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NLD and Asperger's Disorder

Joe Palombo

Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Chapter 11, pages 205-218

Asperger's Disorder

In 1944 Hans Asperger published a paper describing a group of children whom he identified as suffering from "autistic psychopathy." These children closely resembled the children that Kanner (1943) had described earlier in his paper on autism, but with some significant differences. Asperger's work was not introduced to English speakers until Wing wrote about his work in 1981 and suggested the label "Asperger's disorder." Utah Frith eventually translated his original paper in 1991 (Asperger, 1991).

The children that Asperger described did not have the severe language impairments that characterized Kanner's children. The features of the syndrome, which was later given Asperger's name, included peculiarities in gaze, use of gesture, facial expressions, and vocal intonation. He described the children as original or creative in their ideas, and he found them to be accurate observers of other people, although they were also inattentive. SOcially, they were capable of purpose1y hurting others and of generally negativistic and stereotypic behaviors. Their feelings did not match their intellectual level. They could not display affection toward others, and they maintained a distance that seemed to denote an inability to be intimate with others. Among their peculiar behaviors were their obsessions with objects, which they persisted in collecting. Finally, they lacked a sense of humor, having no understanding of jokes (Frith, 1991).

In her landmark contribution to the literature on autistic spectrum disorder, Wing (1988) suggested that "a necessary and sufficient condition for a diagnosis of a disorder in this continuum [autistic spectrum disorder] is an impairment in the development of the ability to engage in reciprocal social interactions" (p. 92). She added that children within the spectrum have social interaction impairments in (1) social recognition (2) social communication, and (3) social imagination and understanding. An additional symptom is that of repetitive patterns of activity. Other psychological functions that are impaired include language (particularly, pragmatic language), motor coordination, responses to sensory stimuli, and cognitive skills. Wing considered the triad of impairments in social recognition, social communication, and imagination to constitute the core deficits in autism and in Asperger's disorder. She concluded that Kanner's and Asperger's syndromes fell within a continuum of children having social impairments, although the profiles of Asperger's children differed from those of Kanner's (Wing, 1991).