March 9, 2017

A new study by Frank Duffy and colleagues, conducted at the Boston’s Children’s hospital, has revealed differences in the functioning of brains of children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism. The team studied electroencephalography (EEG) patterns of 400 children with autism, 26 children with Asperger’s syndrome and 550 typical peers. The findings showed weaker connections in both groups compared to typical peers, in the area of brain concerned with language, called the arcuate fasciculus, situated in the left half of the brain.

The scientists found similarities in the EEG records of children with autism and Asperger’s as compared to the control group but found significant neurophysiological differences in brain connections amongst the former two groups itself. The findings indicate towards potential biological differences in the two disorders making space for larger and more sophisticated research in the future. Despite an adequately large control group, any new study with such statistically significant findings demands further, more conclusive research and replication in the future.

The paper published in the open journal BMC Medicine is a crucial one. It might pave the path for Asperger’s syndrome being given its own standing in a later edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Earlier in 2013, the latest edition, DSM- 5, removed the term Asperger’s syndrome and clubbed it along with other autism-like disorders under the umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

One might ask, what is the need to separate the two disorders if they are similar in manifestations? The answer is quite simple, their management differs. People with Asperger’s syndrome have social difficulties and exhibit unusual repetitive/restrictive behaviours like head nodding, excessive attachment to certain routine actions etc. These symptoms overlap with autism but autism spectrum children can additionally face cognitive and language development difficulties. In contrast, most people with Asperger’s are very close to typical peers as regards language and cognitive skills. While many autism spectrum children require specially trained caregivers to help cope with these problems and some may forever remain dependent on a family member/caregiver, most people with Asperger’s can survive independently.

Only more conclusive evidence on the inherent causes of these two disorders can help differentiate them and develop strategies to manage them. Meanwhile, the management continues to be customized to each child, based on their individual needs, irrespective of the name of the diagnosis.

About the author 

Igor Berezner

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