Autism is a well-known disorder today, with some of its main characteristics being generally known to the majority of the population. The same is true of Asperger’s syndrome. Both disorders are now part of the so-called autism spectrum disorder or ASD, having been integrated into a single disorder in DSM 5 due to the presence of very similar symptoms.

However, if this has not happened until now, it is because although similar and intimately related, there are elements that distinguish them. It is about these characteristics that we are going to talk in this article: the main differences between Asperger’s syndrome and Autism .

Conceptualizing autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by the presence of social, language, and behavioral disturbances. It is a problem that is usually detected in very early stages of development, and some of the main symptoms can be seen before the age of three .

In this sense, the presence of communicative deficits such as the absence or difficulty in using or understanding non-verbal language, difficulties in relating or even in some cases apparent lack of interest in it, stands out. They find it difficult to understand that others have a mind independent of their own, and may sometimes have instrumental attitudes. They tend to reject physical contact (although in some cases they do accept or seek out the contact of significant people). They often give the impression of being closed in on themselves , with behaviour that is not very exploratory with their surroundings.

It is common for it to be accompanied by some degree of intellectual disability, as well as a delay in the acquisition and development of language (and in some cases it may not be acquired completely). They have great difficulty with the social and pragmatic use of language, and in some cases may even reach total mutism, or the emission of few sounds.

At the behavioural level, the presence of repetitive and routine interests and activities, with which they are usually very fixed, stands out. They tend to be rigid, finding it difficult to adapt to new things and needing routines to feel secure. Finally, they may have hiccups or hypersensitivity to stimulation (frequently before noises and lights) and it is common for them to present stereotyped movements that serve as self-stimulation.

Asperger syndrome

Asperger’s syndrome is also a neurodevelopmental disorder , but it usually takes much longer to be observed, usually when social demands start to increase and closer links are established. It shares with autism the existence of interpersonal and communication difficulties, as well as the existence of restricted interests and repetitive behavior patterns (also requiring routines and presenting difficulties to get used to changes).

In language they also have difficulties, although there is no delay and the problem is limited to the pragmatic use of language and the understanding of figurative language. They tend to be very literal . They find it difficult to capture information referring to other people’s emotions, and it is frequent that they also find it difficult to express their own, both on a verbal and non-verbal level. Most of them have a normative cognitive capacity and generally do not suffer from intellectual disabilities.

Despite this, there is usually a certain motor delay. Typical behavior is usually adaptive and they are often curious and interested in the outside environment.

Main differences

Looking at the generic descriptions of both disorders, we can see that although they share many characteristics, they have features that until a few years ago were considered distinct disorders. The main differences are the following.

Intellectual capacity

One of the perhaps most remarkable differences between Asperger’s and autism is found in the tendency to have certain levels of intellectual capacity . While in Asperger’s there is usually an intellectual capacity in the average population, autism tends to have some degree of intellectual disability (although in some cases they have a cognitive capacity located in the average population).

2. Adaptive behavior and autonomy

Although there are elements that pose difficulties for both, as a general rule asperger can act autonomously without major problems (beyond possible social problems). In the case of typical autism, these difficulties are much greater and those who suffer from it may need continued support

3. Differences in language

Although in both cases there is some difficulty in language, there are great differences in this ability.

In the case of Asperger’s syndrome, those who suffer from it tend to have problems with figurative language, the pragmatic use of it or the understanding of aspects linked to emotions (both oral and gestural). However, they usually have a rich vocabulary and speech appropriate to their level of maturity, even sometimes excessively cultured, and are usually able to express themselves correctly.

The person with autism, however, often presents language that is behind his or her maturity level , having severe difficulties in expressing his or her thoughts.

4. Contact with others

Both subjects with autism and subjects with asperger’s disease are characterized by social difficulties. However, in the case of Asperger’s, they tend to have an interest in establishing social bonds, while subjects with autism tend to seek more isolation and avoid contact more.

5. Movements

Another aspect that usually differentiates both disorders is the presence of movement disorders. In autism, for example, it is common for stereotyped movements to occur , which is not the case in asperger’s. However, in the latter case there is usually some delay in motor development, which is not usually described in typical autism.

6. Interest

Although in both cases there are restricted and repetitive, even obsessive, interests in autism they are usually based on a specific stimulus while in asperger they are usually broader or more elaborate topics.

7. Age of detection and diagnosis

Although this aspect may not seem to be typical of the disorder, it does give an idea of the symptomatology that is more or less marked and evident in one or another case.

Typical autism or Kanner-type autism is usually diagnosed before the third year of the subject’s life while Asperger’s syndrome is usually diagnosed much later, usually around the age of seven or even in adolescence.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.
  • American Psychiatric Association (2002). DSM-IV-TR. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Spanish edition. Barcelona: Masson. (Original in English, 2000).
  • Thief, A. (2012). Child clinical psychology. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 03.