What is the difference between autism and Asperger syndrome?

The terms “autism” and “Asperger syndrome” are often used interchangeably.

Once considered a mild but distinct form of autism, Asperger’s was a diagnosis in itself.

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With advances in our understanding of the condition, Asperger’s now features on the less severe end of the autistic spectrum.

More than one in 100 people (1.1%) in the UK are thought to have some degree of autism. The disorder is often more obvious in children, with one in 54 youngsters said to show symptoms in the US.

Hands holding puzzle ribbon for autism awareness
World Autism Awareness Day 2020 falls on 2 April. (Getty Images)

How do autism and Asperger syndrome differ?

Doctors no longer diagnose individuals with Asperger’s, according to the NHS. Those diagnosed before this change, however, keep their original diagnosis.

Asperger’s is named after an Austrian doctor who observed autism-like difficulties in terms of socialising in boys with normal intelligence and speech development.

Some considered Asperger’s a mild form of autism, with Professor Uta Frith, editor of the journal Autism and Asperger Syndrome, previously describing these individuals as “having a dash of autism”.

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Asperger’s was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994 as a separate disorder from autism.

In 2013, an updated manual put Asperger’s under the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

Autism is not considered an illness, but instead describes how an individual’s brain works differently.

People may find it more difficult to communicate or understand how others think.

Some find bright lights or loud noises overwhelming and become anxious in unfamiliar settings.

Autism has no “cure”. Many people with the condition are able to live a full life, while others may require a carer.

Side view young woman looking away at window sitting on couch at home. Frustrated confused female feels unhappy problem in personal life quarrel break up with boyfriend or unexpected pregnancy concept
Autism can occur alongside depression and anxiety. (Getty Images)

Asperger’s, or “high-functioning autism”, is sometimes used to refer to an autistic person with average or superior intelligence.

Some people with autism have learning difficulties and a delay in speaking or are even non-verbal.

To an outsider, an individual with Asperger’s may seem cognitively sound, but with different ways of behaving.

Unlike autistic individuals, those with Asperger’s often want to fit in but may be unsure how to interact with others.

They may struggle to maintain eye contact, understand sarcasm or appear engaged in a conversation.

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People with Asperger’s may take great interest in a narrow subject, like sports statistics or collecting niche objects.

They do not have speech delay but may speak in a way that is overly formal, excessively loud or without inflection.

Nobody knows for sure what causes autistic spectrum disorder.

It can affect individuals in the same family, suggesting there is a genetic element.

Autism is not caused by bad parenting, vaccines, diet or infections.

It cannot be “treated”, however, many individuals benefit from speech and language therapy, or occupational support.

Autism can occur alongside conditions that can be somewhat managed, like depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), epilepsy and dyslexia.