What are the signs of Aspergers in adults to look for? And what do you need to know if you suspect that your colleague might be on the spectrum? That you are dating someone with Asperger’s? Or even that you might have it yourself?
What is Asperger’s syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome is a subtype of autism which sees you communicate and socialise in ways that are outside of the norm, and can have a more restricted and repetitive way of approaching things than others do.
Also called ‘Asperger’s disorder’, it is actually no longer an official diagnosis in the UK (or the USA, for that matter). Since 2013 this was dropped in favour of using the more general umbrella diagnosis of ‘autism spectrum disorder’ (ASD).
But those who have a diagnosis may still like to use the term ‘Asperger’s’, or ‘Aspie’ for short. And most medical practitioners are fine for you to use either term.
Is Asperger’s an illness?
No. Aspergers isn’t an illness. There seems to be some biological and neurological differences in those that have it, but the research is still new and small. (Such as a study using magnetic resonance brain imaging on 32 adults with Asperger’s and concluded they had a volume difference in their amygdala). Otherwise, like all mental health labels, Asperger’s is just a term to describe a group of symptoms shared by certain individuals.
It’s also important to remember that nobody is a mental health label. They are a person with their own unique character, who might just fit the profile of ‘Asperger’s.’
[Want to hear about the experience of Asperger’s from someone who actually lives with it? Read our connected piece, “My Life With Aspergers Syndrome“.]
The three main Aspergers symptoms in adults
There are ongoing disputes over what is and isn’t Asperger’s, such as discussion over gender-based differences. A girl or woman with Aspergers syndrome might, for example, have a different experience with it than someone who identifies as male. And they might be better at ‘masking’, hiding the signs of Asperger’s in adults.
And note that symptoms can vary from person to person, as well as the ways that symptoms manifest. Some people will have high functioning Asperger’s, managing to have a fairly normal life, and others will struggle more.
But this said, the three main signs of Asperger’s syndrome in adults that will generally be present, as per the NHS, are difficulty with social communication, social interaction, and social imagination.
Secondary symptoms include:
- love of routines
- special interests
- sensory difficulties.
Note that these different ways of behaving that are signs of Apserger’s will have been present since childhood. The autism spectrum doesn’t just suddenly develop later in life.
More than 10 signs of Aspergers in adults
Again, not all symptoms are in all individuals beyond the three main symptoms listed above. These are just possibilities of how Asperger’s is known to manifest.
People with Aspergers might be more factual than normal. Instead of telling stories to get a point across, they will be direct.
They might also not be as prone to pausing and allowing interaction when they are speaking about something they care about.
They have no intention of being rude, they just are not as easily aware as you might be about how a conversation is ‘supposed’ to go. And they are passionate about what they like.
2. A lack of nonverbal behaviours.
Gestures and facial expressions can be less, or even missing. It’s just not the way many Aspies naturally communicate.
3. Little to no eye contact.
It’s common for someone with Asperger’s to not make much eye contact. It simply doesn’t feel natural for them.
If you tell them about it, they might then try extra hard to look you in the eye and then overdo it. They are doing their best, they just don’t have the same inbuilt feeling for eye contact that you might.
4. Not naturally one for social graces.
What many people consider ‘normal manners’ may not be intuitive for someone with Asperger’s. They can walk away when you are talking, invite you over for dinner then ignore you, open the door to let you into their house and look at you then walk off….
You might assume they are being rude. Not at all. They simply don’t have the same natural understanding of society’s ‘rules’ and have to learn them and work hard to keep them up.
5. Obsessive focus on one topic (which can be an unusual one).
It might be collecting something rare, or an unusual hobby, it might be another person that becomes the focus of someone with Asperger’s.
They might talk incessantly about the subject or other person, unaware they are boring others, lost in their passion.
There is some discussion that girls are less likely to have an unusual focus and more likely to simply over focus on a subject her peers are into. (But this assumes gender stereotypes are in place and she identifies with them).
Note that an Aspie’s focused interest can completely change and move on to another topic. (Which can feel hard if you are the obsessive focus of a person with Asperger’s, only for him or her to then seem totally uninterested).
6. Unable to understand what you are feeling.
Those with Asperger’s can often be judged as ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’, or ‘lacking empathy’.
It’s not that they don’t have empathy or mean to be unkind. It’s now thought, rather, that some people with Aspergers might even have too much empathy.
It’s more about finding emotions confusing and overwhelming and not knowing how to to describe or talk about them.
7. Different conversational skills.
Again, those with Asperger’s can talk a lot about what interests them, unable to see that others are either offended or uninterested. But if they don’t like someone, they might suddenly not talk at all, which can be awkward.
Another perspective here is that Asperger’s makes someone honest in perhaps ways we can all learn from. They aren’t going to pretend to be your friend or talk to you if they aren’t interested.
8. Not a ‘sharer’.
Wondering why the person you know doesn’t ask about how your day went? Or tell you about their recent successes? Sharing personal experience unprompted is not necessarily a given for someone with Asperger’s.
They might just need you to be clear that you want to share and be listened to, or to ask directly what you want to hear about.
Once a person with Asperger’s comes to a conclusion they can be quite set in it, and find it a challenge to see the perspective of others.
On the other hand, they can be very good at making decisions.
Last minute change of plans? This can be very upsetting or even overwhelming for someone with Aspergers, who are more comfortable if things go a certain way all the time.
They might also get very upset about something that to others seems tiny or strange, but to them is important.
11. Signs of Aspergers include a need for routine.
Asperger’s causes a need for routine and and structure. Without it, the person can become very flustered and panicked. On the other hand, they can be very organised and encourage you to be so, too.
12. Not touchy feely.
Those with Asperger’s can be very sensitive to touch and shy away from it, with the exception of someone they deeply trust. They might flinch at being tapped on the back or touched on the arm, and refuse to be hugged.
They might also have other autistic traits like a sensitivity to noise, smell, and colour, which can turn into sensorial overload.
Aspergers vs Autism spectrum disorder
What Aspergers has in common with other parts of the autistic spectrum is that it is a behavioural disorder which shows up in the way someone communicates and acts.
But some ‘Aspie’s’ feel they have little in common with those with other types of autism. Asperger’s affects day-to-day functioning less, for starters. And it doesn’t stop someone from being verbal, it just makes their communication different.
Another major problem is that those who might have previously qualified for a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome find they don’t have the right traits present for the new diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder. This can lead to less access to treatment.
Is the change from Asperger’s to ASD possibly a good thing?
On another note, the German doctor the condition is named after has recently been discovered to be far from the caring practitioner he portrayed himself as. Dr. Asperger worked under the Nazi regime and a recent research study has found he was responsible for the death of up to 800 children, signing them off as ‘unsuitable to live’. Not exactly a name one wants to remember.
Can Asperger’s syndrome in adults be treated?
There is no medication that specifically treats Asperger’s syndrome.
But working with a counselling psychologist can be very helpful. This is also the case if you don’t qualify as having autistic spectrum disorder but feel you would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often the recommended treatment.
During therapy you will learn how to cope under stress, how to communicate more effectively, and how to behave in social situations so that your day-to-day life becomes easier.
Harley therapy connects you to experienced and professional counselling psychologists for adults with autism working from several central London locations. We also offer autism testing for adults.