The World of Aspergers: Advice to Teachers

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom... As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous... In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized." - Haim Ginott

Few could disagree with the sentiments expressed by Ginott, at least in theory. Unfortunately, theory doesn't always translate into practice, at least not for kids with the enigmatic and complex disorder known as Aspergers (high functioning autism). Thus, when a crisis occurs, or worse yet escalates, it is often the youngster who is held accountable, and the teacher who is exonerated!

Consultants are rarely asked to look at what the school staff needs to know and do to better understand and address the challenges that accompany Aspergers. Rather, they are all too often directed to focus their efforts on "fixing" the youngster, as though his or her actions are the result of behavioral decisions, rather than the reflection of a neurological impairment.

Could it be that Ginott's words were intended only for educators of typical kids? That is most unlikely. Then what is there about Aspergers that "invites" placing the burden of responsibility with respect to aberrant behavior on the kids who manifest the disability, rather than on those who have the wherewithal to operate with far greater freedom and flexibility (i.e., their educators or caregivers)?

One parent's search for answers to a particularly distressing school situation led her to characterize the plight of her 8 1/2 year old son with Aspergers thusly: "The good news is he's bright, and the bad news is he's bright!" This revealing description makes a poignant, and sadly accurate statement about an educational system that not only fails to understand the youngster with Aspergers, it fails to recognize that such understanding is in fact necessary if positive change is to occur. An analysis of what this parent meant by her statement gives one a window on the topsy-turvy world of Aspergers.

In most disorders, descriptors such as "more able" and "high functioning" are excellent prognostic indicators - hence, the good news. How then can intelligence be considered bad news? The answer to this question lies in the paradoxical nature of Aspergers itself.

Individuals with Aspergers are cognitively intact. That is, they possess normal, if not above-average intelligence. This creates an expectation for success. Further, the pursuit of their restricted repertoires of interests and activities often results in the amassing of impressive facts, and in an expertise beyond their years. Therein lies the problem! Given their enormous strengths, and the expectation that they generate, and given the fact that intelligence is a highly-prized trait in our culture, intellectual prowess in the youngster with Aspergers virtually eclipses the social-emotional and other deficits that are at the heart of the unusual behavior and interests are often seen.

Stated more succinctly, unmindful of their neurologically-based weaknesses, educators and/or clinicians get blinded by the strengths of these kids. This situation inevitably leads to a mental set that can be summed up as follows: "If he/she is that smart, shouldn't he/she know better?" The answer to that question is a resounding "no". In fact, because of the social-emotional and communication deficits, as well as the presence of symptomatology unique to Aspergers, these kids can't "know better" until they are taught simply to know (i.e., to understand).

Consequently, in order to create an hospitable environment for kids with Aspergers in a world that is often inhospitable to their needs, it s vital that educators and other caregivers employ direct teaching strategies to address the following specific areas:
  • Executive dysfunction (i.e., problems in organizational skills/planning)
  • Perspective-taking
  • Problem solving
  • Reading/language comprehension
  • Socio-communicative understanding and expression

Together, these target areas constitute a kind of life skills curriculum for the more able student. Their inclusion in the student's IEP can help to ensure that each of these important skill areas gets the attention it deserves. After all, life skills are far too important to be left to chance! 

Struggling with an Aspergers or HFA student? Click here for highly effective teaching strategies -- specific to the disorder. 


•    Anonymous said... I think schools should be trained on how to help children with different needs, in England alot of the one to ones and the special needs teacher have been cut because there isn't the funding for them as a result loads of children don't have their needs met.
•    Anonymous said... Thank you. I think that is the worst part of aspergers. My 7 year old was diagnosed with this ADHD and aniexty last year. The worst part is people treat him and me as if he is just a bad kid and a bully. Its can be so hard at time. I keep reminding him that people dont understand what they can see and that he is a good kid. We also talk how he has to try with his behavior and cant use his issues as an excuse. Once he learns to work with it it will be a gift.

*   Anonymous said... We give as much info on our Aspy child (triggers and signs) to look out for when his anxiety is rising and how to prevent the meltdown but when you have so many substitute teachers or teachers that treat yur child as a number and not as an individual he keeps getting suspended over trivial matters that could have been avoided if they didn't contribute to his anxiety...

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