Asperger’s Syndrome in Children
Asperger’s syndrome is part of a broader category known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and is a lifelong developmental disorder which determines how someone makes sense of the world in their own unique way. Affecting 1 in 200 people, with males having a higher diagnosis rate, it is often referred to as a form of “high-functioning” autism.
Children who are diagnosed with Asperger’s usually have a higher intellectual capacity with no cognitive or speech difficulties, however, they typically have issues with social interactions. Considered to be the mildest form of ASD, most children who have been diagnosed are able to improve their social and motor skills through therapy and, as a result, enjoy a better quality of life, enabling them to hold down steady jobs. Ongoing support and encouragement from family and friends is critical in maintaining good social skills.
Research shows that the exact cause of Asperger’s remains unknown, however, it may result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors causing changes in brain development. Multiple genes may also play a part in causing Asperger’s, which would explain the number and severity of symptoms which vary widely among individuals.
There are certain genetic conditions linked to the development of Asperger’s such as Fragile X syndrome, which is the most commonly known single-gene disorder, accounting for approximately 3% of all autism spectrum disorders. Asperger’s also tends to run in families, with younger siblings of a person with Asperger’s at a greater risk of developing the syndrome. Gene changes can happen for unknown reasons, and research shows that spontaneous gene mutations may influence a child’s risk of developing Asperger’s.
With the use of brain imaging, studies have shown that in specific areas of the brains of those children who have Asperger’s, structural and functional differences are apparent. It is thought that these differences occur during foetal development and may be caused by abnormal migration of the embryonic cells. Consequently, this affects the neural circuits of the brain, which controls thought and behaviour.
Viral infections, air pollutants and pre-natal complications impact and may play a role in the development of Asperger’s syndrome. Risk factors include:
- Being male
- Being born premature
- Being born to older parents
- Family history of autism spectrum disorders or other mental health conditions
Noticeable from an early age, children with this condition often have trouble picking up on subtle forms of communication such as humour, sarcasm and body language. Common signs include:
- Lack of eye contact, awkward body postures and few facial expressions are typical non-verbal communications which are often displayed
- May have difficulty understanding the nuances of language and, as a result, may be extremely literal, despite having a good vocabulary
- May seem insensitive to others’ feelings and has trouble reading people
- Usually speaks in a voice that is monotone, jerky or unusually fast
- Very often has difficulty making friends of the same age; consequently, children with Asperger’s may feel more comfortable being around much younger children or adults
- May appear to be totally self-absorbed or egocentric
- Does not engage in small-talk and has difficulty understanding the give-and-take of conversation
- Usually prefers repetitive routines or rituals, and any small changes may cause upset
- Tends to have an intense obsession with one or two specific subjects
- When overstimulated, may day-dream or zone out
- May have anger outbursts and meltdowns
It should be noted that even though all children diagnosed with Asperger’s are unique, their obsessive interests and unusual social skills do tend to set them apart from their peers. If any of the above symptoms are noticed in your child, it is important to see your General Practitioner or Paediatrician, who will refer you to a mental health expert who specialises in Asperger’s Syndrome such as a Psychologist, Developmental Paediatrician or Psychiatrist.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a real battle.— Tim Page
A diagnosis is usually based on a series of questions and observations which include:
- When did your child first start to speak, and how does he/she communicate?
- How does he interact with friends, family members and others’?
- What symptoms does he/she have and when were they first noticed?
- Are there any particular subjects of activities which he/she is focused on?
Based on the answers, the child will then be observed in different situations to see how he/she responds and communicates.
When to Tell Your Child
There isn’t an exact age or time to inform your child about their diagnosis. It is important to consider the abilities, social awareness and personality of the child before making this decision, as informing them too early may cause confusion. Being positive and embracing each member of the family’s uniqueness with all their strengths, dislikes and weaknesses is a good place to start. This will pave the way for future discussions regarding differences. Information should be minimal initially, with more information being added over time.
Assure your child that they can ask questions at any time, and I would suggest involving a health professional in the beginning stages, which can help the parent understand the child’s reaction and also support the family. The process will be ongoing and can be seen to be a learning curve for all family members. It is important to maintain a positive focus, which will ultimately encourage self-esteem, awareness and understanding.
Treatment is usually tailored to suit the individual child as there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach; in fact, it might be necessary to try different types of treatment in order to find one that works. Types of treatment can generally be broken down into the following categories:
- Complementary and Alternative Medicine
- Behaviour and Communication Approaches
- Occupational/Physical Therapy
- The support and training of parents
A nutritious, balanced diet can make such a difference to a child with Asperger’s, not only in their ability to learn but how they process information and manage their emotions. However, due to their repetitive behaviours and obsessive interests, their eating habits and food choices are often affected. The biggest barriers to a balanced diet are usually the child’s sensitivity to colours, smells, textures, and tastes. In order to overcome these sensory issues, try taking your child to the supermarket to choose a new food. Make the process interesting by preparing the food together, and as they become familiar with new foods in a positive way, this will encourage your child to become a more flexible eater.
It is also important to have a routine when it comes to meals as this will reduce stress, and if your child is light sensitive, try candlelight or have a dimmer on your light switch. Working with a dietician is a good way to ensure that your child’s nutritional needs are being met, and is a great support network and guide on how your child can eat well and stay healthy.
Medication will treat anxiety, depression or the inability to focus, which is often related to Asperger’s syndrome; however, at present there is no medication to treat Asperger’s syndrome itself.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Traditional medicine and natural remedies have been used for thousands of years to safely support the nervous system and healthy functioning of the brain. Homeopathic and herbal remedies may be extremely beneficial in helping to restore a calm and positive demeanour in a child with Asperger’s. Equally important is the need to maintain healthy sleep patterns, which are crucial to a child’s development. Making an appointment with a Homeopathic Practitioner, who can assess your child’s particular needs, may be beneficial.
Behavioural and Communication Approaches
The most effective behavioural approach in the treatment of Asperger’s in children is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This talking therapy will aim to improve stress management relating to explosive emotions or anxiety. It is also beneficial in enabling the child to cut back on obsessive interests and repetitive routines.
Every child is unique, however, there are common causes for functional difficulties that children with Asperger’s have, where Occupational Therapy can play an important part in helping the child to cope.
- Problem Solving: Being able to successfully complete a task and work out the necessary steps to take can be extremely difficult for a child with Asperger’s. Occupational therapy can assist the child to remain calm, think things through and plan, enabling them to succeed in social and learning situations.
- Problems with Motor Co-ordination: How a child uses their muscles will significantly impact their endurance and attention span. Occupational therapy will teach the child to build the strength they need through a series of specialised exercises, enabling their muscles to work properly, aiding concentration and their ability to manage their daily life.
- Academic Ability: Difficulties with reading, writing or lack of attention in class may be a result of how the child processes visual information or the use of their fine motor skills. An Occupational Therapist will be able to determine where the problem is and may refer the child to a Psychologist for a cognitive assessment in order to gain further information relating to the child’s academic ability.
- Interaction/Socialisation with Peers and Family Members: Most children with Asperger’s have difficulty interacting and playing appropriately with others. The role of the Occupational Therapist would be to facilitate play skills by working on the child’s ability to effectively socialise.
The Support and Training of Parents
Giving parents and caregivers the training to develop the necessary skills in order to improve the social skills and overall wellbeing of the child is crucial. An understanding of the disorder is essential in order to plan for each day and the future. A good source of information is your doctor’s surgery, where you can be referred to various groups and courses which both educate and support. There are also Council-run workshops, specifically aimed at coping strategies designed to help with the complexities of this disorder. There are also a number of books and helplines which are worth exploring.
Every member of the family is affected in different ways when a child is diagnosed with Asperger’s. As the parents/caregivers have to devote their time and primary focus on helping their child, everything else usually has to take a back seat. This may put stress on relationships within the family and may also affect work, finances and other responsibilities. Informing other family members about Asperger’s and what it entails will create an understanding of the many challenges which have to be overcome on a daily basis. This in turn will help family members to cope, become involved and offer support.
Strengths and Benefits of Asperger’s
From my own personal experience of people with Asperger’s, I have found that they are an adaptable collection of wonderful individuals who, sometimes against all the odds, have found ways to cope and survive in a world that expects different codes of behaviour. Their solutions to life’s challenges are distinctive, and they have many positive strengths and traits which should be applauded including:
- Genuine and sincere, with a great sense of loyalty and honesty
- Exceptional recall of details
- Persistent and can always be relied upon to follow through
- Non-judgemental – tend to be free from bias and discrimination based on race, gender or other differences
- Their acute sensitivity to specific sensory experiences gives them a different perspective on the world
- Compassionate and caring, usually with a strong sense of social justice
- They are not inclined to be con-artists, social manipulators or bullies
Individuals living with Asperger’s are a fitting testament to what can be accomplished without the blueprint of what is considered ‘normal’, and surely this is the definition of success.
One of the most misunderstood developmental disorders on the Autism Spectrum, Asperger’s Syndrome is very often stereotyped and misconceived. I truly believe that with knowledge comes wisdom and understanding, enabling these children to become functioning adults leading independent lives within an atmosphere of support and empathy.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2019 Lorna Lamon