By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

What Is the Difference Between Autism and Asperger's?

There are a wide range of conditions that can impact brain development. So, when parents notice patterns in their children’s actions that deviate from neurotypical behaviors, it may prompt them to question whether they should seek professional help for possible neurodevelopmental disorders.

However, because conditions affect children in different ways, it’s important to understand and pinpoint the ones most relevant to the child’s symptoms. Common neurodevelopmental disorders that may arise when noticing these signs are autism and Asperger’s. When symptoms appear, people often end up asking the question: what is the difference between autism and Asperger’s?

We explore the main differences between autism and Asperger’s, as well as how caregivers and parents can best support their children if diagnosed.

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition in which individuals display repetitive behaviors—such as stimming—as well as restricted interests and social communication differences. There is not one sole cause for autism, as evidence suggests that environmental and genetic factors can play a role. Per the CDC, about 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with ASD.

Autism Symptoms

Common symptoms of autism include, but are not limited to, lack of eye contact, poor motor skills, and intellectual disability or above average intelligence. Also, those with autism prefer to engage in a small range of activities or they may isolate themselves. There are lesser known symptoms of autism that individuals may experience as well, so it’s crucial to recognize and be aware of these.

In terms of language development, children with autism may have limited communication skills or must express their needs through nonverbal communication. If children experience more severe symptoms of autism, they may require substantial support.

Autism Diagnosis

Children can begin to present symptoms at an early age, typically before three years of age. If you notice signs of ASD in your child, you can consider pursuing the autism diagnostic process. The sooner you seek out an autism diagnosis, the sooner your family can ensure your child will be set up for their future success.

What Is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s syndrome (AS), or Asperger’s, is a condition that was discovered by Austrian physician Hans Asperger in as early as the 1940s. He noticed distinctive behavioral patterns in his patients and documented these, and his notes were discovered a few decades later. Then, in 1994, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-4) recognized Asperger’s as a diagnosable syndrome. Though Asperger’s had previously been a separate but related diagnosis from autism, in 2013, the DSM-5 officially included AS within the autism spectrum disorder, alongside other types of autism such as childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).

Asperger’s syndrome can now be thought of as part of the autism spectrum. When compared to the number of children diagnosed with ASD, the percentage of people with AS is unknown. Additionally, AS doesn’t seem to have one particular cause; like autism, it is believed that Asperger’s stems from environmental and genetic factors.

Despite no longer being classified as a standalone condition, those with AS can still receive ample support.

Asperger’s Symptoms

People with ASD that may have previously been identified with Asperger's syndrome often require less intense forms of intervention and support than those autistic individuals who have more delays in cognitive and language skills. 

For example, while children with autism are known to experience language delays, those with Asperger's syndrome mainly exhibit exceptional language skills; however, their challenges are primarily with social skills. Physically, people with AS may appear uncoordinated, which can prompt others to think of these individuals as awkward or odd. Further, they may struggle with interpreting facial expressions or other social cues such as humor, irony, and sarcasm. Additionally, they may have trouble managing emotions, resulting in frustration and even outbursts.

They may also find difficulties with maintaining relationships. Many people with Asperger's syndrome won’t completely isolate themselves, but they may only prefer to partake in a few different activities. Like others with autism, they can be unreceptive to changes in routine as well.

Living With Asperger's syndrome

Many children with Asperger's syndrome experience less severe symptoms, and because these symptoms are mild, they may present as neurotypical. Thus, they may not receive an autism diagnosis until around age three, after age three, or even later in childhood. In fact, for some children, they may not realize they are living with AS until they reach their teenage years or even adulthood.

As soon as you notice potential signs of Asperger’s, it’s important to seek diagnosis for ASD, especially because some signs of Asperger's syndrome are similar to other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Asperger’s vs Autism

What is the difference between autism and Asperger’s? In truth, the two possess some crossover, especially considering Asperger’s falls under the autism umbrella. Both conditions emphasize fixations on particular activities and interests, as well as difficulties with coordination. The biggest difference, however, lies in cognitive and speech impairment. As mentioned above, those with Asperger’s are able to communicate but may experience challenges in social situations. Keep in mind that people with autism can experience more severe symptoms that may not allow them to communicate verbally.

Support for Autism and Asperger's syndrome

Regardless of the symptoms your child experiences, there are numerous diagnoses and treatment options children and their families can explore with a pediatrician. Behavioral therapy, medication, occupational therapy, and speech-language therapy are just a few of the many strategies parents can choose from. Additionally, remember that early intervention can be essential for building foundational skills that will help support your child’s mental health and provide them with confidence in social interactions and beyond.

Academic Resources: