What you need to know about Asperger Syndrome

Greta speaking at an event during the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid, Spain. — AFP

I heard that Greta Thunberg, TIME magazine person of the year, has Asperger Syndrome. What is this syndrome?

Asperger Syndrome is a relatively new psychological profile in the sense that it was only coined in the 1980s.

It was first described in England by psychiatrist Dr Lorna Wing. But the name ‘Asperger’ was used to describe something that Austrian paediatrician Dr Hans Asperger wrote about in a 1944 study.

Basically, people who have Asperger Syndrome see, hear and feel our world differently from you and me.

Oh, is it like autism then?

This is a tricky question.

Autism is a wide spectrum of disorders. All people who have autism share certain qualities.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 from the American Psychiatric Association, in order to be diagnosed autistic, you have to have:

  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, such as in back-and-forth conversations with other people or sharing, eye contact, developing relationships, etc.
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities, e.g. repetitive movements and insistence on the same, inflexible routines and distress at changes of patterns.
  • All symptoms are present in childhood. However, they may only fully manifest when social demands exceed what they are capable of.
  • Limited or impaired everyday functioning.

Autism affects different autistic people in different ways. Asperger Syndrome is part of this umbrella diagnosis of autism.

Greta Thunberg is definitely one capable teenager. People with Asperger Syndrome don’t have mental incapabilities then?

If you mean by mental incapability, a decrease in intelligence, then no. People with Asperger syndrome have average or above average intelligence.

Unlike many people who are autistic, they don’t have learning problems. They also have fewer problems with speech.

In Greta Thunberg’s case, I would say that her Asperger Syndrome made her what she is today, rather than the opposite.

She is extremely persistent in her beliefs and actions about our environmental concerns, and she also appears to be inflexible in her thinking.

She does not seem to relate to other people, and she won’t give in to anything the world throws at her.

She is so extreme that she made her parents stop flying on planes. And her mother was a singer too, which meant she had to give up her career.

This sarcastic sign was put up by an angry business owner, who could not bear the rubbish-dumping near his premises anymore. People with Asperger Syndrome take what they hear or read literally, rendering them unable to understand sarcasm. — FilepicThis sarcastic sign was put up by an angry business owner, who could not bear the rubbish-dumping near his premises anymore. People with Asperger Syndrome take what they hear or read literally, rendering them unable to understand sarcasm. — Filepic

So how do people with Asperger Syndrome see the world?

Even within Asperger Syndrome, there are variables and extremes. Some people with Asperger Syndrome say they feel the world overwhelms them and makes them anxious.

They have difficulty understanding and relating to other people.

Everyday things we take for granted, like going to school and interacting with family, is difficult.

Many people with Asperger Syndrome feel that the world does not understand them.

Most parents who have children with Asperger Syndrome don’t recognise it until much later in life, or at all.

They often describe their children as difficult, antisocial or naughty at first.

It usually is diagnosed much later in life than most of other autism spectrum children.

When should I suspect my child has Asperger Syndrome?

The criteria mentioned above for autism spectrum must be met. But you need a trained psychiatrist to make the diagnosis if you suspect your child has Asperger Syndrome.

A child with this syndrome has a very literal understanding of language, they think that people always mean exactly what they say.

Therefore, your child may have difficulty understanding facial expressions, sarcasm, jokes, abstract concepts and tone of voice.

They cannot read people and interpret the hidden meaning behind conversations or body language.

They may go on and on talking about themselves because they have no E.Q. (emotional quotient).

They may appear to be insensitive, love to be alone or act socially inappropriate.

They find it hard to form friendships.

They prefer to have a daily routine, like using the same road to go to school or eat the same food for breakfast every day.

They need to know what is going to happen every day and hate the idea of change.

They have intense and highly focused interests, which may change along their lives. Note Greta Thunberg.

When you nurture and channel these interests in the right direction, they can be a force to be reckoned with.

They may also experience under or over sensory sensitivity to the environment, like to certain smells (durian), noise and pain.

Is there a cure?

No, but what it is important for the loved ones and friends of the affected person to recognise the conditions of the syndrome and to manage them.

Don’t force your child with Asperger Syndrome to mingle and go to parties if he doesn’t want to, for example.

Encourage his single-minded pursuits and channel him to great heights, like Greta Thunberg’s parents.

Give him a routine and help him stick to it.

And most of all, be loving and understanding.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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Autism , Asperger syndrome , Greta Thunberg


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