Students with Aspergers (high functioning autism) are unique, and they can affect the learning environment in both positive and negative ways. In the classroom, the Aspergers child can present a challenge for the most experienced teacher. These children can also contribute a lot to the classroom because they can be extremely creative and see things and execute various tasks in different ways. Teachers can learn a lot when they have a child with Aspergers in their class, but the teacher may experience some very challenging days too. Here are some tips for teachers to consider:
Every child with Aspergers is different.
As a teacher you want to take the information you have acquired and apply it, but every Aspergers child is different, so it's difficult to take knowledge you have gained from one experience, and apply it to a situation with another child with Aspergers. Remember that each child with Aspergers is unique, and strategies that have worked with other students in the past may not work effectively with the Aspergers child because they perceive the world in a unique way, and they sometimes react to their environment in unpredictable ways.
Avoid demanding the student with Aspergers maintain eye contact with you.
Eye contact is a form of communication in American culture; we assume a person is giving us their attention if they look at us. The Aspergers child experiences difficulty with eye contact; it is extremely hard for them to focus their eyes on a person for any extended period of time. Limited eye contact is a part of the disability. Don't demand an Asperger child look you in the eye as you are talking to them--this is extremely difficult for them to do.
Aspergers students frequently are visual learners.
Despite difficulties with eye contact, many Aspergers children are visual learners. Much of the information presented in classrooms is oral, and often children with Aspergers may have difficulty with processing language. Often they cannot take in oral language quickly, and presenting information visually may be more helpful. Many Aspergers children are "hands-on" learners.
Aspergers students and "showing work".
Many teachers require children to "show their work"; in other words, illustrate how they got the answer to a problem."Showing work" is a demand that usually accompanies math homework. This may not be the best strategy with the Aspergers child, and may in fact lead to a big disagreement with the child.
Since many Aspergers children are visual learners, they picture how to solve the problem in their heads. To make them write out how they got the answer seems quite illogical to them. Why would you waste your time writing out something you can see in your head? The requirement of "showing work" simply does not make any sense to them, and it may not be worth the time it would take to convince them to do the requirement anyway.
If the student with Aspergers is staring off into space or doodling, don't assume they're not listening.
Remember the Aspergers child may experience difficulty with communication, especially nonverbal communication. What appears to the teacher to be behavior illustrating a lack of attention on the part of the child may not be that at all. In fact, the Aspergers child who is doodling or staring off may actually be trying to focus him or herself through the act of doodling or staring. The child is unaware that nonverbally s/he is communicating to the teacher that "I'm not listening, or I'm bored." Doodling or staring may actually help the child with Aspergers focus more on what the teacher is presenting. You might simply ask the child a question to check if he or she is listening.
Students with Aspergers may experience difficulties with focusing as well as lack of focus.
Focus involves attention. Sometimes Aspergers children focus all their attention on a particular object or subject; therefore, they fail to focus on what information the instructor is presenting. All their energy is directed toward a particular subject or object. Why? Because that object or subject is not overwhelming to them and they understand it.
To overcome this problem, the teacher can try to establish some connection between the object or subject of interest and the area of study. For example, if a child is fascinated with skateboarding, the child could learn reading and writing skills through researching a famous skateboarder and writing a report. Math skills could be taught by looking at the statistics involving competitive skateboarders. The possibilities for instruction are endless, but it will take some time and creative planning on the part of the teacher.
Sensory issues affect learning for the student with Aspergers.
Often Aspergers children are distracted by something in the environment that they simply cannot control. To them, the ticking of the clock can seem like the beating of a drum, the breeze from an open window can feel like a tremendous gust, the smell of food from the cafeteria can overpower them and make them feel sick, the bright sunshine pouring through the windows may be almost blinding to them.
This sensory overload the Aspergers child experiences may overwhelm them, so focusing can be difficult and frustration occurs. Frustration can then lead to disruptions from the child. To cope with frustration, the child might choose to repeatedly tap a pencil on a desk (or another disruptive behavior) in order to focus because s/he is experiencing sensory overload. What appears disruptive to the teacher and the rest of the class may actually be a way for the Aspergers child to cope with the sensory overload.
Obviously, a teacher does not want disruptions in the classroom. Take time to evaluate the classroom in terms of sensory stimulation, and how the environment affects the child with Aspergers. Perhaps some modifications can be made, or the child can be taught some coping skills that are not disruptive to classmates, like squeezing a squishy ball in their hand or some similar activity.
Don't assume the student with Aspergers is disrupting class or misbehaving to get attention.
More often than not, children with Aspergers react to their environment, and sometimes the reaction can be negative. Sometimes the child may be reacting to a sensory issue, and other times the child may be reacting to a feeling of fear. The Aspergers child feels fear because of a lack of control over his/her response to the environment or because of a lack of predictability. The child with Aspergers does best with clear structure and routine. A visual schedule can be helpful for the child.
Students with Aspergers experience difficulty with transitions.
Often a child with Aspergers gets "stuck" and has difficulty moving from one activity to another. They may need to be coached through the transition, and if a typical school day is loaded with lots of transitions, the child faces increased anxiety. Moving from one activity to another is not a challenge for most children, but for the child with Aspergers transitions can be monumental tasks.
Some possible strategies a teacher, paraprofessional, or parent can use: visual schedules, role-playing or preparing the child by discussing upcoming activities. Appropriate strategies are dependent on the age of the child and his/her abilities.
As a teacher, paraprofessional or parent of a child with Aspergers, it's important to recognize the child's gifts as well as limitations. Children with Aspergers present a challenge for the people who work with them, but these children also enrich our lives. So when you're feeling frazzled, take a deep breath and remember that tomorrow is another day. This child will grow up and make a contribution to our world in some way we can only imagine, and you can help this child.