What's The Difference Between Autism and Aspergers?

It is important to understand that Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) exist along a spectrum of varying degrees of severity. Differences between non-autistic individuals and those with a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder, therefore, are not discrete, but exist along a continuum. The exact nature or scope of the continuum, however, has been a source of continual controversy throughout the 20th and 21st century, and has undergone a great deal of development and revision.    

As recently as 2013, basic definitions and models for how ASD is to be understood, have undergone fundamental revision. The modern understanding of ASD saw its inception in 1943 by Austrian-American psychiatrist Leo Tanner under the label of "Early Infantile Autism" or "Kanner's Syndrome. According to the authors of Autism: The New Spectrum of Diagnostics, Treatment and Nutrition"autism" as a technical term did not, however, appear in either the DSM-I (1952) or the DSM-II (1968). Instead, terms like "autism" and "autistic" referred to symptoms related to schizophrenia. It was not until the coinage of "Infantile Autism" in DSM-III (1980), that the term had begun to be used in the way it has come to be understood today.   

The authors of Autism: The New Spectrum note in the DSM-IV-TR (2000), "autistic disorder" was listed among the five pervasive developmental disorders. It was here that that Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) made its official clinical debut. In addition to autistic disorder were listed childhood disintegrative disorder, Asperger's disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Rett's disorder. 

The DSM-IV-TR criteria for a diagnosis of an ASD fell under three main categories: 

  • Major impairment in social interaction
  • Major impairments in communication
  • Stereotyped or repetitive patterns of interests, behavior and activities

The DSM-5 overlaps with the DSM-IV approach in numerous respects, but with subtle, though important, differences. For example, five subtypes of the DSM-IV are now listed under the single category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Indeed, consistent with its emphasis on a more spectrum-oriented approach, the degree of symptom severity must be specified for each group of symptoms. 
First, the DSM-5 groups interpersonal and communicative problems under the following: 

  • Problems in social and emotional reciprocity
  • Abnormalities in nonverbal communicative behavior
  • Problems maintaining and understanding relationships

Second, the DSM-5 requires restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities in at least two of the four following behavioral or interest patterns: 

  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor behavior
  • Insistance on rigid adherence to routines or rituals
  • Abnormally intense focus on specific interests
  • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory stimuli. In other words, either unusual sensitivity to stimuli that would not bother most individuals or indifference to stimuli that would bother most people

Consistent with its emphasis on a more spectrum-based approach, Asperger Syndrome may be diagnosed when the individual exhibits interpersonal and social difficulties similar to others who would have been diagnosed with autistic disorder in the past, but they do not exhibit significant delays in speech or language use. Such individuals may exhibit a great deal of difficulty interacting with others and they may exhibit unusually intense or focused sets of interests that others may find atypical or unusual, and they may be indifferent to interests that are more common.