Between the age of 6-18 kids spend a third of each day at school, so it’s important to ensure they’re in the best environment for their needs. This is particularly true for kids with Aspergers (high functioning autism).
So what should parents/care-givers look for when choosing a school for their Aspergers youngster, or consider in their monitoring of the school environment?
Kids with Aspergers cope best in schools with small class sizes. This option is less a reality these days, when Education systems worldwide are struggling to survive with less funding and increased consumer demand. However, there are many other procedures and practices you can monitor to make certain your youngster with Aspergers is being educated in an optimal setting.
You should ensure your Aspergers youngster’s school has an extensive, in-depth knowledge of Aspergers; from the Principal to the Classroom teacher, Administration staff and Ancillary staff. This guarantees that whoever has contact with your Aspergers youngster in the course of their school day is aware of your son/daughter’s needs and understands that Aspergers is a neurobiological disorder – not a behavioral issue. So ask what specific Aspergers training the staff at your youngster’s school has completed and check that this is updated regularly. This is particularly relevant for your son/daughter’s Classroom teacher. If no specific Aspergers training has been undertaken at your youngster’s school, insist that this is rectified promptly.
Check the anti-bullying policy of your youngster’s school. This must be a whole-school policy that has a proven and consistent grievance address policy, with successful follow-up procedures. The policy should tackle the needs of victims and actions of perpetrators alike. Zero tolerance for bullying.
Your youngster’s classroom should be aesthetically Aspergers-friendly, as well as having the curriculum structured and delivered in a manner that meets the needs of your youngster with Aspergers. This will include using visual aids and maintaining a low sensory “volume" in the classroom – minimizing noise, light, smell and extremes in temperature. The Classroom teacher should be mindful of the fact that all social interaction will have a cumulative effect on your Aspergers youngster – this will affect the successful outcome of group activities, seating arrangements and ‘buddy’ systems.
Your youngster’s school should have a strong Social Skills program in place, that your son/daughter with Aspergers participates in at least once a week for a minimum of 1 ½ hours. This program must incorporate:
- decoding language and facial expressions
- developing friendship skills
- group/team work
- physical activity
- problem solving case-specific scenarios
Ideally the Social Skills program should include Aspergers kids’ non-disabled peers. With consistency and perseverance this skills-specific program will effect positive change in your youngster’s social behavior.
The physical activity component will assist the Aspergers youngster’s co-ordination, fine and gross motor skills, spatial awareness, vestibular systems imbalance and physical fitness levels.
The language component should aim to assist the Aspergers youngster to recognize and decode literal or conflicting statements in our language e.g. idioms and oxymorons. It also assists your son/daughter in identifying the meanings of facial expressions and body language/gestures. This will help your youngster with Aspergers to develop the use of more appropriate facial expressions and body language in their interactions with their peers.
Problem solving specific scenarios that have occurred in the lives of kids with Aspergers helps them to develop a “bank" of appropriate responses/reactions and strategies to use in real life situations. E.g. Your teacher tells you to hand in your project books after lunch so she can mark them, and you’ve left yours at home. What would you do? It helps to hear everyone’s answer, as this provides a non-judgmental forum for the Aspergers youngster; helping them to recognize their “first response" in stressful situations. Hearing that other kids with Aspergers may react the same way helps your son/daughter feel less like “one of a kind". Then, asking “What might be a better way to handle the situation?" develops a number of problem-solving options for your youngster to implement.
Discussions about what makes a good friend; what good friends do in various situations; how friends act; what friends say to each other; how friends share; how friends play together; how friends include each other in games etc, form the basis of teaching friendship skills. Again, using real-life scenarios of incidents that happen in the playground at school/home help Aspergers kids to transfer their knowledge to their interactions with their peers. Specific skills need to be directly taught about appropriate ways to join a game; co-operating with others; turn taking and also subtle nuances like “bending" the rules of a game. Self recognition by the Aspergers youngster of their need for rigidness and rule following, and highlighting that not all kids think this way helps to explain the often-confusing nature of the playground to your son/daughter. They may never be fully comfortable with games like this, but the knowledge gives them control over their choices.
Developing group work skills enables Aspergers kids to participate more successfully in activities in class and at home. The “mechanics" of group work need to be explained to Aspergers kids in a step-by-step process for greatest understanding.
Regular access to an all-encompassing Social Skills program such as this, in a group comprising Aspergers kids and their neurotypical peers provides your youngster with the building blocks of social dexterity for life. It also fosters tolerance and understanding in their neurotypical peers.
Your Aspergers youngster’s school should recognize the need for continuous, open communication between home and school. This can be achieved by a daily phone call between Special Education staff and parents/care-givers each day, with relevant information being relayed to your youngster’s Classroom teacher. Most parents/care-givers and professionals of Aspergers kids understand that sometimes seemingly benign incidents in an Aspergers youngster’s day (before, during or after school) can have a huge impact on their behavior. Knowing that all behavior is a form of communication, we can’t possibly hope to understand the message the Aspergers youngster is trying to convey unless we have all the facts. Continual communication gives those caring for the Aspergers youngster at school and home the “big picture".
Schools should provide support for kids with Aspergers as required, and deliver that support in an equitable manner. Remember though, your Aspergers youngster may need that support provided in an alternative format e.g. instead of in-class teacher aide support, your youngster may function better with organizational support e.g. keeping track of when work is due in; helping them collect/collate research information etc. It’s imperative that you negotiate with the Aspergers youngster themselves to establish the most successful way to provide support.
Your youngster’s school should have a “safe space" your Aspergers youngster can go to when they are stressed, anxious, angry or agitated. This “space" needs to be sensorily “quiet" with soft furnishings – a muted, calm environment. Accessing this “safe space" should never be used as a form of punishment; rather the Aspergers youngster should be encouraged to remove him/her self from an escalating situation before overload and meltdown occur, and rewarded for using this strategy. The Aspergers youngster shouldn’t be “rushed" or “hurried" to return to the classroom or activity – this will only increase their agitation. Patience is the key in the “safe space" strategy being successful. All kids (Aspergers kids included) strive to be the same as their peers, and this “internal driving force" ensures the AS youngster will rejoin his/her class as soon as they are physically/emotionally able to.
Just as neurotypical kids differ from each other, so too no Aspergers kids are exactly alike. Most of them however, experience periods of high/excess energy and will benefit from regular energy “burns" throughout the day. This could be in the form of a brisk walk; a short run/jog or a set of star jumps or other callisthenic exercise (skipping, hopping on alternate feet etc). The need to burn excess energy usually occurs about halfway through each classroom session (morning, middle and afternoon) and also just after each break-time (morning tea and lunch/recess). Your Aspergers youngster’s successful behavior in the classroom can be greatly enhanced by implementing regular energy “burns" into their day. If a Teacher Aide/Assistant isn’t available to supervise this, an alternative is having the Aspergers youngster run errands/messages for the Classroom teacher. However, it’s vital the youngster with Aspergers comes to recognize these periods of high/excess energy, and experiences the benefits of implementing regular energy burns into his/her day.
This list of school strategies is by no means comprehensive, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it’s meant to list the minimum accommodations every school should make for kids with Aspergers. It is a foundation to build on in partnering with your youngster’s school to create an individual Education program for your Aspergers youngster that allows him/her to achieve their fullest potential.
My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns at Home and School