Does Asperger Syndrome Still Exist?

Though it's no longer official, Aspergers is still a common diagnosis

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Man Alone Watching Dawn. Getty

Asperger syndrome was, for a short period of time, one of five Pervasive Developmental Disorders listed in the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Part of the autism spectrum, Asperger syndrome was, in essence, another term for mild or high functioning autism.

Asperger syndrome, as a diagnostic category, existed only between 1994 when it was added to the DSM and May 2013, when it was removed.  The current DSM-5, which is as close as Americans get to an “official” set of diagnoses, includes just one general category for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Asperger Syndrome Is No Longer an Official Diagnostic Category

Officially, practitioners can no longer diagnose an individual with Asperger syndrome. 

Anyone who had an Asperger syndrome diagnosis prior to 2013 is now considered to have Autism Spectrum Disorder. The "new" autism describes people as having a severity level between one and three, based on their need for support. Virtually everyone with a prior Asperger syndrome diagnosis qualifies for a Level 1 diagnosis, meaning “in need of a relatively low level of support.” Meanwhile, individuals presenting for the first time with relatively mild symptoms of autism will receive a first-time diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Asperger Syndrome Is Not Disappearing Anytime Soon

While the official DSM does not include Asperger syndrome, plenty of people will continue to use the term "Aspergers" for the foreseeable future. 

Clinicians will continue to use the term to describe individuals they’re diagnosing – even if they use a different medical code for insurance purposes. And some clinicians will go by the international coding system which DOES still include Asperger syndrome. In addition, groups and organizations will continue to use the term to describe the group of people they serve.

According to Erika Drezner of the Asperger/Autism Network, “We’re not going anywhere; we’re still here, and still helping people. We serve people and not their diagnosis!”

Alicia Halliday, Senior Director, Environmental and Clinical Sciences at Autism Speaks concurs, saying: “People with Aspergers who want to maintain that diagnosis and label—because there is a community that identifies with that label—we support that. If they want to use that label and identity, they should be able to do that. It has nothing to do with DSM5. It may not be a diagnostic label. We have an Asperger's toolkit, and we’re not changing the name: we’re adding new information and explaining how that maps onto the DSM5. As time goes on, that term may or may not be used in the future.”

Individuals will continue to use the term to describe themselves and to clarify their strengths and challenges to others around them. Self-advocacy groups like GRASP have no intention of dropping their word Aspergers from their title, nor do any of the organizations I’ve interviewed.

Why Continue to Use a Term if It's No Longer a Valid Diagnosis?

The answer is simple: while the American Psychiatric Association no longer finds the term useful, almost everyone else does.

Asperger syndrome, first named by Hans Asperger in the 1940’s and placed in the DSM IV in 1987, has come to have a lot of meaning for a lot of people across the United States and around the world. Made famous by the Wired Magazine article “Geek Syndrome,” it has come to describe people who are brilliant, quirky, anxious, creative, and socially awkward. These people are very different from those diagnosed with more severe forms of autism which once had names of their own (autistic disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder) but are grouped together under the autism spectrum.

Famous achievers ranging from Einstein to Bill Gates to Mozart have been labeled as having Asperger syndrome, and celebrities including comedians, beauty queens, and vocalists have come forward to say that they have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

Meanwhile, organizations including self-advocacy groups, parent support groups, college programs, sports leagues, summer camps and more have been built around the Aspergers name. Authors, public speakers, and life coaches have built their careers around having or understanding people with Asperger syndrome.

The new autism spectrum is likely to create confusion for quite a while, especially because it literally lumps all autism diagnoses into a single category. That means that people with very severe challenges, who are non-verbal, intellectually challenged, and in need of significant daily support for basic life skills will have the same “title” as those who are, for example, completing graduate school and having a difficult time relating to peers or managing loud parties.

It is possible that, someday, the term Asperger syndrome will disappear along with some of the other outmoded psychological terms that have come and gone over time. For today, however, the term remains as useful and significant as it has ever been.

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Article Sources
  • Sources:
  • Interview with Erika Drezner, Asperger/Autism Network. June, 2013.
  • Interview with Alicia Halliday, Senior Director, Environmental and Clinical Sciences, Autism Speaks, 2013.
  • Interview with Bryan King, MD, Director at the Seattle Children's Autism Center and director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital. He was a member of the work group responsible for revising the definition of autism and related disorders. June 2013.