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The Condition Formerly Known as Asperger’s Syndrome

Sep 12, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Kelsey Casselbury

When Rhiannon Corley of Crofton looks back on the development of her now-10-year-old daughter, she sees what she didn’t back then—signs of autism. It wasn’t just Corley that didn’t pick up on the hints, though; the pediatricians didn’t realize that Corley’s daughter might be a high-functioning autistic either. 

“I didn’t consider autism until about age seven because they weren’t the ‘classic’ symptoms,’” recalls Corley, who requested that her daughter’s name not be published, and that’s fairly common. Although autism can be diagnosed as early as age two and has a median age diagnosis of three years, 10 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high-functioning autism—or what used to be known as Asperger’s Syndrome—is often diagnosed much later in a child’s life. In Corley’s case, her daughter wasn’t diagnosed until January 2018, when she was nine years old. In some cases, a person with very-high-functioning autism might not even be diagnosed until early adulthood. 

Recognizing High-Functioning Autism

Asperger’s Syndrome used to be considered its own diagnosis, but it was removed in 2013 from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Those who display symptoms are now included within the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, pediatricians screening for ASD might not note the signs of the disease formerly known as Asperger’s, as they’re looking for some of the more obvious signs of autism: lack of eye contact, lack of response to his or her name or a familiar voice, lack of making noises to get another person’s attention, and more. Instead, common symptoms of high-functioning autism include emotional sensitivity, a fixation on particular subjects or ideas, social difficulties, and problems processing physical sensations. 

All of these signs are what Corley began to notice when her daughter was around seven, noting that she doesn’t like to be touched by—or even be in close proximity to—people she doesn’t know. “Class pictures are a fiasco,” she says. Corley also notes that her daughter becomes distressed by loud noises, can’t seem to handle change, reacts inappropriately to feelings and stressors, and is specific about ideas and facts. “For example, this morning, I told her she had 15 minutes before she had to get ready for school,” Corley recalls. “She couldn’t bear it because, technically, it was 17 minutes until the ‘getting ready for school’ alarm was going to go off. My generalization was wrong.” 

Seeking Help

Teachers and other educational professionals or care providers often play a crucial role in both the diagnosis and management of ASD, particularly because high-functioning ASD often isn’t diagnosed until a child reaches school age. As children head back to school this month, a parent might wonder if local schools can assist their family with the condition. Corley notes that her daughter, who is a student in Anne Arundel County Public Schools, has a 504 plan with accommodation for the symptoms of ADHD, but not ASD. It’s the teachers who have been “amazing,” she says. “Her current teacher has a desk set aside where she can go if there is a problem, in order to remove herself from an upsetting situation, collect herself, and continue working without disrupting the class.”

Although autism can be diagnosed as early as age two and has a median age diagnosis of three years, 10 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high-functioning autism—or what used to be known as Asperger’s Syndrome—is often diagnosed much later in a child’s life.

If a parent thinks that their child might suffer from any form of ASD, high-functioning or otherwise, experts recommend seeking help immediately. The Department of Education’s Maryland’s Infants and Toddlers Program (MITP) offers early intervention services for young children with developmental delays and disabilities, and their families, as well as Preschool Special Education Services. Early intervention can make a significant difference in a person’s life. 

Corley admits that the diagnosis of high-functioning autism, as well as OCD and ADHD, has been tough on their family. “The biggest effect is that I have to be a stay-at-home mom to facilitate the support she needs,” she explains. “I coordinate her psychiatrist, therapist, speech therapist, and many school meetings, but being involved at the school has helped a lot. This is a financial stress in our family, but we have to do what’s best for our daughter.”