Some children with learning and attention issues have similar symptoms as children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is especially true of kids with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s natural to think both groups of kids will benefit from the same type of interventions. But there are major differences that are important to understand.
What You Need to Know About Autism Spectrum Disorder
Until recently, ASD was considered an “umbrella” diagnosis that covered several different conditions. These included Asperger’s syndrome; pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS); Rett syndrome; childhood disintegrative disorder; and autistic disorder. Although the conditions had some overlap of signs and symptoms, they were considered separate diagnoses.
The diagnosis changed in the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which was published in May 2013. This manual gives professionals the criteria needed to make a diagnosis. In the new DSM, all of the subgroups are now considered autism spectrum disorder.
All kids with ASD share similar symptoms. But the word spectrum means there’s a range of severity levels. The severity of ASD symptoms is described by a Support Level of 1, 2 or 3, with 3 being the highest level of support.
The ratings scales are new. It’s not yet clear if children who would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome under the old DSM criteria will now be diagnosed with ASD, Support Level 1.
Despite this change, for a variety of reasons, you’re likely to keep hearing the term Asperger’s syndrome.
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
ASD is a brain-based developmental disability that affects how kids process certain types of information. Kids with ASD have difficulty with social interaction and communication.
Kids with ASD also have trouble thinking flexibly and dealing with change. They often have an obsessive interest in certain topics or items. They may engage in repetitive behaviors, routines and movements (which some people call stimming).
Many kids with ASD also have sensory processing issues. Their brains and bodies over- or underreact to information that comes in through the senses. For instance, they may be very sensitive to touch and even feel it as pain.
Why People Confuse ASD With Learning and Attention Issues
Kids with Asperger’s syndrome do not have the speech or cognitive delays that other children with autism have. They have average or above-average intelligence (even in the “gifted” range). But they have social difficulties.
Kids with Asperger’s syndrome function at a higher level than other kids with autism. This means their issues could be mistaken for learning and attention issues. To some degree, that’s because the symptoms overlap. For example, kids with Asperger’s syndrome may show some of the following traits:
- Trouble recognizing other people’s feelings and “reading” nonverbal cues. They tend to be very literal. They don’t always understand puns, riddles or figures of speech. These are symptoms also seen with social communication issues, ADHD and receptive language issues.
- Difficulty with executive functioning. They find it hard to get organized and solve problems. They can struggle to keep their emotions in check and change the way they do things without getting upset. Kids with ADHD and executive functioning issues often have similar problems.
- A tendency to be distracted by sights, sounds, smells, touch and other information coming in through the senses. This is also common in kids with sensory processing issues and ADHD.
- A tendency to be clumsy and uncoordinated. They may have trouble with handwriting, riding a bike, catching a ball or running. These can also be symptoms of dyspraxia, dysgraphia and sensory processing issues.
- Trouble working with words. They could struggle to express themselves, follow conversations, and speak with the right volume and inflection. These are also symptoms of speech-language issues and nonverbal learning disabilities.
How ASD and Learning and Attention Issues Are Different
There is a lot of overlap in the symptoms of ASD and learning and attention issues. And they can occur together. But they’re not the same thing. For kids with ASD the main struggle involves social understanding, communication, and repetitive routines or behaviors (including narrow and obsessive interests).
These symptoms are not typical of kids learning and attention issues. The narrow interests and repetitive behavior also make ASD different from social communication issues, which can otherwise look a lot like ASD.
Like kids with ASD, children with learning and attention issues may struggle with social skills and communication. But those struggles are related to their specific learning issues.
For instance, a child with visual processing issues may stand too close to someone during conversation because he has trouble judging distances. A child with ASD might stand too close because he has a poor sense of personal space.
Before you can help your child, you’ll need to know whether he has ASD or a learning and attention issue. Talking to your child’s teacher or doctor about an evaluation is the first step toward finding strategies to help your child.