“Teaching Children and Teens with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism”
Mark Hutten, M.A. – Counseling Psychologist, Home-Based Family Therapist and Online Parent Coach
In this post, we will look at (a) the major challenges that Aspergers students face in an educational setting and (b) the appropriate classroom accommodations that teachers can utilize.
Poor Motor Coordination—
Students with Aspergers are physically clumsy and awkward; have stiff, awkward gaits; are unsuccessful in games involving motor skills; and experience fine-motor deficits that can cause penmanship problems, slow clerical speed and affect their ability to draw.
- Students with Aspergers may require a highly individualized cursive program that entails tracing and copying on paper, coupled with motor patterning on the blackboard. The educator guides the student’s hand repeatedly through the formation of letters and letter connections and also uses a verbal script. Once the student commits the script to memory, he can talk himself or herself through letter formations independently.
- Do not push the student to participate in competitive sports, as his poor motor coordination may only invite frustration and the teasing of team members. The student with Aspergers lacks the social understanding of coordinating one’s own actions with those of others on a team.
- Individuals with Aspergers may need more than their peers to complete exams (taking exams in the resource room not only offer more time but would also provide the added structure and educator redirection these students need to focus on the task at hand).
- Involve the student with Aspergers in a health/fitness curriculum in physical education, rather than in a competitive sports program.
- Refer the student with Aspergers for adaptive physical education program if gross motor problems are severe.
- When assigning timed units of work, make sure the student’s slower writing speed is taken into account.
- Younger students with Aspergers benefit from guidelines drawn on paper that help them control the size and uniformity of the letters they write. This also forces them to take the time to write carefully.
Students with Aspergers usually have average to above-average intelligence (especially in the verbal sphere) but lack high level thinking and comprehension skills. They tend to be very literal: Their images are concrete, and abstraction is poor. Their pedantic speaking style and impressive vocabularies give the false impression that they understand what they are talking about, when in reality they are merely parroting what they have heard or read. The student with Aspergers frequently has an excellent rote memory, but it is mechanical in nature; that is, the student may respond like a video that plays in set sequence. Problem-solving skills are poor.
- Academic work may be of poor quality because the student with Aspergers is not motivated to exert effort in areas in which he is not interested. Very firm expectations must be set for the quality of work produced. Work executed within timed periods must be not only complete but done carefully. The student with Aspergers should be expected to correct poorly executed class work during recess or during the time he usually pursues his own interests.
- Capitalize on these students’ exceptional memory: Retaining factual information is frequently their forte.
- Students with Aspergers often have excellent reading recognition skills, but language comprehension is weak. Do not assume they understand what they so fluently read.
- Do not assume that students with Aspergers understand something just because they parrot back what they have heard.
- Emotional nuances, multiple levels of meaning, and relationship issues as presented in novels will often not be understood.
- Offer added explanation and try to simplify when lesson concepts are abstract.
- Provide a highly individualized academic program engineered to offer consistent successes. The student with Aspergers needs great motivation to not follow his own impulses. Learning must be rewarding and not anxiety- provoking.
- The writing assignments of children with Aspergers are often repetitious, flit from one subject to the next, and contain incorrect word connotations. These students frequently do not know the difference between general knowledge and personal ideas and therefore assume the educator will understand their sometimes abstruse expressions.
Students with Aspergers have the intelligence to compete in regular education but they often do not have the emotional resources to cope with the demands of the classroom. These students are easily stressed due to their inflexibility. Self-esteem is low, and they are often very self-critical and unable to tolerate making mistakes. Individuals with Aspergers, especially teens, may be prone to depression (a high percentage of depression in adults with Aspergers has been documented). Rage reactions/temper outbursts are common in response to stress/frustration. Students with Aspergers rarely seem relaxed and are easily overwhelmed when things are not as their rigid views dictate they should be. Interacting with people and coping with the ordinary demands of everyday life take continual Herculean effort.
- Affect as reflected in the educator’s voice should be kept to a minimum. Be calm, predictable, and matter-of-fact in interactions with the student with Aspergers, while clearly indicating compassion and patience. Hans Asperger, the psychiatrist for whom this syndrome is named, remarked that “the educator who does not understand that it is necessary to teach students [with Aspergers] seemingly obvious things will feel impatient and irritated.”
- Be aware that teens with Aspergers are especially prone to depression. Social skills are highly valued in adolescence and the child with Aspergers realizes he is different and has difficulty forming normal relationships. Academic work often becomes more abstract, and the teen with Aspergers finds assignments more difficult and complex. In one case, educators noted that a teen with Aspergers was no longer crying over math assignments and therefore believed that he was coping much better. In reality, his subsequent decreased organization and productivity in math was believed to be function of his escaping further into his inner world to avoid the math, and thus he was not coping well at all.
- Do not expect the student with Aspergers to acknowledge that he is sad/ depressed. In the same way that they cannot perceive the feelings of others, these students can also be unaware of their own feelings. They often cover up their depression and deny its symptoms.
- Educators must be alert to changes in behavior that may indicate depression, such as even greater levels of disorganization, inattentiveness, and isolation; decreased stress threshold; chronic fatigue; crying; suicidal remarks; and so on. Do not accept the student’s assessment in these cases that he is “OK”.
- It is critical that teens with Aspergers who are mainstreamed have an identified support staff member with whom they can check in at least once daily. This person can assess how well he is coping by meeting with him daily and gathering observations from other educators.
- Prevent outbursts by offering a high level of consistency. Prepare these students for changes in daily routine, to lower stress (see “Resistance to Change” section). Students with Aspergers frequently become fearful, angry, and upset in the face of forced or unexpected changes.
- Report symptoms to the student’s therapist or make a mental health referral so that the student can be evaluated for depression and receive treatment if this is needed. Because these students are often unable to assess their own emotions and cannot seek comfort from others, it is critical that depression be diagnosed quickly.
- Students with Aspergers must receive academic assistance as soon as difficulties in a particular area are noted. These students are quickly overwhelmed and react much more severely to failure than do other students.
- Students with Aspergers who are very fragile emotionally may need placement in a highly structured special education classroom that can offer individualized academic program. These students require a learning environment in which they see themselves as competent and productive. Accordingly, keeping them in the mainstream, where they cannot grasp concepts or complete assignments, serves only to lower their self-concept, increase their withdrawal, and set the stage for a depressive disorder. (In some situations, a personal aide can be assigned to the student with Aspergers rather than special education placement. The aide offers affective support, structure and consistent feedback.)
- Teach the students how to cope when stress overwhelms him, to prevent outbursts. Help the student write a list of very concrete steps that can be followed when he becomes upset (e.g., 1-Breathe deeply three times; 2-Count the fingers on your right hand slowly three times; 3-Ask to see the special education educator, etc.). Include a ritualized behavior that the student finds comforting on the list. Write these steps on a card that is placed in the student’s pocket so that they are always readily available.
Impairment in Social Interaction—
Students with Aspergers show an inability to understand complex rules of social interaction; are naive; are extremely egocentric; may not like physical contact; talk at people instead of to them; do not understand jokes, irony or metaphors; use monotone or stilted, unnatural tone of voice; use inappropriate gaze and body language; are insensitive and lack tact; misinterpret social cues; cannot judge “social distance;” exhibit poor ability to initiate and sustain conversation; have well-developed speech but poor communication; are sometimes labeled “little professor” because speaking style is so adult-like and pedantic; are easily taken advantage of (do not perceive that others sometimes lie or trick them); and usually have a desire to be part of the social world.
- Although they lack personal understanding of the emotions of others, students with Aspergers can learn the correct way to respond. When they have been unintentionally insulting, tactless or insensitive, it must be explained to them why the response was inappropriate and what response would have been correct. Individuals with Aspergers must learn social skills intellectually: They lack social instinct and intuition.
- Students with Aspergers tend to be reclusive; thus the educator must foster involvement with others. Encourage active socialization and limit time spent in isolated pursuit of interests. For instance, a educator’s aide seated at the lunch table could actively encourage the student with Aspergers to participate in the conversation of his peers not only by soliciting his opinions and asking him questions, but also by subtly reinforcing other students who do the same.
- Emphasize the proficient academic skills of the student with Aspergers by creating cooperative learning situations in which his reading skills, vocabulary, memory and so forth will be viewed as an asset by peers, thereby engendering acceptance.
- In the higher age groups, attempt to educate peers about the student with Aspergers when social ineptness is severe by describing his social problems as a true disability. Praise classmates when they treat him with compassion. This task may prevent scapegoating, while promoting empathy and tolerance in the other students.
- Most students with Aspergers want friends but simply do not know how to interact. They should be taught how to react to social cues and be given repertoires of responses to use in various social situations. Teach the students what to say and how to say it. Model two-way interactions and let them role- play. The student’s social judgment improves only after they have been taught rules that others pick up intuitively. One adult with Aspergers noted that he had learned to “ape human behavior.” A college professor with Aspergers remarked that her quest to understand human interactions made her “feel like an anthropologist from Mars”.
- Older children with Aspergers might benefit from a “buddy system.” The educator can educate a sensitive nondisabled classmate about the situation of the student with Aspergers and seat them next to each other. The classmate could look out for the student with Aspergers on the bus, during recess, in the hallways and so forth, and attempt to include him in school activities.
- Protect the student from bullying and teasing.
Restricted Range of Interests—
Students with Aspergers have eccentric preoccupations or odd, intense fixations (sometimes obsessively collecting unusual things). They tend to relentlessly “lecture” on areas of interest; ask repetitive questions about interests; have trouble letting go of ideas; follow own inclinations regardless of external demands; and sometimes refuse to learn about anything outside their limited field of interest.
- Do not allow the student with Aspergers to perseveratively discuss or ask questions about isolated interests. Limit this behavior by designating a specific time during the day when the student can talk about this. For example: A student with Aspergers who was fixated on animals and had innumerable questions about a class pet turtle knew that he was allowed to ask these questions only during recesses. This was part of his daily routine and he quickly learned to stop himself when he began asking these kinds of questions at other times of the day.
- For particularly recalcitrant students, it may be necessary to initially individualize all assignments around their interest area (e.g., if the interest is dinosaurs, then offer grammar sentences, math word problems and reading and spelling tasks about dinosaurs). Gradually introduce other topics into assignments.
- Some students with Aspergers will not want to do assignments outside their area of interest. Firm expectations must be set for completion of class work. It must be made very clear to the student with Aspergers that he is not in control and that he must follow specific rules. At the same time, however, meet the students halfway by giving them opportunities to pursue their own interests.
- Children can be given assignments that link their interest to the subject being studied. For example, during a social studies unit about a specific country, a student obsessed with trains might be assigned to research the modes of transportation used by people in that country.
- Use of positive reinforcement selectively directed to shape a desired behavior is the critical strategy for helping the student with Aspergers. These students respond to compliments (e.g., in the case of a relentless question- asker, the educator might consistently praise him as soon as he pauses and congratulate him for allowing others to speak). These students should also be praised for simple, expected social behavior that is taken for granted in other students.
- Use the student’s fixation as a way to broaden his repertoire of interests. For instance, during a unit on rain forests, the child with Aspergers who was obsessed with animals was led to not only study rain forest animals but to also study the forest itself, as this was the animals’ home. He was then motivated to learn about the local people who were forced to chop down the animals’ forest habitat in order to survive.
Insistence on Sameness—
Students with Aspergers are easily overwhelmed by minimal change, are highly sensitive to environmental stressors, and sometimes engage in rituals. They are anxious and tend to worry obsessively when they do not know what to expect; stress, fatigue and sensory overload easily throw them off balance.
- Allay fears of the unknown by exposing the student to the new activity, educator, class, school, camp and so forth beforehand, and as soon as possible after he is informed of the change, to prevent obsessive worrying. (For instance, when the student with Aspergers must change schools, he should meet the new educator, tour the new school and be apprised of his routine in advance of actual attendance. School assignments from the old school might be provided the first few days so that the routine is familiar to the student in the new environment. The receiving educator might find out the student’s special areas of interest and have related books or activities available on the student’s first day.)
- Avoid surprises: Prepare the student thoroughly and in advance for special activities, altered schedules, or any other change in routine, regardless of how minimal.
- Minimize transitions.
- Offer consistent daily routine: The student with Aspergers must understand each day’s routine and know what to expect in order to be able to concentrate on the task at hand.
- Provide a predictable and safe environment.
Students with Aspergers are often off task, distracted by internal stimuli; are very disorganized; have difficulty sustaining focus on classroom activities (often it is not that the attention is poor but, rather, that the focus is “odd” ; the individual with Aspergers cannot figure out what is relevant, so attention is focused on irrelevant stimuli); tend to withdrawal into complex inner worlds in a manner much more intense than is typical of daydreaming and have difficulty learning in a group situation.
- A tremendous amount of regimented external structure must be provided if the student with Aspergers is to be productive in the classroom. Assignments should be broken down into small units, and frequent educator feedback and redirection should be offered.
- Students with severe concentration problems benefit from timed work sessions. This helps them organize themselves. Class work that is not completed within the time limit (or that is done carelessly) within the time limit must be made up during the student’s own time (i.e., during recess or during the time used for pursuit of special interests). Students with Aspergers can sometimes be stubborn; they need firm expectations and a structured program that teaches them that compliance with rules leads to positive reinforcement (this kind of program motivates the student with Aspergers to be productive, thus enhancing self-esteem and lowering stress levels, because the student sees himself as competent).
- If a buddy system is used, sit the student’s buddy next to him so the buddy can remind the student with Aspergers to return to task or listen to the lesson.
- In the case of mainstreamed children with Aspergers, poor concentration, slow clerical speed and severe disorganization may make it necessary to lessen his homework/class work load and/or provide time in a resource room where a special education educator can provide the additional structure the student needs to complete class work and homework (some students with Aspergers are so unable to concentrate that it places undue stress on moms and dads to expect that they spend hours each night trying to get through homework with their student).
- Seat the student with Aspergers at the front of the class and direct frequent questions to him to help him attend to the lesson.
- The educator must actively encourage the student with Aspergers to leave his inner thoughts/ fantasies behind and refocus on the real world. This is a constant battle, as the comfort of that inner world is believed to be much more attractive than anything in real life. For young students, even free play needs to be structured, because they can become so immersed in solitary, ritualized fantasy play that they lose touch with reality. Encouraging a student with Aspergers to play a board game with one or two others under close supervision not only structures play but offers an opportunity to practice social skills.
- Work out a nonverbal signal with the student (e.g., a gentle pat on the shoulder) for times when he is not attending.
Mark Hutten, M.A.