Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Teaching Students with Asperger Syndrome: Guidelines for Educators

Teachers can be great allies in keeping the youngster with Aspergers or High Functioning Autism safe and successful in school, but you'll need to make sure you have all the knowledge you need to help...

Five Things Teachers Need to Know—
  1. If there will be any sort of change in my youngster's classroom or routine, please notify me as far in advance as possible so that we can all work together in preparing her for it.
  2. My youngster is an individual, not a diagnosis; please be alert and receptive to the things that make her unique and special.
  3. My youngster needs structure and routine in order to function. Please try to keep his world as predictable as possible.
  4. My youngster's difficulty with social cues, nonverbal communication, figurative language and eye contact are part of his neurological makeup -- he is not being deliberately rude or disrespectful.
  5. Please keep the lines of communication open between our home and the school. My youngster needs all the adults in his life working together.

Kids diagnosed with Aspergers present a special challenge in the educational milieu. This article provides teachers with descriptions of seven defining characteristics of Aspergers, in addition to suggestions and strategies for addressing these symptoms in the classroom. Behavioral and academic interventions based on the author's teaching experiences with kids with Aspergers are offered.

Kids diagnosed with Aspergers (AS) present a special challenge in the educational milieu. Typically viewed as eccentric and peculiar by classmates, their inept social skills often cause them to be made victims of scapegoating. Clumsiness and an obsessive interest in obscure subjects add to their "odd" presentation. Kids with AS lack understanding of human relationships and the rules of social convention; they are naive and conspicuously lacking in common sense. Their inflexibility and inability to cope with change causes these individuals to be easily stressed and emotionally vulnerable. At the same time, kids with Aspergers (the majority of whom are boys) are often of average to above-average intelligence and have superior rote memories. Their single-minded pursuit of their interests can lead to great achievements later in life.

Aspergers is considered a disorder at the higher end of the autistic continuum. Comparing individuals within this continuum, Van Krevelen (cited in Wing, l99l) noted that the low-functioning youngster with autism "lives in a world of his own," whereas the higher functioning youngster with autism "lives in our world but in his own way" (p.99).

Naturally, not all kids with Aspergers are alike. Just as each youngster with Aspergers has his or her own unique personality, "typical" Aspergers symptoms are manifested in ways specific to each individual. As a result, there is no exact recipe for classroom approaches that can be provided for every youngster with Aspergers, just as no one educational method fits the needs of all kids not afflicted with Aspergers.

Following are descriptions of seven defining characteristics of Aspergers, followed by suggestions and classroom strategies for addressing these symptoms. (Classroom interventions are illustrated with examples from my own teaching experiences at the University of Michigan Medical Center Youngster and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital School.) These suggestions are offered only in the broadest sense and should be tailored to the unique needs of the individual student with Aspergers.

Insistence on Sameness—

Kids 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.

Programming Suggestions:
  • Allay fears of the unknown by exposing the youngster to the new activity, teacher, class, school, camp and so forth beforehand, and as soon as possible after he or she is informed of the change, to prevent obsessive worrying. (For instance, when the youngster with Aspergers must change schools, he or she should meet the new teacher, tour the new school and be apprised of his or her 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 youngster in the new environment. The receiving teacher might find out the youngster's special areas of interest and have related books or activities available on the youngster's first day.)
  • Avoid surprises: Prepare the youngster 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 youngster 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.

Impairment in Social Interaction—

Kids 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.

Programming Suggestions:
  • Although they lack personal understanding of the emotions of others, kids 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.
  • Kids with Aspergers tend to be reclusive; thus the teacher must foster involvement with others. Encourage active socialization and limit time spent in isolated pursuit of interests. For instance, a teacher's aide seated at the lunch table could actively encourage the youngster with Aspergers to participate in the conversation of his or her peers not only by soliciting his or her opinions and asking him questions, but also by subtly reinforcing other kids who do the same.
  • Emphasize the proficient academic skills of the youngster with Aspergers by creating cooperative learning situations in which his or her 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 youngster with Aspergers  when social ineptness is severe by describing his or her social problems as a true disability. Praise classmates when they treat him or her with compassion. This task may prevent scapegoating, while promoting empathy and tolerance in the other kids.
  • Most kids 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 kids what to say and how to say it. Model two-way interactions and let them role-play. These kid’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" (Sacks, l993, p.112).
  • Older students with Aspergers might benefit from a "buddy system." The teacher can educate a sensitive non-disabled classmate about the situation of the youngster with Aspergers and seat them next to each other. The classmate could look out for the youngster with AS on the bus, during recess, in the hallways and so forth, and attempt to include him or her in school activities.
  • Protect the youngster from bullying and teasing.

Restricted Range of Interests—

Kids 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.

Programming Suggestions:
  • Use the youngster's fixation as a way to broaden his or her repertoire of interests. For instance, during a unit on rain forests, the student 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.
  • Use of positive reinforcement selectively directed to shape a desired behavior is the critical strategy for helping the youngster with Aspergers (Dewey, 1991). These kids respond to compliments (e.g., in the case of a relentless question-asker, the teacher might consistently praise him as soon as he pauses and congratulate him for allowing others to speak). These kids should also be praised for simple, expected social behavior that is taken for granted in other kids.
  • Students 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 youngster obsessed with trains might be assigned to research the modes of transportation used by people in that country.
  • Some kids 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 youngster with Aspergers that he is not in control and that he must follow specific rules. At the same time, however, meet the kids halfway by giving them opportunities to pursue their own interests.
  • For particularly recalcitrant kids, 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.
  • Do not allow the youngster with Aspergers to perseveratively discuss or ask questions about isolated interests. Limit this behavior by designating a specific time during the day when the youngster can talk about this. For example: A youngster 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.

Poor Concentration—

Kids 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 [Happe, 1991], 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.

Programming Suggestions:
  • Work out a nonverbal signal with the youngster (e.g., a gentle pat on the shoulder) for times when he or she is not attending.
  • The teacher must actively encourage the youngster with Aspergers to leave his or her 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 kids, 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 youngster 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.
  • Seat the youngster with Aspergers at the front of the class and direct frequent questions to him or her to help him or her attend to the lesson.
  • In the case of mainstreamed students with Aspergers, poor concentration, slow clerical speed and severe disorganization may make it necessary to lessen his or her homework/class work load and/or provide time in a resource room where a special education teacher can provide the additional structure the youngster needs to complete class work and homework (some kids 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 youngster).
  • If a buddy system is used, sit the youngster's buddy next to him or her so the buddy can remind the youngster with Aspergers to return to task or listen to the lesson.
  • Kids 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 youngster's own time (i.e., during recess or during the time used for pursuit of special interests). Kids 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 youngster with Aspergers to be productive, thus enhancing self-esteem and lowering stress levels, because the youngster sees himself as competent).
  • A tremendous amount of regimented external structure must be provided if the youngster with Aspergers is to be productive in the classroom. Assignments should be broken down into small units, and frequent teacher feedback and redirection should be offered.

Poor Motor Coordination—

Kids 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.

Programming Suggestions:
  • Do not push the youngster to participate in competitive sports, as his or her poor motor coordination may only invite frustration and the teasing of team members. The youngster 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 teacher redirection these kids need to focus on the task at hand).
  • Involve the youngster with Aspergers in a health/fitness curriculum in physical education, rather than in a competitive sports program.
  • Kids with Aspergers may require a highly individualized cursive program that entails tracing and copying on paper, coupled with motor patterning on the blackboard. The teacher guides the youngster's hand repeatedly through the formation of letters and letter connections and also uses a verbal script. Once the youngster commits the script to memory, he or she can talk himself or herself through letter formations independently.
  • Refer the youngster with Aspergers for adaptive physical education program if gross motor problems are severe.
  • When assigning timed units of work, make sure the youngster's slower writing speed is taken into account.
  • Younger kids 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;

Academic Difficulties—

Kids 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 youngster with Aspergers frequently has an excellent rote memory, but it is mechanical in nature; that is, the youngster may respond like a video that plays in set sequence. Problem-solving skills are poor.

Programming Suggestions:
  • Academic work may be of poor quality because the youngster with Aspergers is not motivated to exert effort in areas in which he or she 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 youngster with Aspergers should be expected to correct poorly executed class work during recess or during the time he or she usually pursues his or her own interests.
  • Capitalize on these individuals' exceptional memory: Retaining factual information is frequently their forte.
  • Kids 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 kids 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 youngster with Aspergers needs great motivation to not follow his or her own impulses. Learning must be rewarding and not anxiety-provoking.
  • The writing assignments of individuals with Aspergers are often repetitious, flit from one subject to the next, and contain incorrect word connotations. These kids frequently do not know the difference between general knowledge and personal ideas and therefore assume the teacher will understand their sometimes abstruse expressions.

Emotional Vulnerability—

Kids 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 kids 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 adolescents, 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. Kids 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.

Programming Suggestions:
  • Affect as reflected in the teacher's voice should be kept to a minimum. Be calm, predictable, and matter-of-fact in interactions with the youngster with Aspergers, while clearly indicating compassion and patience. Hans Asperger (1991), the psychiatrist for whom this syndrome is named, remarked that "the teacher who does not understand that it is necessary to teach kids [with Aspergers] seemingly obvious things will feel impatient and irritated" (p.57); Do not expect the youngster with Aspergers to acknowledge that he or she is sad/ depressed. In the same way that they cannot perceive the feelings of others, these kids can also be unaware of their own feelings. They often cover up their depression and deny its symptoms.
  • Be aware that adolescents with Aspergers are especially prone to depression. Social skills are highly valued in adolescence and the student with Aspergers realizes he or she is different and has difficulty forming normal relationships. Academic work often becomes more abstract, and the adolescent with Aspergers finds assignments more difficult and complex. In one case, teachers noted that an adolescent 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.
  • Kids with Aspergers must receive academic assistance as soon as difficulties in a particular area are noted. These kids are quickly overwhelmed and react much more severely to failure than do other kids.
  • Kids with Aspergers who are very fragile emotionally may need placement in a highly structured special education classroom that can offer individualized academic program. These kids 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 youngster with Aspergers rather than special education placement. The aide offers affective support, structure and consistent feedback.)
  • It is critical that adolescents 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 or she is coping by meeting with him or her daily and gathering observations from other teachers.
  • Prevent outbursts by offering a high level of consistency. Prepare these kids for changes in daily routine, to lower stress (see "Resistance to Change" section). Kids with Aspergers frequently become fearful, angry, and upset in the face of forced or unexpected changes.
  • Report symptoms to the youngster's therapist or make a mental health referral so that the youngster can be evaluated for depression and receive treatment if this is needed. Because these kids are often unable to assess their own emotions and cannot seek comfort from others, it is critical that depression be diagnosed quickly.
  • Teach the kids how to cope when stress overwhelms him or her, to prevent outbursts. Help the youngster write a list of very concrete steps that can be followed when he or she 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 teacher, etc.). Include a ritualized behavior that the youngster finds comforting on the list. Write these steps on a card that is placed in the youngster's pocket so that they are always readily available.
  • Teachers 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 youngster's assessment in these cases that he or she is "OK".

Kids with Asperger's syndrome are so easily overwhelmed by environmental stressors, and have such profound impairment in the ability to form interpersonal relationships, that it is no wonder they give the impression of "fragile vulnerability and a pathetic childishness" (Wing, 1981, p. 117). Everard (1976) wrote that when these youngsters are compared with their nondisabled peers, "one is instantly aware of how different they are and the enormous effort they have to make to live in a world where no concessions are made and where they are expected to conform" (p.2).

Teachers can play a vital role in helping kids with Aspergers learn to negotiate the world around them. Because kids with Aspergers are frequently unable to express their fears and anxieties, it is up to significant adults to make it worthwhile for them to leave their safe inner fantasy lives for the uncertainties of the external world. Professionals who work with these youngsters in schools must provide the external structure, organization, and stability that they lack. Using creative teaching strategies with individuals suffering from Aspergers is critical, not only to facilitate academic success, but also to help them feel less alienated from other human beings and less overwhelmed by the ordinary demands of everyday life.

The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism


Cayce F. said...

Your article has helped me gain useful insight which will help me through my Educational Psychology class. Thanks!

Kristin said...

As a teacher and former principal, this is a very good article. I plan to link it to my site for teachers.

Lulu said...

Thank you! The most useful, comprehensive and practical article I've found! X

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