Oftentimes, the focus is on the deficits of a youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), which is common due to the child’s communication difficulties, learning disabilities, poor social skills, and/or tendency to experience meltdowns and tantrums. Years of corrective measures are often spent trying to fix the child’s deficits, rather than capitalizing on his assets. For example, if he has poor handwriting skills, hours are spent teaching that youngster using methods that didn't work in the first place, which often results in behavior problems. A youngster who is acting-out is a youngster who is frustrated over failure or perceived failure. If he can’t learn the way he is taught, he may as well be in a foreign language class.
Behavior problems can get in the way of teaching to a youngster's assets. Discipline may reduce or eliminate problematic behavior temporarily, but does not provide stepping stones to more appropriate behavior. Usually there are triggers for behaviors that, when identified and eliminated, result in a dramatic reduction of problematic behaviors. Focusing and building on the youngster's assets usually leads to a reduction in classroom-related problems as well.
A youngster on the autism spectrum already knows that he is different. It is up to educators to teach this child that different is not bad, and that each of us has special talents. Educators can help this process along by showcasing the youngster's assets and special interests. All children have assets, but sometimes they're not obvious. Thus, educators must “hunt down” those strong points and build on them. Every youngster must feel he is making a contribution to his environment. Every youngster must feel important – and must taste success.
If the AS or HFA youngster does not have obvious areas of strength, educators should explore every possibility, be it in sports, solving puzzles, photography, mechanical inclinations, collecting insects, the arts – anything of interest that is creative and stimulating for the child. When the focus is on the child’s “special interests” and areas of strength, the process of building self-confidence and self-reliance begins as well. Of course, parents need to be on board with the business of focusing on strength as well. It is crucial to have a concerted effort both at school and at home, with clear communication between the teacher and parent.
Specific methods for assisting with special needs and capitalizing on strengths:
1. The AS or HFA child should have a special job at school in an area related to her interests and needs. It can be something such as assisting with a classroom chore, feeding the fish in the fish tank, helping the teacher with passing out lesson material – anything that is a regular job. This job does not need to be time consuming. Five to ten minutes a day will work. Accommodating this need takes creativity and ingenuity, but it's crucial.
Unfortunately, the youngster with a “disorder” that impacts social skills and behavior is often the last youngster picked to assist with different classroom tasks. But, it's one of the single most effective methods to help the AS or HFA youngster gain self-confidence, and should be included as a “need” – not a reward! All “special needs” children need to feel they are making a contribution to their environment. They feel important when they are singled out for a special responsibility, even if it is only for five minutes a day. When these young people feel recognized and valued for their contribution, problematic behaviors often diminish or disappear. They walk taller, gain self-confidence, and have a more positive outlook.
2. The AS or HFA student needs structure and routine in order to function. Thus, try to keep his world as predictable as possible. If there will be any significant change in the youngster's classroom or routine, it is advisable to notify parents as far in advance as possible so that everyone can work together in preparing the child for it.
3. Often times, the AS or HFA youngster who is easily distractible in the classroom shows significant improvement when work is accomplished on a computer. Many kids on the autism spectrum tend to lose their thoughts somewhere between brain and pencil, but are great writers when using a computer. Since these children tend to be visual thinkers/learners, there is an instant connection between brain and screen. Through bypassing faulty circuitry that gets in the way of genuine learning, problem solving and organizational skills often show remarkable improvement. The focus can then shift from the writing deficits to the content assets.
4. Kids on the autism spectrum tend to be reclusive; therefore, teachers should foster involvement with others. Encourage active socialization, and limit time spent in isolated pursuit of interests (e.g., the teacher's aide seated at the lunch table could actively encourage the youngster to participate in the conversation of his peers, not only by soliciting his opinions and asking him questions, but also by subtly reinforcing other students who do the same).
5. Always remember that the AS or HFA youngster's difficulty with social cues, nonverbal communication, figurative language and eye contact are part of her neurological makeup. She is not being deliberately rude or disrespectful.
6. Take the example of an AS or HFA child who is struggling with spelling, sometimes spending as much as 2 hours a night trying to learn a list of 15 to 20 words. In this case, a great modification would be to cut the list in half. Alternatively, the teacher may want to consider allowing that youngster to spend spelling time on the computer. With the use of word processors and spell checkers to offset spelling and organizational difficulties, many of these “special needs” students suddenly blossom into creative writers.
7. Remember that the AS or HFA youngster is an individual, not a diagnosis. Teachers should always be alert and receptive to the things that make her unique and special.
8. Although they lack personal understanding of the emotions of others, kids on the spectrum can learn the correct way to respond. When they have been unintentionally insulting, tactless or insensitive, it must be explained to them why the response was inappropriate – and what response would have been correct. They must learn social skills intellectually, because they lack social instinct and intuition.
9. Perhaps the youngster understands math concepts, but has difficulty performing the actual calculations on paper. A calculator is a great tool for such a youngster. Sometimes teachers insist that their students have to first learn math the "old fashioned way." However, if the child can't perform very basic math calculations by the 5th or 6th grade, it will probably always be difficult. It would be best to start early to help the AS or HFA child who has difficulty with math to progress rapidly with the concepts by using a calculator.
10. Kids on the spectrum have eccentric preoccupations, or odd, intense fixations (e.g., sometimes obsessively collecting unusual things). They tend to (a) relentlessly "lecture" on areas of interest, (b) ask repetitive questions about interests, (c) have trouble letting go of ideas, (d) follow their own inclinations regardless of external demands, and (e) sometimes refuse to learn about anything outside their limited field of interest. In these cases, teachers can use the youngster's fixation as a way to broaden her repertoire of interests. A case in point: During a unit on rain forests, one AS student who was obsessed with animals was led to not only study rain forest animals, but to also study the forest itself since this was the animals’ home. He was then motivated to learn about the local people who were forced to chop down the animals’ forest habitat in order to survive.
Children with AS and HFA are unique, and they can affect the learning environment in both positive and negative ways. In the classroom, these students can present a challenge for the most experienced teacher. They can also contribute much to the classroom, because they can be extremely creative and see things and execute various tasks in different ways. These “special needs” children may come from different family backgrounds and leave your classroom for different futures, but they spend a significant portion of their young lives with you right now. Next to the parents, you have the greatest opportunity and the power to positively influence their lives.
Struggling with your "special needs" student? Click here for highly effective teaching strategies specific to the Asperger's and HFA condition.