In a new Swedish study of adults with Asperger Syndrome, more than half of the participants met at least one criteria for anxiety disorder, and a majority experienced at least one episode of depression.

Asperger Syndrome, or AS, is a developmental disorder that falls along the highest end of the autism spectrum. Adults with AS generally possess average or above-average intelligence and have well-developed language skills though have difficulty interpreting social interactions and cues. They tend to be hyper-focused on specific subjects of interest but lack communication skills to engage naturally with others, making little if any eye contact, and limited facial expressions.

Causes of AS and autism are not fully understood, with genetics likely playing a role in its development. It is usually diagnosed in childhood, and previous studies have demonstrated that many young patients also experience overlapping symptoms of other psychological disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety.

This high rate of psychiatric co-morbidity, or presence of additional psychological diseases along with the primary condition, has been readily documented among children with AS, but not among adults. Noting this, researchers at the University of Gothenburg and the Central Hospital in Sweden, conducted a study on 54 young adults to assess psychiatric co-morbidity in adults with AS.

In their analysis of 26 men and 28 women clinically diagnosed with AS, they found that 56 percent met criteria for at least one anxiety disorder, and 70 percent had experienced at least one episode of major depression. Additionally, 13% had experienced hallucinations, and 30% had earlier diagnoses of ADHD, a common developmental disorder marked by inattentiveness and impulsivity.

Their findings did not appear to be influenced by participants' gender or socio-economic differences, and researchers noted that this was the first study to examine adult AS patients' experiences with anxiety. Specific categories within anxiety, including social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder were addressed by researchers seeking to draw attention to the impact of such conditions on AS patients. Specifically, they discussed how patients might be adversely affected by fears of social environments and others' perceptions of their AS behaviors.

People with social anxiety disorder experience extreme anxiety in social situations, fearing judgment or embarrassment. The condition affects their quality of life as they limit or avoid social interactions or spend excessive time consumed with worry and dread about upcoming events. Obsessive compulsive disorder also impacts patients' daily routines as they become overwhelmed with thoughts or fears; their efforts to engage in rituals or compulsions to alleviate their fears exacerbate symptoms and are time-consuming and often debilitating.

The study, which will be published in the September 2011 issue of Research in Developmental Disabilities, underscores the importance of screening AS adults for mood and anxiety disorders, the scientists stated. Reporting a high rate of depression and anxiety among that population, study authors suggested that health care providers and patients themselves be aware and vigilant of the presence such conditions.

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Keith Whipple, MA, RDT
Lindsay Scharfstein, Ph.D.
Jess Baker, Ph.D.


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