he was never formally diagnosed. But here are some things about Asperger's that are less well known.

Asperger's syndrome, sometimes known as an autistic spectrum disorder, is a lifelong disability which affects people in many different ways.

While there are similarities with autism, people with Asperger's syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and don't usually have the associated learning disabilities.

They sometimes call themselves aspies for short. In recognition of the fact that their brains are wired differently, people with autism and Asperger's say that they are "neuro-untypical". They call people who don't have either disability "neurotypicals", or NTs.

And that's just for starters. Here are some more lesser-known or misunderstood aspects of Asperger's syndrome from those who know.

Is it mainly a boy thing?

Although Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger thought it only affected boys when he first described the syndrome back in 1944, research since has found that there are likely to be a similar number of females on the spectrum.

The National Autistic Society says that because of the male gender bias, girls are less likely to be identified with autism spectrum disorders, even when their symptoms are equally severe. Many girls are never referred for diagnosis and are missed from the statistics altogether.

Two men and a woman all on the spectrum share a drink at a social event People of both genders on the spectrum at a National Autistic Society event

Asperger's affects females in a slightly different way. Girls will have special interests but instead of building up an incredible wealth of knowledge on subjects like trains or dinosaurs - like boys with Asperger's might - they tend to like the same things as neurotypical girls their age, albeit in a more focused way.

For example, a young girl with Asperger's might make it her business to collect all of the outfits that Barbie has ever worn.

Women and girls can find it easier to mask their difficulties, making the condition harder to recognise. It might only become obvious at around age 11, when the pressure to be the same as friends gets too much.

Some girls with Asperger's will manage to keep their difficulties under wraps at school, but might have "meltdowns" at home, where they feel safe to relax and release the feelings that they have been squashing down all day.

What is a meltdown?

A meltdown is where a person with autism or Asperger's temporarily loses control because of emotional responses to environmental factors. They aren't usually caused by one specific thing.

Triggers build up until the person becomes so overwhelmed that they can't take in any more information. It has been described as feeling like a can of cola that has been shaken up, opened and poured out, emotions flowing everywhere.

A portrait picture of a girl holding her hands over her ears

They can look like a common or garden tantrum, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can't be stopped by giving the person their own way.

Dependent on the cause of meltdown, it may be best to help the person leave the situation they find distressing. Everyone is different but some say that what they need to recover from a meltdown is being left alone in a place where they feel safe, listening to music, having a bath or sleeping.

After a meltdown the person often feels ashamed, embarrassed, and very tired.

Is everyone diagnosed with AS a genius?

There are people with Asperger's who have a high IQ and others who don't. A person on the spectrum could be better at maths then a neurotypical but some even have dyscalculia, a specific difficulty with numbers.

The amazing abilities that some people like Raymond from the film Rain Man have with maths and dates are because of savant syndrome - a separate condition from Asperger's. Some people on the spectrum may have it, but not all.

It is not unusual for someone on the autism spectrum to have a co-occurring condition. These range from Coeliac disease and other digestive problems, to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is no definitive answer to why this is the case.

Do people with Asperger's have empathy?

Contrary to popular belief, people with Asperger's do have empathy. They care about how others are thinking and feeling but they often have difficulty putting themselves in other people's shoes. This is a skill that can be learned over time.

Two couples holding hands

Trouble picking up how others are thinking or feeling via tone of voice or body language can make people with Asperger's appear less than empathetic when they don't mean to be.

The autism community talks about the double bind empathy problem. This is where neurotypicals can seem less than empathetic - by failing to take into account how people with autism see the world. They might ignore the fact that autistic people have a tendency to take things literally, asking someone to take a seat rather than sit down.

How do you say Asperger('s) syndrome?

A hard or soft "G"? Like burger, or like merger?

  • The disability is named after Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger, whose surname is pronounced with a hard "G", like burger.
  • Many in the Asperger's community, and relevant charities, say Asperger's syndrome with a hard "G". Merriam-Webster dictionary also has this pronunciation.
  • But some other dictionaries use a soft "G", like Merger, in their online audio pronunciations of Asperger's. The written dictionaries mention both versions.
Asperger Do apostrophe tiles exist?

With or without an apostrophe before the final s?

  • The UK's biggest autism charity, the National Autistic Society, writes Asperger syndrome without an apostrophe and final s.
  • Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Asperger's Foundation write Asperger's with an apostrophe and final s. This is the author's preference and is used in this article.
Does it officially exist?

In March 2013, Asperger's syndrome was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Instead, people with the same set of difficulties who are diagnosed using the DSM after that time are described as having an autism spectrum disorder.

But people who were assessed before March 2013 keep their original diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome.

The DSM is the mental health diagnostic bible for US doctors, but UK doctors tend to refer to the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Diseases (ICD) instead.

No similar change has been made to this manual, and so UK doctors continue to diagnose Asperger's syndrome.

The term is much used in the international autism community and is part of many people's identities. It is likely that many in the US will continue to say that they have Asperger's, despite the changes.

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Examples of typical difficulties that may be faced by someone with Asperger's syndrome
  • Understanding non-verbal communication, such as body language or tone
  • Interpreting the feelings, thoughts or motives of others
  • Relating to non-literal uses of language, such as idioms, jokes or irony
  • Following social conventions such as respecting another person's physical space
  • Depending on familiar routines and feeling anxious if these are not adhered to
  • Experiencing sensory difficulties, for example being overpowered by visual, auditory or tactile stimuli
  • Limits to body awareness, for example walking round obstacles or carrying out fine motor tasks.

(Source: BBC Skillswise)

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Robyn Steward was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at 11. She is a trainer and consultant, as well as a National Autistic Society (NAS) ambassador.

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