The diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome or any other Autism Spectrum Disorder can be quite complicated. This is partially due to the wide range of disorders and also due to the lack of understanding of the spectrum. As you are probably aware, the diagnosis of an ASD has increased from 2 in 10,000 to 1 in 110 in the past ten (or so) years. I do recognize that this drastic increase is partly due to an increase in some combination of some sort of genetic and environmental factors, but I actively argue that the increase in ASD diagnosis, particularly of Asperger’s Syndrome, is directly due to the increase of demand put on children today, and not necessarily because of an increase in cases.
I was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until I was 14 years old. The average age for diagnosis is around 6-8. However, the average in females is higher. The reason the diagnosis generally occurs at an older age than in cases of autism, which boasts an average diagnosis age of 2-3, is because usually symptoms do not make themselves present until the milestones of first or second grade (6-8 years of age) or middle school (the average for females). These periods are times in which the autistic child undergoes a great change in his or her routine and can really begin to struggle with such changes.
For boys, I believe the diagnosis comes earlier and is more frequent because of new stresses placed on them. Only 50 years ago, boys could easily choose to drop out of school for a vocational career such as a mechanic or farmer if they struggled. Bullies were still present, but they were not as harsh as bullies today. The content of schoolwork and the amount of homework was nowhere near as demanding as it is today, and bullies are crueler and more unrelenting than ever. Because of this, boys with undiagnosed Asperger’s are more likely to act out and become frustrated than in past years. There are not necessarily more Aspie boys today, but school is just not as apt to “work” for them. I believe the diagnosis rate is lower and at a higher age for girls because we generally are not bullied like the boys are and because we can still make school (at the elementary level, at least) “work” for us. We do have our bullies, but most of the time they are not physical, making them less obvious. For me, my diagnosis came after a series of severe panic attacks struck me in a response to entering high school. I was not expecting such a drastic change in my routines, so the attacks took me by surprise. The diagnosis did not come until my symptoms became quite obvious.
I cannot help but wonder how much I have changed since my diagnosis. I can vaguely remember holding in impulses to engage in stimming activities for fear that they would make me seem odd, but I thought that everybody had these impulses. A lot of my symptoms did not strike me as symptoms because I did believe that they were just something that everybody dealt with. I definitely did not realize that most people can identify emotions in others naturally. I remember discovering this quite clearly in the eighth grade when watching “The Notebook” with my two best friends. By the end of the movie I found myself quite bored and unable to understand the events of the plot, but when I turned to express my distaste for the film to my friends I saw that they were both bawling. It had not occurred to me that the movie was an emotional one. Around that time I had begun to suspect that I was a little different from my peers, but it did not become clear to me until the panic attacks began.
Another discrepancy that makes ASD diagnosis complicated is the wide variation in symptoms. I find that high-functioning autism and Asperger’s are commonly combined into one group, but it is very important to note the differences, as HFA does present itself with language delays and is usually a very well-treated case of classic autism. People with Asperger’s are usually innately high-functioning with little treatment and normally do not have language delays. I get irritated sometimes hearing of children whose diagnoses are “upgraded” to Asperger’s after being treated for autism. Autism and Asperger’s are two separate diagnoses on the same spectrum and should be treated thusly. Such examples of the lack of understanding really are what hinder the advancement of research of the autism spectrum.