Asperger Syndrome Explained Jon Hamilton and Madeleine Brand talk about Asperger Syndrome, whom it affects, and what forms of medical and social treatments are available.

Asperger Syndrome Explained

Asperger Syndrome Explained

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Jon Hamilton and Madeleine Brand talk about Asperger Syndrome, whom it affects, and what forms of medical and social treatments are available.


And as we just heard, Asperger's is one form of autism. For a closer look at it, we're joined now by NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Hi, Jon.


BRAND: Well first of all, I know this is controversial, but how common is Asperger's?

HAMILTON: Well, to answer the question, you really have to talk about how common is autism, and there's been a lot of debate over time about that. But the figures that people seem to have settled on now are that about one child in 150 or 160 has some form of autism. Now, Asperger is a subset of that, and it's much less common. It's perhaps one child in 500.

BRAND: And Asperger's being a less severe form of autism.

HAMILTON: Yeah. That's classically how it's defined, and there are still some scientists who would argue that you shouldn't have a separate label for Asperger's. It really is just a mild form of autism.

BRAND: What are the commonly found symptoms?

HAMILTON: The most obvious things are social difficulties. You see these kids have trouble making friends. They have trouble making small talk, and that's because they have a difficulty understanding what other people are thinking and feeling.

That's something most of us do innately, but for these kids, it is very difficult. So they don't read body language very well. They have trouble understanding the importance of eye contact, and they often have something of a sort of literal thinking. So for instance, in a conversation, they might have trouble interpreting sarcasm or irony or jokes.

And I guess the final thing you see with a lot of kids with Asperger is that they have a very narrow focus of interests. So they may know everything about trains, for instance, but not really care much about anything else.

BRAND: You know, I have to say your description, a lot of women could say that that applies to a lot of men that they know, who have trouble reading you, reading your emotions, don't listen too well and are obsessed by single things. And, in fact, as I've done a little bit of research on this, this disease does affect boys, males, more than women or girls.

HAMILTON: Yes, both autism and Asperger are three to four times more common in males than females. And there's at least one researcher who thinks that there must be something innate about men, that on the spectrum, if you're more like a man, you are less able to be socially competent, and these things are more difficult for you.

BRAND: And wasn't there a famous article in Wired magazine about Silicon Valley seems to have more people with Asperger's than anywhere else?

HAMILTON: There was, indeed. The thing about people with Asperger's, many of them, of course, are not just normal intelligement(ph), but many of them also are very highly intelligent. And it has been argued that if you were to look around Silicon Valley, you would see a lot of highly successful people in the computer and software businesses that, in fact, could be diagnosed with Asperger's. And yet, you know, without them, Silicon Valley would be in big trouble.

BRAND: Jon, what is the most common form of treatment for Asperger's?

HAMILTON: Most of what you would call treatment is actually behavior therapy of some sort, and so there's a lot of almost scripted learning. So if you're in a conversation, you learn things like, well, you know, after you talk for a while, you need to let the other person talk for a while, because that may not be obvious to somebody who has Asperger's.

Another part of treatment involves drugs. And again, these are not going after the condition itself. But, for instance, if you have a lot of trouble in social situations, that may go along with a lot of anxiety. So often, a part of treatment is to give drugs that treat the anxiety.

It's important to remember that this is basically a neurological problem, so you're talking about kids who have a difference in their brain. And that brain difference doesn't go away, even though many of the behaviors associated with it might.

BRAND: NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Thank you, Jon.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

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