How Aspergers Students Learn: Strategies for Teachers

Do you, the teacher, have a clear understanding of what your Aspergers (high functioning autistic) student’s needs will be prior to the start of school (perhaps as dictated by the IEP), and does your student know what to do and say if he gets “stuck”?

If you know your Aspergers student to be a strong visual thinker and learner, ensure that any verbally communicated curriculum is reinforced with visuals. Some Aspergers kids cannot process visual and auditory input simultaneously without distraction – they are “mono-channel” so to speak (i.e., they can’t absorb what they are seeing and hearing at the same time and can attend to only one or the other). As many kids with Aspergers are so visual, this means there is potential for them to be distracted by everything in the room, so that they absorb only bits and pieces of the instruction.

In one instance, a young "Aspie’s" school team members were frustrated because they thought they were supporting her fully by assigning her a classroom aide. However, the aide was verbally reiterating the teacher's direction in such a way that their words overlapped. The Aspie student was receiving almost exclusively verbal instruction, out of sync, and in stereo! Now, consider her predicament in desiring to pay attention to the teacher, but knowing she must also attend to the aide. Layer on top of that the constant hustle and bustle of a typical elementary school classroom setting, and it was a recipe for disaster.

Many kids with Aspergers generally possess a number of strengths which teachers may build on. For example, these students:
  • best understand logical, concrete topics of discussion
  • desire to conform to rules and boundaries
  • retain information best when it is visual, sequential, and linear
  • have a strong knowledge base for individual topics of passionate interest
  • have a willingness to please and to keep trying

Your Aspergers student may well benefit from a classroom aide in order to support his comprehension. It will be best, though, if all the kids in classroom understand that the aide is accessible to them if they have questions or need guidance to reinforce the teacher's instruction. In this way, the aide's role is discreet (i.e., doesn’t look like the Aspie is receiving special treatment).

It will also be important that you embrace the concept of “building on the Aspergers student’s passions.” It is unrealistic to expect a teacher to center educational curriculum around one student's passions; however, wherever possible, it will help engage him if you can artfully introduce elements of the passion(s) into the lessons. Strategies for “linking passions to learning opportunities” is best applied by your student's classroom aide – or directly by you if no aide is assigned or available.

All Aspergers kids are eventually confronted with educational concepts that are vague and indiscernible for them. “Connecting lessons to passions” is intended to occur outside of the classroom setting and, ideally, before and after the confusing assignment. Your job is to “coach” your student on the sidelines before sending him out into the game (i.e., deconstruct the concept with which he is struggling by using his passion both before and after he's expected to learn and retain it). For example, you might suggest that the names given to parts of plants also relate to the hanging vines in a Mario Bros. computer game. Instead of asking that your student recite the textbook plant parts, request that he link the same information to the Mario Bros. plants. He will retain this information, and with a gentle reminder, he will “call up” the knowledge when it's required (e.g., at test time).

Some Aspergers kids take this to extremes and don't realize they are sidetracking a teacher's instruction with lengthy explanations of their special interest (which can prompt teachers to stereotype the interest). Kids who do this need clear, concise, and written rules provided to them about when and where it's okay to expound upon their passions.

Your student likely has a strong “associative link” when learning (i.e., he learns on the spot and in the moment while “doing” whatever it is, and will forever retain and “link” that experience with the moment). Many kids with Aspergers think and learn this way. It will be important, then, to understand your student's struggles if you wish to place emphasis on “pull out” programs or classes in which your student works one-on-one with an adult with the expectation that he process, retain, and apply what was just learned to the classroom situation. The two rarely mesh with success because of the strong associative link.

Your student will be poised for success if he can learn by doing in the moment and through incorporation of as many visuals as possible to reinforce it. In so doing, a visual “imprint” is recorded in his memory that, with gentle prompting, he can call-up and replay. You may then incrementally build on such experiences by relating them to something novel. For example, you might suggest to your student, “Remember when we made homemade apple sauce?” (Give him process time to replay the event in his mind.) Then continue, “The way a factory processes peanut butter is similar because ________.”

You may be surprised at the quality of detail with which your Aspergers student is able to relay information. He may very well become excited about taking a fun learning experience and applying it to something new and different.

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

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