Many kids with Aspergers (high functioning autism) have difficulty understanding social interactions, including nonverbal gestures. They may fail to develop age-appropriate peer relationships, or be unable to share interests or show empathy. When confronted by changes in school routine, they may show visible anxiety, withdraw into silence, or burst into a fit of rage.
Although children with Aspergers may often appear to have a large vocabulary, sometimes sounding like “little professors,” they can be very literal and have great difficulty using language in a social context. They may like school, but wish the other kids weren’t there.
Here are some important classroom accommodations for educators to consider:
1. Allow more time to complete assignments, tests, and projects.
2. Break assignments and projects down into small sections that can be completed one at a time so that the child does not feel overwhelmed with the work.
3. Create a standard way of presenting change in advance of the event. A key phrase like “Today will be different” may be helpful if used consistently. You may want to explain the changes — for example, a substitute teacher — privately as well as with the class.
4. Create a structured, predictable, and calming environment.
5. Create a unique prompt or signal that you can use with the child to redirect his attention back to the assignment whenever necessary.
6. Create fewer transitions throughout the day. For example, try to create a schedule that eliminates unnecessary movement from one location to another.
7. Enjoy and make use of your child’s verbal and intellectual skills. Fixations can be used by making their chosen subject the center of teaching and using the child’s expertise to raise peer interest and respect (i.e., have him give a report or make a model of his favorite subject to share with the class.)
8. For children with Aspergers, it may be necessary to use more visual instruction, particularly with younger students. Use pictures, images, drawings, and similar aids when discussing vocabulary words, history lessons, scientific subjects, and abstract topics.
9. Foster a climate of tolerance and understanding in the classroom. Consider assigning a peer helper to assist the child in joining group activities and socializing.
10. Have a crisis plan in place in the case of emotional outbursts that might occur due to the student's inability to cope or interact with others. This plan should be coordinated with other educators, specialists, and administration, and may include providing a supervised quiet place for the child to go if needed.
11. In some cases, cooperative learning groups will not only improve social skills but also allow the child to exhibit his abilities in certain subjects. Choose the cooperative groups carefully, and continue to monitor the behavior of the student and his peers.
12. It may be necessary to focus individual lessons around that particular child. If so, continue to work in conjunction with the special education teacher when designing these lessons.
13. Learn the usual triggers and the warning signs of a rage attack or “melt-down” and intervene early, before control is lost. Help your child learn self-calming and self-management skills. Remain calm and non-judgmental to reduce stress, remind yourself that your child “can’t” rather than “won’t” react as others do.
14. Maintain a safe environment. This means controlling other students who would be a distraction or a problem for the child with Aspergers.
15. Place the child at the front of the room, and include him in question and answer sessions within the class.
16. Prepare the student in advance for any changes in routine or other unexpected activities.
17. Provide whatever support and information you can to the parents. Kids with Aspergers Syndrome often have sleep disorders and the family may be sleep-deprived. Other parents show frustration due to the long search for a diagnosis and services. They may also face disbelieving professionals or family members who erroneously blame poor parenting for the behaviors they see.
18. Set firm expectations regardless of the assignment. In many cases, students with Aspergers may not want to do assignments that hold no interest for them. It is important to establish and maintain control within the classroom, and this should include a child with Aspergers as well.
19. Try to provide a predictable schedule. Although this is sometimes difficult to do, students with Aspergers thrive on routine.
20. Use direct teaching to increase socially acceptable behaviors, expected greetings and responses, and group interaction skills. Demonstrate the impact of words and actions on other people during real-life interactions and increase awareness of emotions, body language, etc.
21. Use positive reinforcement of good behavior whenever possible.
Students with Aspergers are very bright and eager kids who can be motivated to do well in the classroom. However, lack of social skills and obsessive behavior can make it difficult at times for them to meet the expectations of their educators. With patience and understanding, the educational experience of these kids can be a positive one.
Teaching Students with Aspergers: The "Ebooks for Educators" Series