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Asperger's Disorder

by Tessa ten Tusscher, Ph.D.

Asperger’s Disorder (AD) is a developmental condition that is relatively rare, but frequently misdiagnosed. Children with this disorder usually have an average to above average intelligence, but have difficulty with social interactions, adherence to rules, and emotional sensitivity and reciprocity. AD is much more common in males. These deficits are often subtle and they can easily be missed in the classroom setting.

So what are the chief characteristics of this disorder? People with AD exhibit deficits in the following areas:

Social Interaction: Children with AD appear socially aloof, may have poor eye contact and, while wanting attention from their peers, do not have the skills to sustain positive interaction. Their major social deficit is an inability to understand the perspective of another person. This makes them seem to lack empathy.

Adherence to Rules: Children with AD need orderliness and structure. They may create their own rituals and insist that others adhere to their rules.

Language Development: During early childhood language development may be delayed. This is often followed by a "language burst" where children develop an extraordinarily broad vocabulary. However, they continue to have difficulty deriving the full meaning of both written and spoken language. This means that while it seems that they understand what is being said, they in fact miss subtle nuances of language.

Problem Solving: Children with AD appear to lack "common-sense." They have poor impulse control and deficits in planning, self-monitoring, and transitioning from one situation to another.

Motor Clumsiness: This is not an essential part of the syndrome and is usually seen in pre-school children. Motor clumsiness may extend into later development in children with AD.

AD is difficult to diagnose because many of these deficits are found in children with specific learning disabilities, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism. Diagnosis is further complicated because children frequently have co-existing disorders including tic disorders, Tourette’s, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and mood disorders.

If a child is suspected of having AD, he or she should be referred to a neuropsychologist for evaluation. The neuropsychologist  will make the diagnosis by:

  • Taking a thorough developmental history;
  • Obtaining detailed information from teachers and parents;
  • Administering neuropsychological testing, using standardized measures to measure intellectual functioning, visual-motor and visual spatial processing, motor functioning, language, and social/emotional functioning;
  • Performing pragmatic language testing and assessment of "neuro-integrative tasks" to assesses the child’s capacity to comprehend language and their ability and motivation to anticipate other people’s thoughts, feelings and behavior; and 
  • Analyzing the child’s unique "view of the world": to assess when the child may be misinterpreting or misprocessing information

After a clear diagnosis is made, specific interventions can be developed to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of the child. These include:

  • Use of medications like Ritalin or Risperdol;
  • Behavior therapy that teaches social skills, helps the child to understand emotions, improves motor skills, and encourages the understanding and perspectives of others;
  • Family education and support; and
  • Classroom interventions. Not all children with AD need special education, but they do qualify under the IDEA and Section 504 for accommodations. These should be tailored to the specific deficits of the child, as delineated in the neuropsychological assessment report, rather than being based solely on the diagnosis.

Teachers and parents of children with AD need education and support. Tony Atwood’s book, Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, provides very useful and practical advice. 

There are also Web sites that have excellent information about Asperger’s Disease. On-line Asperger’s Syndrome and Support – OASIS – ( is a comprehensive and easy to navigate  site put together by a parent. Asperger’s Disorder Home Page ( has a lot of good information and links. 

Teachers, counselors, and health professionals  who would like information on diagnosis and how to develop academic or other interventions are welcome to contact the clinicians at BAPTA.

Bay Area Psychological Testing Associates
1057 MacArthur Blvd. #206
San Leandro, CA 94577
Telephone (415) 296-8081

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Copyright 2002, Bay Area Psychological Testing Associates