Classroom Difficulties of Children with Asperger Syndrome: Overview for Teachers

What is Aspergers?

Aspergers (high functioning autism) is a complex developmental disability marked by impairments in socialization, communication, cognition, and sensation. Like classic autism, Aspergers is a neurological disorder that affects a child’s ability to communicate and relate to others. It is a lifelong disorder that carries with it considerable and long-term behavior problems. Although the characteristics of Aspergers will differ from person to person, common effects of the disorder include:

• A persistent preoccupation with objects or narrowly focused topics of interest
• An inflexible adherence to a nonfunctional routine or ritual
• Difficulties with fine-motor skills and sensory integration
• Repetition of movements or words and phrases
• Trouble understanding social cues and conversational language styles

Aspergers may be diagnosed when a child exhibits atypical repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, and activities, such as the examples listed above. All people possess some of these traits, but it is the excessive presence of these characteristics that makes life challenging for children with Aspergers. It is also important to note that these behaviors are neurologically based and do not represent the child’s willful disobedience or noncompliance.

Because Aspergers is a neurological disorder, children with the disorder often have difficulty controlling certain behaviors. It is important to understand the underlying psychological and medical bases of the disorder to develop an effective teaching strategy, as well as to help the child better manage these behaviors.

Aspergers is one of five Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) that vary in the severity of symptoms, age of onset, and presence of other disorders like mental retardation. Because language impairments are not a hallmark of Aspergers, kids may not be diagnosed with the disorder until they are in school and other symptoms emerge. Other PDDs include autism, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). The cause of PDDs, including Aspergers, is unknown.

The term Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which is frequently used in the field and in professional literature, is not a medical term. ASD is normally used to describe three of the PDDs―Aspergers, autism, and PDD-NOS―because these three disorders share common characteristics that are manifested on a continuum from mild to severe. Kids with Aspergers have, by definition, normal to above-normal intelligence, whereas kids with autism or PDD-NOS can have a range of intellectual functioning from below to above normal.

What Does Aspergers Look Like?

As mentioned above, the main characteristics of Aspergers involve impairments in socialization, communication, cognition, and sensation. These characteristics exist on a continuum, varying from severe disability to minor impairment. Each child with Aspergers is different and, as such, will present his or her own unique challenges.

Particularly challenging for teachers is the fact that symptoms can vary widely from day to day. It can often seem that the student you are teaching today is a completely different person from the student you taught yesterday. The chart below lists sample characteristics a child with Aspergers may exhibit that can impact the classroom experience. As emphasized previously, however, each child with Aspergers is unique and may display some, many, or none of these behaviors.

Common Characteristics of Children with Aspergers:
  • Social Challenges
  • Abnormal inflection and eye contact
  • Concrete, literal thinking
  • Difficulty differentiating relevant and irrelevant information
  • Difficulty engaging in reciprocal conversation
  • Difficulty generalizing and applying learned knowledge and skills across different situations, settings, and people
  • Difficulty interpreting others’ nonverbal communication cues
  • Difficulty understanding social nuances such as sarcasm or metaphor
  • Difficulty with fine-motor skills, such as handwriting
  • Echolalia – may repeat last words heard without regard for meaning
  • Focus on single topic of interest that may not be of interest to others
  • Inappropriate facial expressions or gestures
  • Lack of understanding of social cues and subtleties
  • Literal interpretation of others’ words
  • Obsessive and narrowly defined interests
  • Over- or under-sensitivity to different sensory stimuli, including pain
  • Poor judge of personal space – may stand too close to other students
  • Poor problem-solving and organizational skills
  • Tendency to speak bluntly without regard for impact of words on others
  • Universal application of social rules to all situations

What are the Classroom Challenges?

The characteristics of Aspergers just described translate into challenges to learning, behavior, and socialization for the youngster with the disorder and pose just as significant difficulties for the teacher in terms of teaching, controlling behaviors, and maintaining a classroom environment that is conducive to learning by all students, including the youngster with Aspergers. The chart below provides a quick reference guide for some of the common difficulties kids with Aspergers have in the classroom.

Common Classroom Difficulties of Kids with Aspergers:

• Academic difficulties
• Appear “normal” to other people
• Difficulties with abstract concepts
• Difficulty with learning in large groups
• Difficulty with reciprocal conversations
• Emotional vulnerability
• Inability to make friends
• Insistence on sameness/difficulty with changes in routine
• Interests limited to specific topics
• Low frustration tolerance
• Motor clumsiness
• Pedantic speech
• Poor concentration
• Poor coping strategies
• Poor organization skills
• Poor writing skills (fine-motor problems)
• Problem-solving abilities tend to be poor
• Restricted range of interests
• Sensory issues
• Socially na├»ve and literal thinkers
• Tend to be reclusive
• Vocabulary usually great; comprehension poor

Because these kids have so many strengths, it is often easy to overlook their weaknesses. Also, some of their behaviors may be misinterpreted as “spoiled” or “manipulative,” resulting in the mistaken impression that kids with Aspergers are being defiant and “troublemakers.” It is important for teachers to recognize that inappropriate behaviors are usually a function of poor coping skills, low frustration tolerance, and difficulty reading social cues.

Most teaching strategies that are effective for students with autism (structure, consistency, etc.) also work for students with Aspergers. However, because these kids are often aware that they are different and can be self-conscious about it, teachers may need to be subtler in their intervention methods.

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