Aspergers (high functioning autism) is a neurological disease typically diagnosed in kids ages two to four. It is a form of functional autism that largely affects a person's communication and social skills. Some kids with Aspergers must be placed in special education classrooms, while others function relatively well in standard education classes.
In my tenure of teaching, I have taught sixteen kids with Aspergers, and it has been both a challenging and rewarding experience. Kids with Aspergers often have discipline problems and have trouble interacting with other kids, but they are usually quite bright. In fact, their IQ's are sometimes approaching genius level, and many are youngster prodigies in one area or another. Many take to memorizing facts, which has earned them the affectionate nickname of "little professors."
The complications with working with kids who have Aspergers are two-fold. On the one hand, many teachers are uncomfortable with the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Aspergers kids, and they have trouble communicating with the students beyond their limitations. At the same time, teachers must also deal with other students' reactions to a youngster with Aspergers.
Characteristics of Kids with Aspergers—
As with many other behavioral disorders, symptoms of Aspergers vary among those who have it. Here are some common behaviors that you might notice:
1. An extremely reliable memory.
2. Avoiding eye contact.
4. Consistent adherence to routines and schedules.
5. Constant reiteration of facts and figures related to subjects that interest them.
6. Higher comfort level with adults than with peers.
7. Inability to grasp implied meanings.
8. Lack of control of facial expression.
9. Misunderstanding directions.
10. Over-eagerness to answer questions or participate in classroom activities.
11. Pedantic way of speaking.
12. Preoccupation with a specific subject
13. Taking expressions literally.
A youngster with Aspergers may have only one of these symptoms, or he or she might suffer from them all. Aspergers can be diagnosed in a wide range of severity.
The first time a youngster with Aspergers was placed in my classroom, I was informed about it during the summer by my Assistant Principal. He called to let me know a little bit about the youngster, and gave me a few brochures about the disease. He wanted to be sure that I was comfortable with the arrangement - which I was - and I thought that he handled the situation very professionally.
If you are not given the same courtesy, or if you are concerned about teaching a youngster with Aspergers, do your research. Understanding the disorder is foremost in learning how to most effectively teach a student.
You might also speak to your school guidance counselor and see if he or she has any literature on the subject. Your local library should have books about Aspergers, as should your local bookstore.
In any situation like this, your best resource is the youngster's parents. They shouldn't mind your calling or requesting a meeting to discuss their youngster's specific symptoms of Aspergers, and to pick their brains about what works best. They will invariably have little tidbits of information to share that will assist in everyday activities with their youngster, and they will be grateful for your concern and attention.
You are likely to discover that kids with Aspergers are not dim-witted at all, but actually rather intelligent. In this respect, they are easier to handle than kids with other disorders. They invariably understand that they have a condition, and might even be aware of their uncommon habits, but are simply unable to control it themselves. Knowing this, you can work with them in the classroom to maintain order.
1. Preoccupation—I had one student four years ago who was quite intelligent and also quite sweet, but had a habit of shouting out statistics about car crashes at random. He had researched car crashes, crash test ratings and safety reports, and knew everything there was to know about the subject. I loved his enthusiasm, but it wasn't helpful when he would blurt out statistics in the middle of English class. If you observe this behavior, be kind but firm. Every time he or she goes off-topic or talks out of turn, ask him or her a question related to the subject you are teaching. For example, every time my student would shout out a statistic, I would ask him to list the main characters in the book we were reading. It worked quite well.
2. Other Kids—This is a decision that must be made with the youngster and parents, but I have found it enormously helpful if the youngster with Aspergers explains to the class what Aspergers is. Twelve of my sixteen Aspergers students have agreed to stand in front of the class and take questions about their condition. This works only in high school age kids - not elementary or junior high, because of maturity - but it is highly effective. Using this method, the other students become comfortable with Aspergers and are unlikely to tease or to be mean to the student. At the same time, it helps the student with Aspergers to become comfortable talking about his or her condition, and to feel confident when interacting with his or her peers.
3. Misunderstandings—If you find that the student has trouble understanding what other people are saying - taking literal interpretations of expressions, for example - be proactive in explaining things to him or her. You might discover that other students in the classroom are put off by this behavior, but simply step in if you see a problem. Take control of your classroom in this way, and be there when assistance is needed.
4. Impulsiveness—Many kids with Aspergers are very impulsive, and want very much to participate. They will eagerly raise their hand in class, blurt out answers and insist they have turns before other students. To counteract this, work out a signal that only you and the student knows. For example, when you walk in front of their desk, they know that they should calm down. Or if you scratch your ear, they understand that they should give someone else a turn. This has proved highly effective.
Teaching kids with Aspergers can be a rewarding experience if approached in the right mindset. Remember to encourage positive behavior, discourage negative behavior, and to do your best to that student as much as the others.
The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism