I was always going to do this post but until two days ago when my youngest son was diagnosed with high functioning autism, the words were going to be different and this was going to be a rant.
Since then, I've spent a while trying to figure out his condition. Now I can see the link.
The Usual Reaction
I've always considered Aspergers to be quite different from Autism - I was certainly different to most of the autistic people I'd met, many of whom couldn't function in society because of the nature of their condition.
I think that my reaction is pretty much the same as most of the population. Like other "popular" conditions, such as schizophrenia, autism has been spoilt by a mis-representation in the movies. Movies only show the very worst and most sensational cases and even then, they make a lot up.
Sure, I knew that at least some forms autism actually resulted in "smarter" people who had no social skills. That happened in Mercury Rising with Bruce Willis right? It might also have been in "a beautiful mind" but I never got to see the film so I can't be sure.
If you are after a complete and accurate description of autism, you should refer to the Wikipedia article since I intend to only cover a small area;
Some Brief Facts
Autism is a mental condition which you are born with. Despite spammer/scam artist claims to the contrary, it can never be cured although in time, the "sufferers" may learn to hide some of the worst symptoms.
There is a split in autism that, separates "High Functioning Autism" from Low Functioning Autism. The main characteristics that set high functioning autism apart are an IQ of 80 or above and the ability to speak, read, and write. People with mild HFA have minimal problems getting (and keeping) employment and many are employed in highly technical environments.
Autism is grouped with four other pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), all of which have problems of social interactions and communication, restricted interests and repetitive behavior. Of the other four, Asperger's is closest to Autism in symptoms (and probably cause). Unlike Autism, Asperger's has no substantial delay in language development.
So What does it all Mean?
Basically, this means that there could be NO other differences between a child with Aspergers and a Child with High Functioning Autism other than a language delay. The cut off point for the language delay is 4 years of age. If the child is not capable of carrying out an "independent" conversation by the age of four, then they will be considered autistic. Note that the emphasis is on conversation, not on knowing the words, being able to read or being able to write. In my Son's case, you can ask him about preschool and he'll tell you a whole heap of facts and one-liners about what happened. It's generally a one way conversation.
This sounds a bit pedantic, and I guess the diagnosis is, but that's currently how it's done.
So, will this improve? It is difficult to say however in HFA, it is very likely that conversational skills will improve with practice, age and use. Eye contact could always be a problem, but there are other ways around that. The ability to hold conversations however will not necessarily "upgrade" a diagnosis to Aspergers, though I'm a little skeptical myself about that one.
It is important to realize that there is a whole spectrum for autism, not just a few labels and that this means that there is almost infinite variation. The diagram below is very simple and does not cover much at all but it may give you some idea. In reality, the diagnosis would look much more like a star with various branches indicating IQ, communication ability, empathy, motor control etc. Each type of autism would have various characteristics and would define a certain shape on the star. The lines between one shape and another would be very blurred.
<--- Normal ------ Aspergers ----- HFA -------------------- LFA ---->
One Last Point
Whenever anyone is told about an autism diagnosis, their first reaction is usually something along the lines of " that can't be it because he shows empathy or has emotions". I'm going to quote from Wikipedia since I can't think of a better way to end this point.
They do not lack empathy (although they may have difficulty expressing it), and can thus enjoy films and stories with emotional content. Some may gain the bulk of their insight into why people behave the way they do through watching movies that provide a forceful and musically-cued "capsule lesson" in human emotions (e.g. melodramas).