Autism Resources

What is the difference between autism and Asperger’s?

February 25, 2021

Asperger’s is no longer a standalone diagnosis, but it’s important to understand the difference between an autism diagnosis and an historical Asperger’s diagnosis. Learning the difference between autism and Asperger’s can impact how families approach treatment.

For over 70 years, doctors treated Asperger’s as its own diagnosis. Many professionals believed Asperger’s was a more mild form of autism, leading to the origin of the phrase “high-functioning.”

Now, children with Asperger’s symptoms are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Their symptoms are typically on the milder side, but every child experiences symptoms differently. Hence the word “spectrum” – ASD features a wide range of symptoms and experiences.

For example, some children with ASD are non-verbal or may have low IQs. Others have superior IQs and only minor social deficits.

No matter the symptoms, it’s important to get treatment for your child with ASD as soon as possible. Early intervention is one of the surest ways that your child will develop necessary life skills and become independent. At Therapeutic Pathways, we offer applied behavior analysis (ABA) treatment to help children develop those skills and live satisfying lives.

History of Autism Diagnoses

Doctors used to think of Asperger’s Syndrome as a separate condition from autism. Because scholarship has historically associated Asperger’s with less severe symptoms and good language and cognitive skills, doctors issued this diagnosis to “high-functioning” children for decades.

Asperger’s was identified by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944. He noticed that some children with autism had better-developed social and motor skills and fewer speech problems than their peers. He identified these children as having a condition similar to but undoubtedly unique from autism.

This disorder came to be known as Asperger’s, and it first appeared in the 1994 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

Today, children experiencing developmental delays and symptoms of autism are instead more likely to receive an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. ASD is a broad category of developmental disorders that share some symptoms.

Many people believe this change is beneficial. An ASD diagnosis is more inclusive and reflects the fact that autism develops with a range of symptoms.

Range of Symptoms in ASD

Speech and Language

The principal difference between autism and what was once diagnosed as Asperger’s is that the latter features milder symptoms and an absence of language delays. Most children who previously received an Asperger’s diagnosis have good language skills, but may have difficulty “fitting in” with their peers. They might feel uncomfortable or awkward, but their language skills were present.

Children with autism, on the other hand, typically exhibit problems with speech and communication. They may have difficulty understanding what someone is saying to them, or they may be unable to pick up on nonverbal cues like hand gestures and facial expressions.

Children with autism also frequently exhibit repetitive or “rigid” language as well as narrow topics of interest. For example, a child with autism may be interested in basketball and only talk about that sport.

Cognitive Functioning

Another difference between autism and what was diagnosed as Asperger’s was in cognitive functioning. By definition, a person with Asperger’s cannot have a “clinically significant” cognitive delay as is usually seen among children with autism. Children on the “lower end” of the spectrum (what was once diagnosed as Asperger’s) have average to above-average intelligence, while other children on the spectrum usually had significant cognitive delays.

For example, a child with autism may have difficulty recognizing and responding appropriately to others’ thoughts and feelings.

Age of Onset

One more difference between autism and Asperger’s is the age of onset, or the age at which a child receives a diagnosis. The average age of diagnosis for a child with autism is four, while a person with Asperger’s may not receive a diagnosis until they are a teenager or adult.

This may be because children with Asperger’s do not exhibit language delays or have lower IQs. Many parents may not realize their child has a developmental delay until they begin school and engage in more social interactions.

Treatment for Children with Autism

Learning about the difference between autism and Asperger’s is helpful, but taking action is even more important. At Therapeutic Pathways, we encourage parents to seek treatment for their child as early as possible. Research suggests that early intervention provides the best opportunity for children to learn valuable independent life skills.