In general, the DSM bases diagnostic criteria for Aspergers on the following:
- Absence of a significant delay in cognitive development
- Absence of general delay in language development
- Impairment of social communication
- Impairment of social imagination, flexible thinking and imaginative play
- Impairment of social interaction
In the classroom, Aspergers may manifest in behaviors which include, but are not limited to:
- Average to excellent memorization skills
- Clumsy walk
- Conversations and activities only center around themselves
- Inability to usually socially appropriate tone and/or volume of speech
- Lack of common sense and/or "street smarts"
- Lack of empathy for others
- Lack of facial expressions
- May be teased, bullied or isolated by peers
- May excel in areas such as math or spelling
- Often very verbal
- Poor eye contact
- Talking about only one subject/topic and missing the cues that others are bored
The general features exhibited by kids diagnosed with Aspergers are similar to the general features exhibited by kids who have been clinically diagnosed with Autism and are described as having "high functioning autism."
Children with Aspergers exhibit difficulty in appropriately processing in-coming information. Their brain's ability to take in, store, and use information is significantly different than other developing children. Aspergers students can present a challenge for the most experienced teacher. But on a positive note, the Aspergers student can contribute significantly to the classroom because he/she is often extremely creative and provides a different perspective to the subject matter in question.
Here are some tips for teachers and parents to consider. Much of the following information is also relevant for consideration in working with children identified as having "high functioning autism":
1. Accommodate the Aspergers student’s “visual learning” style. Much of the information presented in class is oral, but Aspies may have difficulty with processing oral language quickly, so presenting information visually may be more helpful. Use of visual methods of teaching, as well as visual support strategies, should always be incorporated to help the child with Aspergers better understand his environment.
2. Aspergers students can "blurt out" their thoughts as statements of fact, resulting in an appearance of insensitivity and lack of tact. However, these kids typically do not understand that some thoughts and ideas can - and should - be represented internally, and thus should not be spoken out loud. Thus, encourage the Aspie to whisper, rather than speak his thoughts out loud. Encourage him to "think it – don't say it". Role playing, audio/video taping and social scripting can be used to teach the student how to initially identify what thoughts should be represented internally, versus externally
3. Avoid demanding that the Aspergers student maintain eye contact with you. The Aspie experiences difficulty with eye contact. Limited eye contact is a part of the disability and should not be confused with “inattention.”
4. Don’t require the Aspergers student to “show” his work. Many teachers require students to "show their work" (e.g., to illustrate how they got the answer to a math problem). Since Aspies are visual learners, they picture how to solve the problem in their heads. The requirement of "showing work" does not make sense to them, and as a result, is quite difficult because it involves language skills that the Aspie may not have.
5. Don't assume that when the Aspergers student “looks off into space” that he is not listening. What appears to the teacher to be “lack of attention” may not be that at all. In fact, the Aspie who is doodling or staring off may actually be trying to focus and may be unaware that he is conveying to the teacher that he’s not listening. Simply ask the Aspergers student a question related to the topic in question to check if he is actually listening.
6. Due to physical coordination problems, ensure that the Aspie is in an adaptive educational program rather than a general PE class.
7. Enforce bullying rules and minimize teasing.
8. Ensure the environment is safe and as predictable as possible.
9. For class lectures, peer buddies may be needed to take notes. NCR paper can be used or the buddy's notes could be copied on a copy machine.
10. Get permission to speak with any mental health practitioner who is involved with your Aspergers student. This professional can help you gain a better understanding of the disorder and work with you to develop effective classroom interventions. In turn, provide the mental health professional beneficial insight into how the student acts in an academic setting, which can help the professional treat the child in a more holistic manner.
11. Give the Aspergers student enough time to respond in order to allow for possible auditory processing difficulties before repeating or rephrasing the question or directive. The student can be taught appropriate phrases to indicate the need for additional processing time, (e.g., "Just a minute please”).
12. Give the Aspie an outlet for his “fixations” (e.g., allow him to turn-in work on his obsession/topic of interest for extra credit).
13. Help with transitions. Aspies have difficulty moving from one activity to the next. If a typical school day is loaded with many transitions, the student’s anxiety level will likely increase. Thus, he may need to be coached through the transition. Use visual schedules and/or role-playing to help the child prepare for moving on to the next task. Keep transitions the same for as many activities as possible.
14. If the student becomes overwhelmed with frustration and experiences a "meltdown," remain calm and use a normal tone of voice to help him deal with his stress.
15. Limit obsessive behavior about topics by setting a specific time in which the Aspie can ask the focused questions. Do not allow him to keep asking questions or discussing a particular topic after the allotted time. Provide a written answer to repetitive questions asked by the student. When the child repeats the question, he can be referred to the written answer, which may assist in comprehension, and thus decrease the occurrence of the repetitive question asking.
16. Make allowances for sensory issues. Aspies are often distracted by things in the environment that limit their ability to focus (e.g., breeze from an open window feels like a gust of wind; bright sunshine pouring through the window is blinding; smell of food from the cafeteria makes them feel sick; ticking of a clock seems like the beating of a drum). This sensory overload can be overwhelming and often results in an inability to focus. The inability to focus can result in a level of frustration, and to cope with such frustration, the child may choose to engage in some form of self-soothing behavior (e.g., repeatedly tapping a pencil on the desk; tapping both feet on the floor like a drum). What appears disruptive to everyone else may actually be the student’s way of trying to re-establish focus and concentration on the subject at hand. Take time to evaluate the classroom in terms of sensory stimulation and how the environment affects the Aspie. Modify the classroom as needed. In addition, teach the Aspie some self-soothing techniques that are not as disruptive to the classroom (e.g., squeezing a squishy ball; taking a time-out to get a drink of water).
17. Many Aspergers students are overwhelmed by even the smallest of changes and are highly sensitive to their environments and rituals. When these are thrown off, they can become very anxious and worry obsessively about changes in routine. Unpredictability may occur during less structured activities or times of the day (e.g., recess, lunch, free time, PE, bus rides, music class, art class, assemblies, field trips, substitute teachers, delayed start, early dismissal, etc.). Thus, develop a structured classroom with routines and write down the daily routine for the Aspergers student. A daily routine is critical.
18. Positive reinforcement works well for Aspergers students. When he accomplishes a desired behavior, compliment then and praise him. Even simple social interactions should be praised.
19. Provide an escape route for the Aspergers student whenever he is beginning to “meltdown” (i.e., he is allowed to take a time-out in an unoccupied room or a quiet corner).
20. Simplify lessons to ensure the Aspergers student understands what is being said. It is common for an Aspie to simply repeat what is being taught without any understanding of the concept.
21. Teach the Aspergers student relaxation techniques that he can use to decrease anxiety levels (e.g., "Take a big breath and count to ten"). These steps can be written down as visual "cue" cards for the Aspie to carry with him and refer to as needed.
22. Teachers should receive training on the characteristics and educational needs of Aspergers students. It is critical to understand the unique features associated with this disorder. Understand that children with Aspergers have a developmental disability, which causes them to respond and behave in a way that is different from other students. The behaviors exhibited by Aspies should not be misinterpreted as purposeful or manipulative behaviors. Also, uncover the student’s strengths and needs prior to actually working with him.
23. Teach social skills. The Aspergers student can exhibit the need to take control and direct social situations according to his own limited social rules and social understanding. Although he may be able to initiate interactions with other students, these interactions are typically considered to be "on his own terms" and appear to be very egocentric (i.e., they relate primarily to the child's specific wants, needs, desires and interests and do not constitute a truly interactive, give-and-take social relation with his peer). Thus, teach appropriate social interactions. Show the Aspie how his words and actions impact others. Many children with Aspergers do not understand some of the common social interactions and social contacts. It is important as a teacher to realize that the child may not understand some jokes and may be unable to interpret body language. Teach the child about social cues and help them to make friends. Most children with Aspergers do want to have friends, but do not know how to make them. Teachers can help by teaching the student what social cues mean. The use of “social stories” and “social scripts’ can provide the Aspergers child with visual information and strategies that will improve his understanding of various social situations. Comic strip conversations can be used as a tool to visually clarify communicative social interactions and emotional relations through the use of simple line drawings. A buddy system can be helpful; in social situations, the buddy can help the Aspergers student handle certain situations.
24. Try to seat the Aspie at the front of the class so you can instruct him directly and continuously. Since concentration is often a problem for Aspergers students, a system of “nonverbal reminders” to pay attention is important (e.g., a pat on the shoulder).
25. Use an assignment notebook consistently.
26. Use color-coded notebooks to match academic books.
27. Use of a "finish later" folder or box may be helpful. Even though the Aspergers student may be verbally reminded that he can finish his math worksheet after recess, this information will not be processed as readily as through the use of a visual strategy, such as a "finish later" folder or box.
28. Using a visual calendar will give the Aspergers student information regarding up-coming events. When the Aspie asks when a particular event will occur, he can easily be referred to the visual calendar, which presents the information through the visual mode that the student can more readily understand (e.g., class field trip, swimming lessons, etc.).
29. Use of an "Assignments to be Completed" folder as well as a "Completed Assignments" folder is recommended.
30. Use the Aspergers student’s “limited range of interest” to his advantage. Often times, Aspies focus all their attention on just one particular object or subject; therefore, they may fail to focus on what information the teacher is presenting. Thus, the teacher may want to try to establish some connection between the child’s object/subject of interest and the area of study (e.g., if a child is interested in guns, he can learn reading and writing skills through researching and writing a report on weapons used during WWII). The possibilities for instruction are endless. Taking some time to devise a creative ‘lesson plan’ will go far in establishing and keeping the Aspie’s interest in new subject matter.
31. Work with the other students to develop an environment of tolerance and acceptance for the Aspergers student. Some students can be educated about Aspergers and helped to understand what to expect from their Aspie peer. Classmates of the Aspergers child should be told about the unique learning and behavioral mannerisms associated with Aspergers (parent permission must always be given prior to such peer training).
32. Work with the parents to learn the warning signs that the Aspie is becoming frustrated and about to experience a "meltdown".
The Aspergers child, while on the higher end of the autism scale, has special needs that must be addressed. Although the condition is quite challenging, a curriculum designed to assist this student will go a long way to allowing him to cope with his various limitations.
The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism