Asperger's Syndrome


Asperger's Syndrome is a lifelong hidden disability because there are no outward signs and people with the condition may have difficulties with social communication, interaction and imagination. 

It is normally lumped together with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as a form of autism, yet people with the condition often hate that association as they do not have a learning disability, have few problems with speech and often have well above average levels of intelligence. Individuals may have Specific Learning Difficulties i.e. dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or other conditions like epilepsy. They may be prone to anxiety and stress because of their difficulty in understanding social skills

People with Asperger syndrome can find it harder to read the signals that most of us take for granted. This means they find it more difficult to communicate and interact with others which can lead to high levels of anxiety and confusion.

With the right support and encouragement, people with Asperger syndrome can lead full and independent lives.

The characteristics of Asperger syndrome vary from one person to another but are generally divided into three main groups.

Difficulty with social communication

If you have Asperger syndrome, understanding conversation is like trying to understand a foreign language.

People with Asperger syndrome sometimes find it difficult to express themselves emotionally and socially. For example, they may:

have difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice
have difficulty knowing when to start or end a conversation and choosing topics to talk about
use complex words and phrases but may not fully understand what they mean
be very literal in what they say and can have difficulty understanding jokes, metaphor and sarcasm. For example, a person with Asperger syndrome may be confused by the phrase 'That's cool' when people use it to say something is good.

In order to help a person with Asperger syndrome understand you, keep your sentences short - be clear and concise.

Difficulty with social interaction

I have difficulty picking up social cues, and difficulty in knowing what to do when I get things wrong.

Many people with Asperger syndrome want to be sociable but have difficulty with initiating and sustaining social relationships, which can make them very anxious. People with the condition may:

struggle to make and maintain friendships
not understand the unwritten 'social rules' that most of us pick up without thinking. For example, they may stand too close to another person, or start an inappropriate topic of conversation
find other people unpredictable and confusing
become withdrawn and seem uninterested in other people, appearing almost aloof
behave in what may seem an inappropriate manner.

Difficulty with social imagination

We have trouble working out what other people know. We have more difficulty guessing what other people are thinking.

People with Asperger syndrome can be imaginative in the conventional use of the word. For example, many are accomplished writers, artists and musicians. But people with Asperger syndrome can have difficulty with social imagination. This can include:

imagining alternative outcomes to situations and finding it hard to predict what will happen next
understanding or interpreting other peoples thoughts, feelings or actions. The subtle messages that are put across by facial expression and body language are often missed
having a limited range of imaginative activities, which can be pursued rigidly and repetitively, eg lining up toys or collecting and organising things related to his or her interest.

Some children with Asperger syndrome may find it difficult to play 'let's pretend' games or prefer subjects rooted in logic and systems, such as mathematics.

Characteristics of Asperger syndrome

The characteristics of Asperger syndrome vary from one person to another but as well as the three main areas of difficulty, people with the condition may have:

love of routines
special interests
sensory difficulties.

Love of routines

If I get anxious I get in a tizz. I have a timetable; it helps me to see what I have to do next, otherwise I get confused.

To try and make the world less confusing, people with Asperger syndrome may have rules and rituals (ways of doing things) which they insist upon. Young children, for example, may insist on always walking the same way to school. In class, they may get upset if there is a sudden change to the timetable. People with Asperger syndrome often prefer to order their day to a set pattern. For example, if they work set hours, an unexpected delay to their journey to or from work can make them anxious or upset.

Special interests

I remember Samuel reciting the distances of all the planets from the sun to a baffled classmate in the playground when he was five. Since then he has had many obsessions, which he loves to talk about at length!

People with Asperger syndrome may develop an intense, sometimes obsessive, interest in a hobby or collecting. Sometimes these interests are lifelong; in other cases, one interest is replaced by an unconnected interest. For example, a person with Asperger syndrome may focus on learning all there is to know about trains or computers. Some are exceptionally knowledgeable in their chosen field of interest. With encouragement, interests and skills can be developed so that people with Asperger syndrome can study or work in their favourite subjects.

Sensory difficulties

Robert only has problems with touch when he doesn't know what's coming - like jostling in queues and people accidentally brushing into him. Light touch seems to be worse for him than a firm touch.

People with Asperger syndrome may have sensory difficulties. These can occur in one or all of the senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste). The degree of difficulty varies from one individual to another. Most commonly, an individual's senses are either intensified (over-sensitive) or underdeveloped (under-sensitive). For example, bright lights, loud noises, overpowering smells, particular food textures and the feeling of certain materials can be a cause of anxiety and pain for people with Asperger syndrome.

People with sensory sensitivity may also find it harder to use their body awareness system. This system tells us where our bodies are, so for those with reduced body awareness, it can be harder to navigate rooms avoiding obstructions, stand at an appropriate distance from other people and carry out 'fine motor' tasks such as tying shoelaces. Some people with Asperger syndrome may rock or spin to help with balance and posture or to help them deal with stress.

Who is affected by Asperger syndrome?

There are over half a million people in the UK with an autism spectrum disorder - that's around 1 in 100. People with Asperger syndrome come from all nationalities, cultures, social backgrounds and religions. However, the condition appears to be more common in males than females; the reason for this is unknown.

Causes and cures

What causes Asperger syndrome?

The exact cause of Asperger syndrome is still being investigated. However, research suggests that a combination of factors - genetic and environmental - may account for changes in brain development.

Asperger syndrome is not caused by a person's upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual with the condition.

Is there a cure?

There is currently no 'cure' and no specific treatment for Asperger syndrome. Children with Asperger syndrome become adults with Asperger syndrome. However, as our understanding of the condition improves and services continue to develop, people with Asperger syndrome have more opportunity than ever of reaching their full potential.

There are many approaches, therapies and interventions, which can improve an individual's quality of life. These may include communication-based interventions, behavioural therapy and dietary changes. Information about many of these can be found at:


Because Asperger syndrome varies widely from person to person, making a diagnosis can be difficult. It is often diagnosed later in children than autism and sometimes difficulties may not be recognised and diagnosed until adulthood.

The typical route for getting a diagnosis is to visit a GP. He or she can refer an individual to other health professionals who can make a formal diagnosis. Most frequently they will be psychiatrists or clinical psychologists and, in the case of children, paediatricians.

Some people see a formal diagnosis as an unhelpful label; however, for many a diagnosis:

helps the individual, families, friends, partners, carers, professionals and colleagues to better understand and manage their needs and behaviour
is the key needed to open the door to specialised support, eg supported living or finding suitable employment.

There are diagnostic differences between conditions on the autism spectrum. Sometimes people may receive a diagnosis of autism or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), high-functioning autism (HFA) or atypical autism instead of Asperger syndrome. Alternatively, they may be given a diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) or semantic pragmatic disorder. However, people who have been given these diagnoses will have similar difficulties and similar support needs to those who have Asperger syndrome.

You can find more information about diagnosis and how to get one here.

If you would like to read more about the different types of autism (including Asperger syndrome) and the diagnoses that people get, see:

High-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome: what's the difference? 
The use and misuse of diagnostic labels.

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Julie's son Richard was diagnosed with autism before he started school. She contacted our Education Rights service for help after her son's school refused to carry out an assessment of his needs. With the help of the NAS, Julie went to tribunal three times over the course of six years. Eventually Richard got his assessment of needs and was placed in a specialist school for children with Asperger syndrome.

"I can't tell you how wonderful things are now. He's settled into school and he's making excellent progress. He's got friends now... he has a little book with  their telephone numbers in, and from time to time he rings them up. We can go out as a family. He's coping."
Asperger syndrome: people with Asperger syndrome often have average or above-average levels of intelligence, and are often highly educated, but they may experience significant social difficulties
High-functioning autism: this term is often used interchangeably with Asperger syndrome.SDs are called pervasive developmental disorders, which affect every part of a person's life. In the workplace, even when their qualifications and skill levels are ideally suited to the work concerned, a person with an ASD may difficulties interacting with colleagues, and this can affect their ability to hold down a job.

ASD is a spectrum condition, which means it can range from scarcely perceptible difficulties to severe disability. Diagnoses on the autism spectrum are varied, and include:
Classic autism: some people with autism have an accompanying learning disability, which is usually defined as having an IQ of  less than 70

ASDs occur across cultural and language barriers. They affect around six times as many men as women, and people sometimes find that the social difficulties experienced by women with the condition are less noticeable.

People with an ASD are more likely than the general population to have accompanying problems such as dyslexia (difficulty with reading, spelling and/or writing), dyspraxia (severe difficulty with tasks requiring fine motor skills such as drawing or writing) and digestive problems. They are also vulnerable to developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

The causes of ASDs are still being investigated. Many experts believe that the pattern of behaviour from which an ASD is diagnosed may not result from a single cause. There is strong evidence to suggest that ASDs can be caused by a variety of physical factors, all of which affect brain development. ASDs are not due to emotional deprivation or the way a person has been brought up.

There is evidence to suggest that genetic factors are responsible for some forms of ASD. An ASD is likely to be caused by several genes interacting rather than by one single gene. For some years, scientists have been attempting to identify which genes might be implicated in ASDs

Each person with an ASD has individual gifts, strengths and difficulties, like anyone else. However, a person will be diagnosed as having an ASD if, to a greater or lesser extent, they show some of a range of typical characteristics. The three areas in which people with an ASD often experience difficulties are in social communication, social interaction and social imagination commonly known as the 'triad of impairments

The person may interpret language in a literal way, may have difficulty interpreting idiomatic terms such as 'She must have eyes in the back of her head', and may not know when someone is joking or being sarcastic. 

They may have formal or stilted language, or a monotonous tone of voice. 

A person with ASD may not pick up on non-verbal communication such as gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice, or they may misinterpret them. They may also not recognise other people's emotions, motivations or expectations. In particular, they may be unaware of the unspoken rules of behaviour such as instinctively knowing that it might be considered rude to mention certain things. They may also find it difficult to maintain eye contact.

The person may find it difficult to form or sustain friendships. 
They may struggle with certain social situations and with making conversation. 
They may not notice if the person they are talking to is not interested in what they are saying.
The person may feel more comfortable with facts than imagining hypothetical (what if?) situations, or thinking in abstract or conceptual ways. 
They may find it difficult to put themselves in other people's shoes and understand other people's perceptions or points of view. 
Their strengths may lie in following procedures or routines rather than dealing with situations spontaneously. 
They may have a narrow range of interests.
The person may also be sensitive to noise, smell, taste or touch. 
They may become anxious if a routine or process is broken. 
They may have special interests such as a hobby that they are obsessively interested in.

The list above gives an overview of the various difficulties that people with ASDs experience. However, it is important to remember that each individual with an ASD will have a unique mix of factors, and not all of the above will be present. These factors will be combined with all the usual characteristics that contribute to someone's personality. Each individual is different. So it is important to be aware of what the condition means for them, and to treat them on their own merit.
Having an ASD can cause a person problems in some areas of life, but the
characteristics associated with ASDs mean that there are some things that they may be able to do better than other people. Many people with an ASD - particularly those with Asperger syndrome - are intelligent, with high IQ levels.

Colleagues of people with ASDs have described a variety of strengths, which often include:

a good eye for detail and reliability 
an excellent memory for facts and figures 
the ability to thrive in a structured, well-organised work environment.