The Misunderstood Child on the Autism Spectrum

Students with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's (AS) often display advanced abilities for their age in language, reading, mathematics, spatial skills, and music – sometimes into the "gifted" range. But this may be offset by significant delays in other developmental areas. This combination of characteristics can lead to problems with educators and other authority-figures.

Misunderstanding #1—

HFA and AS students are often regarded by educators as a "problem child" or a "poor performer." The student’s low tolerance for what he perceives to be boring and mundane tasks (e.g., typical homework assignments) can easily become frustrating for the child, resulting in his refusal to complete certain tasks. Consequently, a teacher may well consider the  student on the autism spectrum to be arrogant, spiteful, and insubordinate. This “misunderstanding” often results in a “power-struggle” between teacher and student, and in combination with the youngster's anxieties, can result in problematic behaviors (e.g., severe tantrums, violent and angry outbursts, withdrawal, school refusal, etc.).

Misunderstanding #2—

Two traits often found in children with the disorder are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the child’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by teachers and other students as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

Misunderstanding #3—

An issue related to alexithymia involves the inability to identify and control strong emotions (e.g., sadness, anger). This leaves the child prone to sudden emotional outbursts (e.g., crying, rage). The inability to express feelings using words may also predispose the "special needs" child to use physical acts (sometime violent in nature) to articulate his mood and release “emotional energy.” All of these traits may give teachers the impression that the child is simply “defiant” and “rebellious.”

Misunderstanding #4—

Children and teens on the spectrum often report a feeling of being “unwillingly detached” from the school/classroom environment. They often have difficulty making friends due to poor social skills. The complexity and inconsistency of the social world can pose an extreme challenge for these students. Accordingly, feeling incapable of winning and keeping friends, they prefer to engage in solitary activities. As a result, peers and teachers often view the HFA or AS child as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” – another unfair label.

Misunderstanding #5—

These kids may be overly literal and may have difficulty interpreting and responding to sarcasm, banter, or metaphorical speech. Difficulties with social interaction may also be manifest in a lack of play with peers. These problems can be severe or mild depending on the child. Due to their idiosyncratic behavior, precise language, unusual interests, and impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially expected ways to nonverbal cues – particularly in interpersonal conflict – HFA and AS students are often the target of bullying at school and branded as "odd," both by peers and by adults who don't understand the neurological deficit involved.

But here’s the good news...

There's an increase in how sensitive teachers and clinicians are to developmental learning styles. There are a lot of children that have social and communication problems and learning problems. They aren't retarded. There's been an effort to figure out if there are clusters of these children that fit together into diagnostic patterns.

Here are a few basic steps a teacher and parent can take to ensure the best possible educational experience for a child on the autism spectrum:

• Develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for the child. The parent, teacher, principal and the school's special education teachers should all be involved in the IEP’s development.

• Educate yourself on the many behavior modification resources that exist to help teach self-help and socialization skills to the student with HFA or AS.

• Have the student evaluated by his/her school's special education specialists.

• Make sure all adults working with the child know about his/her special needs.

• Read the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that guarantees a right to an appropriate education for all children with disabilities.

• Understand the placement options available. A student with the disorder may do better in a regular classroom or in a special education environment.

These "special needs" students should have as many opportunities to interact as possible, such as speech therapy and socialization therapy. The ‘key’ that parents should keep in mind is this: Don't let anybody flatter you out of services. Don't let them say, “He's so smart! He doesn't need that!” If you think your child needs services, you can find them. The first place to go is your school district. And some parents will have to fight.

Parents need to think about where they want their youngster to be in 5 to 10 years. Parents should make sure that their child can set the table, fold his/her clothes, shower independently, make a can of soup, and so on. Often times, students on the spectrum are so smart that they never cross paths with teachers who would be focused on things like daily living and vocational skills – and these kids really suffer because of that.

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Anonymous said...

I am so sorry I did not find your website earlier. My son with Asperger’s is 19. You must be spying on our life! Instead of working, I am reading your posts!

My sister and I have written a fiction book based on my life with my son. It is published as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It will be out in hardcover in June. I hope you will take a look at it. I hope it makes parents of children with mental health issues feel less alone. It can be found on www.amyandjoanne.com and www.wickedgoodthebook.blogspot.com.

It is called Wicked Good by Joanne Lewis and Amy Lewis Faircloth.

Thank you again for all you do.


Anonymous said...

I cannot tell you how much your website has helped me & my nine year old son who has Asperger's. Thank you so much for all you do!

Anonymous said...

I don't have a child with these issues, but I have wondered for many years about myself..having many of the symptoms of aspergers noted. I am 46 years old and always felt "off" and have numerous friends over the last 10 years or so with children that have aspergers or are autistic. I've always kind of felt an understanding of them, but ignored much of it out of fear I guess. I've raised 2 boys on my own who are now 18 and 21, and have started to examine my own differences from "normal" society- mostly the inability to understand the "gray" areas of life. I always joked that there was something wrong with my brain, and lack of comprehension, but I guess it isn't really funny. I have friends but don't open myself up too much as far as privacy. Maybe it's just very mild, but it's something...but I've known for years that sounds and smells annoy me, and other things. I'm just looking for some info or understanding I guess, because I don't know if there's
anything to "do" at this age. And I don't if being officially diagnosed makes any difference either, although I do go to a psychiatrist for anti-depression and anti-panic meds. Everybody just always thought I was a little difficult, and my mom says I was never comfortable in my own skin. Maturity as an adult and single mom has made me calm and positive enough to raise healthy, calm kids who will be successful- but I can only tell them to do certain things I don't do myself. Sorry for the length of this.... thanks for any info.
sincerely, Rima

Misty Raup said...

I wish my son's teacher would take time to read up a little on Asperger's. He has always done all right, despite not having many friends in school. But he likes learning and reading-especially science and technology. This year has been the hardest as his teacher punishes him for asking questions, talking out of turn, or getting upset as he doesn't understand boundaries and often thinks there is an injustice done because of his inflexibility. I've sent everyone I know a link to this site because if they only realized he doesn't mean to offend or upset anyone, he has a disability which we are working with, they might be just a tad more compassionate. He responds well to praise, but unfortunately hasn't seen much from his classroom teacher. Thanks for all your great posts!!!


Anonymous said...

"Aspergers students often display advanced abilities for their age in language, reading..."

My son is 14 with a 2nd grade spelling rating, 4th grade reading rating, and 3rd grade reading comprehension rating. My sister, her son, my father, and I (all Aspergers) were early and constant readers. My son's father was also an early and constant reader.

What gives? Why can't my son read?


Anonymous said...

Isaac has no diagnosis of Aspergers, however reading symptoms he certainly has many of them.
He defies rule, is a compulsive liar with very elaborate stories. He repeatedly steals from me, his father, school. He was stood down at school for stealing, when he is told off he runs away of hides. He has threatened suicide if he does not get his way.

He gets very focused on a topic and will not get off it, if it’s about spending money he becomes insistent and bully like. In January this type of behaviour blew up into a major violent tantrum. He was focused on online shopping for something he really wanted when I explained in was in AUD and not NZ and the shipping cost he lost it and became violent. The result is he threw a dumb bell at me and ruptured my Achilles. He was already enrolled to go to boarding school because I was worried that I could not cope with him, the Christchurch earthquake hit and my house has been destroyed so he had to move to Auckland to live with his Dad.

He wants to come back to me and go to High School in Christ church but I worry I am not able to cope with him.

I am prompted to mail you today, as I have just had him for 2 weeks on school holidays, he has stolen, and lied and not told me the truth about his schooling and stand down. Also in saying that we have had fun and a wonderful 2 weeks boating and fishing and playing together. He is such an engaging child, smart, interesting and can be very fun to be around. He struggles to keep friends and is abusive to them and then plays the victim. He is booked on a flight back to Auckland and will not get on the airplane.

I woke him, sat on his bed, and explained I understand that he wants to come back but there is a way to deal with these things. In the past I would of been authoritarian, or has defined rules and systems. Isaac hates change and is a very sensitive child. Most people who are around him have labeled him as naughty and say I am not strict enough with him.

He has been diagnosed with Dyslexia as well and if I am very focused I can get him attending school well and achieving results.

I am at a loss for what to do. He has missed the plane, will not talk to me and school starts tomorrow. In addition to all of this his father has a head injury and is very resistant to anything out of the normal happening with Isaac.

Anonymous said...

Brenda Garza I just had my IEP request denied because of this!
April 29 at 4:50pm · Like
Beth Vuocolo My son's IEP request was denied for the very same reason!
April 30 at 11:42am · Like
Vera Melianovich These top misunderstandings are SO accurate! TY going to print them and give them to my son's TEACHER and PRINCIPAL, both of whom are VERY ignorant (in the literal sense) and i'm battling the system right now..........
May 2 at 10:01am · Like
Evelyne Taylor Crooks
My son was diagnosed through the school system with autism at age 2. In kindergarten, the psychologist decided that he was doing too well and that he never had autism. We fought to keep services in place for him. Finally, at age 9, a new sc...See More
Wednesday at 11:32pm · Like
Lorrie Rea-campbell Sometimes i think i am the crazy one in all this. So glad to hear these testimonials. they totally mirror my own experiences. now my 9 yr olds teacher just tells us anything hoping we will not insist she do anything to helpour son with his learning disabilities. she corrects his papers & passes him along. he scores so hi on the IQ he doesnt qualify for any services. they refuse to give us an IEP.
14 hours ago · Like

Raindancer said...

This is the first time I have been on your website -- thank you. My daughter is 15 a and we are struggling.
One of your other comments was about a little boy that steals and has angry outbursts. In addition to my Aspie daughter I have a 12 year old son with RAD (reactive attachment disorder) may I suggest that this person go to www.attachmenteducationnetwork.com and view the list of symptoms for RAD -- it may be helpful.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

Anonymous said...

Really great article with very interesting information. You might want to follow up to this topic!?! 2012

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone I am new here looking for answers as I am sure most of you are. I am mom to my 7yr old daughter with Aspergers, ADHD and reactive attachment disorder. My daughter has a number of quirks that drive my husband and I up the wall from one day to the next but my biggest issue is she has no friends. Every time we meet a new kid and try to help her make a friend she messes it up by wetting her pants and then they no longer wish to play with her. She is so smart and funny but she is also very mean at times witch also doesn't help in the friend area. Has anyone else got the same issue? My step son has Aspergers also but he is the super smart, quiet type my daughter is very loving and outgoing so it is hard for her to not have friends or to understand why the kids she played with yesterday wont call her back or let her come over.

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