Learning and Behavioral Characteristics of Students with Aspergers

Kids with Aspergers (high functioning autism) share some of the same characteristics as kids with autism, and there is debate on whether Aspergers is an independent diagnostic category or another dimension at the higher end of the autistic continuum (Szatmari, 1995). Although Aspergers shares some characteristics with higher-functioning autism, there are some unique features, and a different developmental progression and prognosis (Myles & Simpson, 1998) for children with Aspergers.

According to DSM-IV (1994) criteria, the youngster must meet the criteria for social impairment, repetitive activities and age of onset, but have normal cognitive and language development. Aspergers involves fewer symptoms than autism.

Learning and Behavioral Characteristics of Children with Aspergers—

1. Although kids with Aspergers usually speak fluently by five years of age, they often have problems with pragmatics (the use of language in social contexts), semantics (not being able to recognize multiple meanings) and prosody (the pitch, stress, and rhythm of speech) (Attwood, 1998).
  • Social communication problems can include standing too close, staring, abnormal body posture and failure to understand gestures and facial expressions.
  • Speech may be characterized by a lack of variation in pitch, stress and rhythm and, as the child reaches adolescence, speech may become pedantic (overly formal).
  • Children with Aspergers may have an advanced vocabulary and frequently talk incessantly about a favorite subject. The topic may be somewhat narrowly defined and the individual may have difficulty switching to another topic.
  • They may have difficulties with the rules of conversation. Children with Aspergers may interrupt or talk over the speech of others, may make irrelevant comments and have difficulty initiating and terminating conversations.

2. Anxiety is also a characteristic associated with Aspergers. It may be difficult for the child to understand and adapt to the social demands of school. Appropriate instruction and support can help to alleviate some of the stress.

3. Aspergers is characterized by a qualitative impairment in social interaction. Children with Aspergers may be keen to relate to others, but do not have the skills, and may approach others in peculiar ways (Klin & Volkmar, 1997). They frequently lack understanding of social customs and may appear socially awkward, have difficulty with empathy, and misinterpret social cues.

4. Children with Aspergers are poor incidental social learners and need explicit instruction in social skills.

5. Children with Aspergers may also be inattentive and easily distracted and many receive a diagnosis of ADHD at one point in their lives (Myles & Simpson, 1998).

6. Children with Aspergers share common characteristics with autism in terms of responses to sensory stimuli. They may be hypersensitive to some stimuli and may engage in unusual behaviors to obtain a specific sensory stimulation.

7. It is estimated that 50%-90% of people with Aspergers have problems with motor coordination (Attwood, 1998). The affected areas may include locomotion, ball skills, balance, manual dexterity, handwriting, rapid movements, lax joints, rhythm and imitation of movements.

8. The child with Aspergers is of average to above average intelligence and may appear quite capable. Many are relatively proficient in knowledge of facts, and may have extensive factual information about a subject that they are absorbed with. However, they demonstrate relative weaknesses in comprehension and abstract thought, as well as in social cognition. Consequently, they do experience some academic problems, particularly with reading comprehension, problem solving, organizational skills, concept development, and making inferences and judgments. In addition, they often have difficulty with cognitive flexibility. That is their thinking tends to be rigid. They often have difficulty adapting to change or failure and do not readily learn from their mistakes (Attwood, 1998).

Strategies for Teachers—

Many of the strategies for teaching children with autism are applicable for children with Aspergers. The professional literature often does not differentiate between high-functioning autism and Aspergers when outlining recommended practices. However, it is important to give consideration to the unique learning characteristics, to provide support when needed, and to build on the child’s many strengths.

The following identifies the specific learning difficulty and suggests a number of possible classroom strategies:

Difficulties with language—
  • Comic Strip Conversations (Gray, 1994) can be applied to a range of problems with conversation skills
  • difficulty understanding complex language, following directions, and understanding intent of words with multiple meanings
  • encourage the child to ask for an instruction to be repeated, simplified or written down if he does not understand
  • explain metaphors and words with double meanings
  • limit oral questions to a number the child can manage
  • pause between instructions and check for understanding
  • small group instruction for conversational skills
  • teach appropriate opening comments
  • teach rules and cues regarding turn-taking in conversation and when to reply, interrupt or change the topic
  • teach student to seek assistance when confused
  • tendency to interrupt
  • tendency to make irrelevant comments
  • tendency to talk on one topic and to talk over the speech of others
  • use audio taped and videotaped conversations
  • watch videos to identify nonverbal expressions and their meanings

Insistence on sameness—
  • use pictures, schedules and social stories to indicate impending changes
  • wherever possible prepare the child for potential change

Impairment in social interaction—
  • difficulty reading the emotions of others
  • difficulty understanding "unwritten rules" and when they do learn them, may apply them rigidly
  • difficulty understanding the rules of social interaction
  • educate peers about how to respond to the child’s disability in social interaction
  • encourage cooperative games
  • explicitly teach rules of social conduct
  • interprets literally what is said
  • lacks tact
  • may be na├»ve
  • may need to develop relaxation techniques and have a quiet place to go to relax
  • may need to provide supervision and support for the child at breaks and recess
  • problems with social distance
  • provide clear expectations and rules for behavior
  • structured social skills groups can provide opportunity for direct instruction on specific skills and to practice actual events
  • teach flexibility, cooperation and sharing
  • teach the child how to interact through social stories, modeling and role-playing
  • teach the child how to start, maintain and end play
  • teach the children how to monitor their own behavior
  • use a buddy system to assist the child during non-structured times
  • use other kids as cues to indicate what to do

Restricted range of interests—
  • incorporate and expand on interest in activities and assignments
  • limit perseverative discussions and questions
  • set firm expectations for the classroom, but also provide opportunities for the child to pursue his own interests

Poor concentration—
  • break down assignments
  • difficulty sustaining attention
  • distractible
  • frequent teacher feedback and redirection
  • may be disorganized
  • often off task
  • reduced homework assignments
  • seating at the front
  • timed work sessions
  • use nonverbal cues to get attention

Poor organizational skills—
  • help the child to use "to do" lists and checklists
  • maintain lists of assignments
  • picture cues in lockers
  • pictures on containers and locker
  • use schedules and calendars

Poor motor coordination—
  • consider the use of a computer for written assignments, as some children may be more skilled at using a keyboard than writing
  • involve in fitness activities
  • may prefer fitness activities to competitive sports
  • provide extra time for tests
  • take slower writing speed into account when giving assignments (length often needs to be reduced)

Academic difficulties—
  • areas of difficulty include poor problem solving, comprehension problems and difficulty with abstract concepts
  • avoid verbal overload
  • be as concrete as possible in presenting new concepts and abstract material
  • break down tasks into smaller steps or present it another way
  • capitalize on strengths, e.g., memory
  • do not assume that they have understood what they have read. Check for comprehension, supplement instruction and use visual supports
  • don’t assume that the child has understood simply because he/she can re-state the information
  • good recall of factual information
  • may do well at mathematical computations, but have difficulty with problem solving
  • often strong in word recognition and may learn to read very early, but difficulty with comprehension
  • provide direct instruction as well as modeling
  • show examples of what is required
  • use activity-based learning where possible
  • use graphic organizers such as semantic maps
  • use outlines to help student take notes and organize and categorize information
  • usually average to above average intelligence

Emotional vulnerability—
  • easily stressed due to inflexibility
  • educate other children
  • help the child to understand his/her behaviors and reactions of others
  • may be prone to depression
  • may have difficulties coping with the social and emotional demands of school
  • may have difficulty tolerating making mistakes
  • may have rage reactions and temper outbursts
  • often have low self-esteem
  • provide experiences in which the person can make choices
  • provide positive praise and tell the child what she/he does right or well
  • teach techniques for coping with difficult situations and for dealing with stress
  • teach the child to ask for help
  • use peer supports such as buddy systems and peer support network
  • use rehearsal strategies

Sensory Sensitivities—

  • be aware that normal levels of auditory and visual input can be perceived by the child as too much or too little
  • confusing, complex or multiple sounds such as in shopping centers
  • having the child listen to music can camouflage certain sounds
  • high-pitched continuous noise
  • it may be necessary to avoid some sounds
  • keep the level of stimulation within the child’s ability to cope
  • minimize background noise
  • most common sensitivities involve sound and touch, but may also include taste, light intensity, colors and aromas
  • sudden, unexpected noises such as a telephone ringing, fire alarm
  • teach and model relaxation strategies and diversions to reduce anxiety
  • use of ear plugs if very extreme


The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

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