HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Students with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s: Crucial Strategies for Teachers

Kids with High Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) 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 kids. HFA and AS students can present a challenge for the most experienced teacher. But on a positive note, they can contribute significantly to the classroom, because they are often extremely creative and provide a different perspective to the subject matter in question.

Although HFA and AS differ from classic autism with respect to language acquisition and early cognitive development, they do have similarities (e.g., in the areas of social impairment, impairment in reading social non-verbal language, inflexibility, persistent preoccupation, etc.). Problematic behavior in HFA and AS students is essentially the result of (a) failure to learn necessary adaptive behaviors (e.g., how to establish satisfying personal relationships), and (b) the learning of ineffective responses (e.g., discovering that one can avoid unwanted tasks by acting-out behaviorally).

These “special needs” students are impaired socially, and often do not detect social clues. They are frequently unaware that a peer is irritated if the only clue is a frustrated facial expression. If they miss a social clue, then they miss the lesson associated with the experience. Thus, they will likely repeat the irritating behavior because they are unaware of its effects.

In the classroom, HFA and AS may manifest in behaviors which include, but are not limited to:
  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Lack of common sense and/or "street smarts"
  • Inability to usually socially appropriate tone and/or volume of speech
  • Conversations and activities only center around themselves
  • Clumsy walk
  • Average to excellent memorization skills
  • Talking about only one subject/topic and missing the cues that others are bored 
  • Poor eye contact
  • Often very verbal
  • May excel in areas (e.g., math or spelling)
  • May be teased, bullied or isolated by peers
  • Lack of facial expressions

Many of the traits of HFA and AS can be "masked" by average to above average IQ scores, which can result in the student being misunderstood by teachers. Teachers often assume that the autistic student is capable of more than is being produced. Lack of understanding of the child in this way can significantly impede the desire of the teacher to search for techniques useful in overcoming the hindrances caused by the disorder.

Another misunderstanding is the relationship between curriculum and social education. For instance, a youngster with AS or HFA may find a social setting overwhelming and distracting. If the students are placed in a small group for project work, this may predominantly become a social setting to an AS or HFA child. It is possible that she would be so over-stimulated by the social aspect that it would be extremely challenging to focus on the curriculum aspect of the group.

Whether you have a special education class, or just a few students on the autism spectrum, the chances are you could use some help. Below are some crucial points to consider:

1. Work with the parents to learn the warning signs that the HFA or AS student is becoming frustrated and about to experience a “meltdown” (i.e., sensory and emotional overload).

2. Work with the other students to develop an environment of tolerance and acceptance for the HFA or AS student. Some students can be educated about autism spectrum disorders and helped to understand what to expect from their “special needs” peer. Classmates of the HFA or AS child should be told about the unique learning and behavioral mannerisms associated with the disorder (note: parent permission must always be given prior to such peer -training).

3. Using a visual calendar will give the HFA or AS student information regarding up-coming events. When the student 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 he can more readily understand (e.g., class field trip, swimming lessons, etc.).

4. Although a young person on the autism spectrum has difficulty figuring out most principles of human interaction, she is usually good at picking up on cause-and-effect principles. This suggests that although she may be unaware of others’ desires or emotions, she is aware of hers. This can be useful in education if the teacher takes the time to determine what is pleasing to the youngster. Once this pleasure has been discovered, the teacher can request the desired behavior and reinforce the behavior with the object of desire.

5. Use the student’s “limited range of interest” to his advantage. Often times, these young people 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 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 “special needs” student’s interest in new subject matter.

6. Use of an "Assignments to be Completed" folder as well as a "Completed Assignments" folder is recommended. Also, use of a "Finish Later" folder or box may be helpful. Even though the HFA or AS 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.

7. Use color-coded notebooks to match academic books.

8. Try to seat the “special needs” student at the front of the class so you can instruct her directly and continuously. Since concentration is often a problem for HFA and AS students, a system of “nonverbal reminders” to pay attention is important (e.g., a pat on the shoulder, a hand signal, etc.).

9. Teachers should receive training on the characteristics and educational needs of students on the spectrum. It is critical to understand the unique features associated with this disorder. Understand that these children have a developmental disability, which causes them to respond and behave in a way that is different from other students. The behaviors exhibited should not be misinterpreted as purposeful or manipulative behaviors. Also, uncover the student’s strengths and needs prior to actually working with him.

10. Teach the student a few 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 student to carry with him and refer to as needed.

11. Teach social skills. The HFA or AS 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 peers). Thus, teach appropriate social interactions.

12. Simplify lessons to ensure that the student understands what is being said. It is common for autistic students to simply repeat what is being taught without any understanding of the concept.

13. Provide an “escape route” for the student whenever he is beginning to “meltdown” (e.g., he is allowed to take a time-out in an unoccupied room or a quiet corner).

14. Positive reinforcement works well for HFA and AS students. When they accomplish a desired behavior, compliment and praise them. Even simple social interactions should be praised.

15. Many HFA and AS 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 student.

16. Make allowances for sensory issues. Kids on the spectrum 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, etc.). 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, etc.). What appears disruptive to everyone else may actually be the HFA or AS 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 student. Modify the classroom as needed. In addition, teach the student 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, and so on).

17. Limit obsessive behavior about topics by setting a specific time in which the student can ask the focused questions. Do not allow her 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 she repeats the question, she can be referred to the written answer, which may assist in comprehension, and thus decrease the occurrence of the repetitive question asking.

18. 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.

19. HFA and AS 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 “special needs” student 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.

20. Help with transitions. Kids on the spectrum 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.

21. Give the HFA or AS 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”).

22. Give the student an outlet for his “fixations” (e.g., allow him to turn-in work on his topic of interest for extra credit).

23. Get permission to speak with any mental health practitioner who is involved with your HFA or AS 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.

24. Teach the child about social cues and help her to make friends. Most children on the spectrum 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 child with visual information and strategies that will improve her 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. Also, a “buddy system” can be helpful. In social situations, the buddy can help the autistic student handle certain situations.

25. 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.

26. Ensure the environment is safe and as predictable as possible. Enforce bullying rules and minimize teasing.

27. Due to physical coordination problems, ensure that the “special needs” student is in an adaptive educational program rather than a general PE class.

28. Don't assume that when the HFA or AS 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 “special needs” student 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 student a question related to the topic in question to check if he is actually listening.

29. Don’t require the student to “show” her work. Many teachers require students to show their work (e.g., to illustrate how they got the answer to a math problem). Since young people with an autism spectrum disorder 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 student may not have.

30. Avoid demanding that the student maintain eye contact with you. Autistic children experience difficulty with eye contact. Limited eye contact is a part of the disorder and should not be confused with “inattention.”

31. Accommodate the student’s “visual learning” style. Much of the information presented in class is oral, but HFA and AS children have difficulty with processing oral language quickly. Thus, 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 better understand his environment.

32. Show the student how her words and actions impact others. Most children on the spectrum 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.

HFA and AS students, while on the higher end of the autism scale, have special needs that must be addressed. Although the disorder is quite challenging, a curriculum designed to assist these students will go a long way to allowing them to cope with various limitations. By employing some of the suggestions listed above, teachers can help these students thrive in the academic setting.

The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


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