Autism in Ann Arbor: The Disappearance of Asperger’s Syndrome

Where did Asperger’s syndrome go? For years people were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, considered by many to be a “less severe” version of Autism. In 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was removed from the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals, otherwise known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the DSM. Why did the authors remove Asperger’s from the DSM? That is a good question, before we get to the answer, let’s learn more about the history of Asperger’s syndrome.

Asperger’s syndrome was identified in 1944 by Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician who noticed some of his patients were presenting with characteristics similar to Leo Kanner’s description of Autism (1943), but with some small differences. His patients were showing difficulty with social interactions, delayed communication skills, restricted interests, need for sameness, social isolation and disinterest in certain social interactions. However, he also noticed that his patients had stronger verbal skills, above average communication, and showed high IQ’s. Some authors have hypothesized that Asperger was describing similar patients as Kanner, but he purposely identified subtle but positive characteristics in his patients in order to protect them from negative social consequences (i.e., he lived during the time of Nazi Germany when individuals with disabilities were persecuted or killed).

Asperger’s Syndrome began to appear in the clinical literature around 1981 and it was added to the DSM in 1994 and subsequently removed in 2013 when the DSM-V (fifth edition) was published. Recently, Cathy Lord has spearheaded the movement to clarify the differences between autism, particularly high-functioning individuals, and Asperger’s. What she found was that even mental health professionals had difficulty with this differential diagnosis. Over time, contradictions and confusion about this situation led to the decision to remove Asperger’s from the newest DSM and introduce a general category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The goal of the change is to improve the diagnostic process. The authors of the DSM also created “specifiers” which are specific additions or clarifying statements regarding the ASD diagnosis. For example, a person can be diagnosed with ASD including a specifier with or without intellectual impairment or with or without language impairment. By adding the specifiers, mental health professionals can diagnose people with less vagueness and uncertainty. The hope is to make the diagnosis clearer for people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder and for the mental health professionals who help them.

Although Asperger’s Syndrome was removed from the most recent edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many people still self-identify and relate to the old diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Some folks who were identified with Asperger’s may want to maintain the diagnosis because they are part of a community that identifies with that label and receive much needed support in these settings.

This is a brief explanation of where Asperger’s Syndrome went. If you have questions about Autism Spectrum Disorder you can find more information on CNLD’s website under the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic for Children and Adults. Further, if you are seeking information about whether you or a family member is experiencing symptoms of ASD, we can help. Contact our office for information on our services.