How To Think About What Causes Asperger’s Syndrome

Considering the biological, cognitive, and behavioral causes of Asperger's is a better way of understanding

It’s helpful to consider a broader view when asking yourself what causes Asperger’s.

Everyone who has Asperger’s syndrome, knows someone who does, or is simply curious about it has probably asked themselves, how did this happen? In other words, what causes Asperger’s syndrome?

Simply put, there is no known cause. But that is an easy answer. In fact, it’s both an easy answer and a false answer.

You might think right away that I mean to suggest there are multiple causes of Asperger’s, and this is both true and not true. Since there is no known cause, a likely bet is that multiple sources, operating on their own or jointly, come together at some point in the person’s early life to create Asperger’s. It’s hard to imagine that one specific factor, one source and no other, is directly responsible for something as complicated as Asperger’s.

The reason I say it’s not true that multiple sources cause Asperger’s is because the question itself, “what causes Asperger’s” actually has not just one meaning but different meanings. For example, a car accident has a certain kind of cause. Something, perhaps another vehicle, hits a car unintentionally and…there’s an accident. One thing (car) hits another and causes an event (accident).

Similarly, when we think what causes Asperger’s, most times our first thought is that something biological operates on the person’s body to create this condition. Chromosomal abnormalities are one example of a biological influence. Another is an environmental agent, like thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative used to prevent contamination of measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines. It has been discredited, nevertheless there are people who believe that thimerosal causes autism and Asperger’s.

Biological explanations help us in the search to prevent or cure Asperger’s but they don’t tell us much about how to manage it. Research into chromosomal causes can’t really aid in developing social skills training programs for adults with Asperger’s. Improving those skills depends upon an understanding of behavioral descriptions. Yes, we can safely bet that Asperger’s is caused by a problem at the biological level, something in the anatomy or physiology of the brain or central nervous system, but what does that really tell us? How is that useful?

A more beneficial way of understanding what causes Asperger’s is to consider three separate aspects of the condition: the biological, cognitive and behavioral. The biological, as we know, is relevant to the understanding of prevention or cure. The cognitive, that is, mental processes of perception, memory, and judgment, is useful in understanding learning differences, language, and verbal and nonverbal communication. The behavioral aspect helps us recognize and understand why people with Asperger’s act differently than neurotypical, or normal, people.

Consider the question of where people with Asperger’s lie on a continuum from normal to abnormal. From a biological perspective they would be considered abnormal. Some biological mechanism creates a difference in people with Asperger’s that is clearly different from the norm.

The same is true when we consider the cognitive perspective. Difficulty understanding jokes, taking things too literally, trouble understanding how other people think and feel, short-term memory problems, deficits in comprehending emotions, are examples of areas in which the adult with Asperger’s differs from the normal person.

However, with respect to behavioral aspects, it’s often a little harder to locate someone with Asperger’s along a normal-abnormal continuum. I can be shy and withdrawn but be normal in other respects. Or, I can be shy and withdrawn and have Asperger’s. In social settings, I can dominate conversations with a focus on subjects that interest me and have Asperger’s or simply be someone with an inflated sense of my importance, or both. Nevertheless, recognizing typical ways that adults with Asperger’s behave is necessary to an overall understanding of this condition.

The bottom line, if you will, about what causes Asperger’s is this —not only is it a complex condition with origins in one’s biological makeup but really understanding how it happens requires a broader sense of what we mean by cause.

With a perspective that includes the biological, cognitive and behavior we have a sharper, clearer and more comprehensive angle on what Asperger’s is all about.

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.