Teaching students with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism who also experience social anxiety in the classroom WILL be challenging. School can be difficult for Aspergers students without the anxiety issue, but it is especially difficult for the anxious “Aspie.” If you are a teacher of an anxious student with Aspergers, knowing how to encourage and foster a good environment for learning is paramount.
There is no one sign that indicates that an Aspergers student has social anxiety. However, some common signs include:
- appearing very anxious when the center of attention
- being constantly alone in the playground
- crying for no apparent reason
- devoting an excessive amount of time to the computer
- experiencing severe anxiety about tests and quizzes
- freezing for no apparent reason
- frequent claims of illness so as to avoid going to school
- having no friends, or having only one friend
- hovering on the edge of groups
- not joining in
- poor eye contact
- refusing to go to school
- saying very little or even nothing during class
- speaking very softly
- throwing tantrums or experiencing meltdowns
- unwillingness to participate in class activities (e.g., show and tell, debating, reading aloud, raising their hand to answer and ask questions, etc.)
If you have an Aspergers student in class who is experiencing social anxiety, here are some ideas for assisting him or her:
1. Allow Aspergers children to take a "break" (e.g., go get a drink) if they seem to become overwhelmed
2. Allow the child with Aspergers to arrive late if it makes the transition easier.
3. Allow the youngster with Aspergers to sit with classmates that he/she is familiar with or is friends with.
4. Assign a "lifeline" peer to the Aspergers youngster who can help answer his/her questions if called upon in a group setting.
5. Communicate with parents about what you observe.
6. Develop and follow a regular predictable classroom routine.
7. Embarrassment is a concern for all adolescents, but is multiplied in Aspergers teens experiencing anxiety. Modifications and adaptations should be in place with subtle non-intrusive methods to allow the teen to maintain a sense of dignity and responsibility. Blatant, harsh criticisms of these adolescents will perpetuate their fears of failure and feed into their cycles of anxiety and avoidance.
8. Encourage completion of activities and assignments, yet allow extra time when needed.
9. Encourage friendships between kids with Aspergers and friendly, outgoing classmates.
10. Encourage the child to keep a written log of assignments and due dates.
11. Ensure that you have a zero tolerance rule for bullying and discrimination of any kind. Have consequences in place for children who embarrass or humiliate other kids to prevent this behavior in the classroom (e.g., during speeches, any youngster who snickers during another child's speech would have marks deducted from his/her own grade).
12. For younger Aspergers kids, make the student your special helper to give him/her a role in the classroom.
13. For younger Aspergers kids, read storybooks about self-esteem and bullying. For older kids read novels or watch movies with the same content.
14. Have a preset time each week that the child can talk with you or another staff member about how he is feeling and his fears.
15. Help the child confront feared situations with gentle encouragement.
16. Identify a "safe place" that the child can go to if feeling overwhelmed, and have a signal and exit strategy for these situations.
17. If an Aspergers child misses a lot of school due to social anxiety, allow gradual reintroduction at a pace that the child is comfortable with.
18. If possible, decrease homework load.
19. In your interactions with the child, speak softly and calmly.
20. Modify instructional methods if necessary (e.g., explaining an assignment one-on-one with the child).
21. Pair children for activities rather than allowing children to choose pairs, to prevent the child with Aspergers from being left out.
22. Promote self-esteem by offering praise for small accomplishments and rewarding participation even if the child gives a wrong answer.
23. Regular meetings between parents, teachers, counselors and other school staff are important for planning classroom strategies for the child with Aspergers.
24. Team with parents to develop calming techniques and relaxation strategies.
25. The child with Aspergers may require social skills training or instruction in relaxation techniques delivered by a special education teacher or other team member.
Note to Parents: If your Aspergers child experiences social anxiety in a school setting, feel free to copy, paste, and print this article for your child's teachers.