Background: Hans Asperger drew attention to individuals who show the core symptoms of autism in the presence of high verbal intelligence.
Methods: A review of the literature explores current issues concerning the diagnosis and nature of Asperger syndrome.
Results: The behavioural and neurophysiological evidence to date suggests that Asperger syndrome is a variant of autism typically occurring in high-functioning individuals, and not a separate disorder. One of the problems of diagnosis is that the typical impairment of social communication may be difficult to identify in early childhood, and can be camouflaged in adulthood by compensatory learning. The range and nature of the social impairments in Asperger syndrome are still in need of investigation, but appear to be less severe than in autism. Experimental evidence suggests that individuals with Asperger syndrome may lack an intuitive theory of mind (mentalising), but may be able to acquire an explicit theory of mind. Brain imaging studies pinpoint a network that links medial prefrontal and temporal cortex as the neural substrate of intuitive mentalising. This network shows reduced activation and poor connectivity in Asperger syndrome. While some individuals with Asperger syndrome have written eloquently about their lives, their ability to talk about their own emotions appears to be impaired (alexithymia). This impairment may be linked to depression and anxiety, which is common in adulthood. Little is as yet known about the often considerable cognitive strengths in Asperger syndrome, or about the difficulties observed in higher-level executive skills.
Conclusions: Studies are needed that define the developmental course of the disorder and the nature of the strengths and weaknesses in both social and non-social domains. This requires more sensitive assessment instruments than are currently available. Questions about the prevalence of Asperger syndrome, about associated and secondary features, and about optimal education and management, urgently call for such studies.