Recently, the American Psychiatric Association decided to merge Asperger’s and autism in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Now, both are classified as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). But was their decision premature? Parents and experts believed so, and now, a new study suggests they may have been correct.
Both children with autism and those with Asperger’s display difficulties in communication and social interaction. Additionally, both groups of children often display strange or unusual behavior, such as rigidity in schedules or interests. However, children with Asperger’s don’t generally have the same language and cognitive development issues as children with autism; though they may be a bit behind, they typically show development more in line with neurotypically developing children.
What is the reason behind these differences? Some scientists and experts have believed that it may have something to do with biological differences between the two groups of children. However, no evidence existed to prove their theory; at least, not until now.
Electroencephalography (EEG) recordings, designed to measure the passing of signals between areas of the brain, have been previously used to compare the brain connectivity in neurotypical children and children with autism. This technology was used in a recent study, which included more than 400 children with autism, 26 children with Aspergers, and about 550 typically developing children, to see if there were any differences in the brain connectivity of children with Asperger’s and children with autism.
“We looked at a group of 26 children with Asperger’s, to see whether measures of brain connectivity would indicate they’re part of autism group, or they stood separately,” study researcher, Dr. Frank Duffy, a neurologist at Boston’s Children Hospital told Live Science.
Initially, children with Asperger’s and children with autism seemed to have similar brain connectivity; both had weaker connections in the arcuate fasciculus – a region in the left hemisphere of the brain involved in language – than the typically-developing children. However, after taking a closer look at connectivity in other areas of the brain, differences between Asperger’s and autism started to surface.
Certain areas of the brain’s left hemisphere had a stronger connection in children with Asperger’s; these connections were even stronger than those found in neurotypical children. It is because of these differences that researchers on the study are saying there may be physiological differences in the connectivity of the brain that distinguish children with Asperger’s from those with autism.
“The findings are exciting, and the methods are sophisticated,” Dr. James McPartland, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science.
However, McPartland says that, while the study was large scale, the tests need to be duplicated before being able to fully acknowledge the results as fact.
“At present, it is hard to know whether [the new findings] reflect a core, intrinsic difference between Asperger’s and autism, or whether it is a reflection of developing with different characteristics,” he said.
But, for now, the study may give enough evidence for some professionals to start thinking differently about how therapies are done. At least, that’s what Duffy is hoping will happen.
“It’s essential to separate these two groups, because they need different education and training and opportunity,” he said.
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