What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Asperger Syndrome in Children and Teenagers?

Asperger syndrome is a condition that is on the autism spectrum; this means that children and teenagers with Asperger syndrome have what is usually a mild form of autism. Sometimes the symptoms are so mild that they are not discovered in early or middle childhood like more severe forms of autism. In fact, many times, Asperger syndrome is not diagnosed at all. Other times, it’s something that makes itself more apparent during the teenage years. Have you thought that maybe your adolescent has a mild form of autism spectrum disorder? Read on to learn about the signs and symptoms of Asperger syndrome.

Not Picking Up on Social Cues

One of the main signs of Asperger syndrome is that the affected teen isn’t able to pick up on social cues and non-verbal language. They might stand too close to someone, for example, and not pick up on the other person’s discomfort when they step away. Or they might not understand intuitively that if their visitor begins to put on his or her jacket, it means they want to leave. Most teens who do not have Asperger syndrome are able to pick up on these types of cues and respond appropriately.

Not Understanding Jokes, Sarcasm, or Changes in Tone

Adolescents with Asperger syndrome tend to take whatever is said literally. They understand the words being uttered; they just don’t understand when those words are being used to convey sarcasm. They often have trouble understanding jokes and they might not pick up on changes in tone that alter the meaning of a sentence or phrase. Your teen also might speak in a flat monotone or even pick up an accent that they have heard.

Appear to Lack Empathy

Because they don’t respond well to body language and changes in tone or facial expression and because they don’t always understand non-literal language, teens with Asperger syndrome can appear to lack empathy for others. For example, if a friend shares that their grandmother died, a teen on the autism spectrum might simply say, “oh,” and not offer condolences if they haven’t been taught previously that the anticipated response is, “I’m sorry.” They might rationalize that since the death was not their fault, they should not say, “I’m sorry.” They also might not be able to put themselves in their friend’s shoes and consider how they, themselves, would feel if their own grandmother died.

Not Tolerating Changes in Routine Well

Many teens who have Asperger syndrome get into a routine and are distressed when that routine has to change unexpectedly. For example, if they encounter a closed sidewalk on their walk to school, they might get upset and flustered. Or if a classroom assignment changes without warning, this can bring on an angry outburst.

Not Able to Participate in the Back-and-Forth of Typical Conversation

The course of everyday conversation usually consists of taking turns with each person contributing thoughts related to the topic at hand. For a teen with Asperger syndrome, however, this can be difficult. They might, instead, carry on a long-winded explanation of something that has little or nothing to do with the topic that their conversation partner brought up. They also might change the subject abruptly when they tire of talking about a particular topic.

Preoccupation With a Few Interests

While many teens develop strong interests during adolescence, those who are not on the autism spectrum can usually find something interesting about topics other than the ones they’re passionate about. For young people with Asperger syndrome, this might not be the case. They might have a very detailed and passionate interest in something such as outer space or machines, and they might spend all or most of their free time devoted to learning more about these topics. They might also state obscure facts about their chosen topic to others who do not share their passion.

Trouble With Different Sensory Stimuli

Some teens with Asperger syndrome are sensitive to various types of sensory stimuli and they can become frustrated and overwhelmed. Loud noises are a common stimulus that can cause distress. So are textures of clothing and of food. If your teen reacts with anger or frustration when confronted with annoying sounds or if they’re unable to tolerate clothing with tags or a lot of different foods, these could be signs of Asperger syndrome.

Being Too Trusting or Naive

Some teens with Asperger syndrome, in part because they do not pick up well on nonverbal cues, become too trusting or naive, allowing others to take advantage of them. For example, if a classmate asks to copy their math test and says, “we’re friends, and friends help each other,” a teen with Asperger syndrome might not realize that they are taking advantage of them and will, instead, take what they say at face value and allow the cheating to take place.

Depression and/or Anxiety

Teens who are on the autism spectrum usually know that they do not think the same way that their peers do. This can cause depression or anxiety, particularly social anxiety. It’s important to know the signs of both depression and anxiety; teens can have one or the other or they can have both at the same time. If your teenager is isolating him- or herself, frequently sad or hopeless, seems to have a lot of worries, isn’t sleeping or eating well (or, conversely, is sleeping or eating too much), or has other symptoms that worry you, it’s important to seek mental health treatment for them. In severe cases, depression, in particular, can lead to suicidal ideation, so don’t ignore these symptoms.

Help for Teens With Asperger Syndrome

If you suspect that your adolescent might have Asperger syndrome, there are therapies that can help him or her achieve success in making friends, holding down a good job, finishing their education, and, if they desire, having romantic relationships. Talk to your teen’s primary care physician about his or her symptoms and ask for a referral to a specialist.