Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to effectively socialize and communicate with others. According to the Mayo Clinic, Asperger’s syndrome is a condition that is on the autism spectrum, leaning towards the higher functioning end (mild end) of the spectrum. Asperger’s syndrome was previously listed as a stand alone disorder in earlier publications of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but is currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) under the umbrella diagnosis known as “autism spectrum disorder.” There are a variety of treatment options available to individuals struggling with Asperger’s syndrome, many of which involve fostering improved behavior, social and communication skills. Depending on the specific needs of the individual, medications, speech therapy, occupational therapy and more may be integrated into his or her treatment plan. 

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Psychologist Marsha M. Linehan developed dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in the late 1980s. It was originally developed to help treat individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) experiencing pervasive suicidal thoughts and/ or attempts. DBT is a specialized form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that places great emphasis on the psychosocial aspects of treatment. DBT continues to be considered the primary and most effective form of treatment for individuals diagnosed with BPD. Furthermore, continued research on its applicability in the treatment of other mental health ailments has indicated that it has become increasingly effective in treating mental health illnesses such as eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder (SUD), anxiety, depression, and more. 

Dialectical behavior therapy is comprised of two main components: individual therapy sessions and DBT skills group sessions. The individual therapy component consists of one-on-one contact with a mental health practitioner to ensure all therapeutic needs are being addressed and met. One-on-one therapy provides an individual in treatment with a consistent outlet to discuss obstacles that may manifest throughout the duration of the program, as well as a safe emotional environment to begin to practice implementing the skills learned in the DBT skills group sessions. Individual therapy can provide insight into areas that may need to be further addressed, shed light on therapeutic successes, and help to motivate the individual to remain committed to the DBT process. Individual therapy sessions are often held once a week for the duration of the DBT program.

DBT skills group sessions are intended to enhance a participant’s capabilities by teaching useful and applicable behavioral skills. The Linehan Institute asserts the four primary areas of therapeutic skills that are focused on in DBT include:

  1. Mindfulness: focuses on the practice of being fully aware and completely present in the moment
  2. Distress Tolerance: focuses on learning techniques to effectively tolerate pain that arises in difficult situations, instead of attempting to avoid and/ or change it
  3. Interpersonal Effectiveness: focuses on utilizing assertive communication methods that allows the individual to effectively express his or her wants, while simultaneously maintaining self-respect and strengthening relationships
  4. Emotion Regulation: focuses on learning strategies to change unwanted emotions

In the DBT skills group sessions, participants are taught the DBT skills by a qualified mental health professional. The leader will facilitate relevant exercises during the group sessions, as well as assign homework to be completed outside of the group sessions. Participants are encouraged to share their experiences during the group sessions as well as provide feedback and support to their peers. The DBT skills group sessions typically last between two to two and a half hours long, and are held once a week for the twenty-four week program. Mastering each of these skills can be invaluable to an individual diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. 

Asperger’s Syndrome and DBT

Every individual is different and will have a unique set of needs when it comes to the treatment of a mental health condition. Many mental health practitioners develop tailored treatment plans that cater to the nuanced needs of the individual. The development of DBT was intended to assist individuals diagnosed with BPD in managing emotional challenges and social difficulties. Traits such as emotional dysregulation and social struggles are noted as common side effects of both Asperger’s syndrome and borderline personality disorder. Increased tendencies towards suicidal ideation and/ or self-harm thoughts and/ or behaviors are also common side effects of both BPD as well as Asperger’s syndrome. With these overlaps, and the fact that DBT was specifically developed to address these issues, it often serves as an effective treatment method for individuals with Asperger’s syndrome.