Just as moms and dads have difficulties in identifying the early signs of Aspergers and High Functioning Autism (HFA), teachers also may be uncertain of key features to address educationally.
During the individual development of the child, moms and dads and teachers must take notice as skills blossom or fail to develop as expected. Many kids suspected of Aspergers and HFA are brought to the psychiatry, psychology, or early childhood departments of pediatric medical centers. Other kids with Aspergers in the U.S. are spotted as having unique delays by child find screenings and soon receive pull-out or part-time programs for preschool kids with developmental delays. They frequently require speech/language, occupational, and physical therapy interventions. They are monitored for further crystallization of symptoms. Frequently, behavior management programs and parent support programs are employed.
There are many jurisdictions, however, where these early assessment and intervention opportunities are not in place. Early on, kids suspected of delays might be classified in general as having pervasive developmental disorders, an umbrella category for many of the varieties of autism. They may be seen as multiply handicapped or multiply disabled. They may be placed in a diagnostic center or in a diagnostic mode while they are being monitored. Schools are some of the best laboratories for differentiating appropriate classification schemes, as the strengths and weaknesses crystallize in the child’s attempts to absorb, adapt to, and master the world of learning.
Thousands of children face life with Aspergers (a form of autism that affects a child's language and social skills). Here are 10 of the most common school concerns faced by students with Aspergers:
- need for predictability
- problems with abstract reasoning
- problems with anxiety, depression, and emotional regulation
- problems with attention, organization, and other areas of executive functioning
- problems with language
- problems with motor issues including written production
- problems with ritualistic, repetitive, or rigid behavior
- problems with sensory hyper- or hypo-sensitivity
- problems with social interactions
- very focused areas of interest and expertise
Children with Aspergers have a restricted range of interests that can take unusual or eccentric forms. For example, some may be interested in unusual things, such as washing machines, bus timetables, or subway maps. Although their obsessive interests may be similar to the interests of other children, they are unlike other children because their restricted interest is the only activity in which they participate. Their rigidity is often exhibited as an insistence on a specific order of events, a compulsion to complete what was started, an insistence on rules, a difficulty with transitions, or a fear that is based on a single experience. They do not seem to recognize that there are times when rules can be renegotiated, bent, or broken. Because they may have difficulty predicting the future, insisting that things happen in a certain order can be comforting to them.
Many children with Aspergers have additional psychiatric diagnoses, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when they are children and depression or anxiety when they are adolescents and young adults. Even though children with Aspergers often lack the emotional resources to cope with the demands of the classroom, they do not always demonstrate stress through their tone of voice or body posture. Therefore, their inner turmoil may escalate to a point of crisis before others recognize their discomfort.
Teachers should be aware that changes in behavior—such as greater levels of disorganization, inattentiveness, and isolation—may be indicative of anxiety or depression. Because these children typically have difficulty identifying their own emotions, they may not be able to acknowledge that they are sad or depressed. Teachers need to be aware of the signs of agitation to initiate interventions to avert an emotional or neurological crisis.
Teachers can use the following strategies to help students with Aspergers cope more effectively with their daily social environment:
- Create a safe place for a student to go when he or she feels a need to regain control. Similarly, consider safe escapes—for example, sending a student on a simple errand—that remove the student from difficult situations in a non-punitive manner.
- Limit opportunities for obsessive talk about special interests by providing a specific time of day for this behavior. Use the student’s fixations as a method to broaden his or her repertoire of interests.
- Provide a predictable and safe environment that avoids things that could trigger rage or a meltdown in students. Because a student or group of students can be a trigger for this behavior, it may be wise to limit interaction.
- Set up consistent routines with clear expectations throughout the day. Warn the student of upcoming transitions and try to avoid surprises.
- Teach an appropriate replacement behavior when extinguishing an inappropriate behavior. For example, teach the student to engage in such appropriate waiting behavior as counting slowly to 10 rather than screaming to gain the teacher’s attention.
- Teach anger-control skills.
- Teach cause-and-effect concepts.
- Use humor to diffuse tension.
Students with Aspergers generally have average to above-average intelligence and frequently have good rote memory skills. However, they may lack higher-level thinking and comprehension skills and have poor problem-solving skills. Because many can decode words well, their impressive vocabularies may give a false impression that they understand everything they say or read. Teachers can support academic progress in students with Aspergers by using the following strategies:
- Shorten or modify their written assignments and consider allowing them to use a word processor or computer.
- Provide visual schedules so they know what is happening throughout the school day
- Link their obsessive interest in a single subject to another subject that is being studied in class
- Capitalize on their exceptional memory skills by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate their factual knowledge in class
The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism