Part 1: Teaching Strategies for Students with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism – Introduction

Due to the numerous complaints I have received over the years from parents regarding the (alleged) lack of effective teaching strategies specific to students on the autism spectrum – and teachers’ general lack of knowledge in instructing this population – I’ve decided to do a series of posts on the matter. This is Part 1…

Although AS and HFA differ from Autism with respect to language acquisition and early cognitive development, they do have similarities (e.g., in the areas of social impairment, impairment in reading social non-verbal language, inflexibility, and persistent preoccupation). Problematic behavior in AS and HFA students is essentially the result of (a) failure to learn necessary adaptive behaviors (e.g., how to establish satisfying personal relationships), and (b) the learning of ineffective responses (e.g., discovering that one can avoid unwanted tasks by acting-out behaviorally).

AS and HFA students are impaired socially, and often do not detect social clues. They are frequently unaware that a peer is irritated if the only clue is a frustrated facial expression. If they miss a social clue, then they miss the lesson associated with the experience. They will likely repeat the irritating behavior because they are unaware of its effects.

Although a young person on the autism spectrum has difficulty figuring out most principles of human interaction, he is usually good at picking up on cause-and-effect principles. This suggests that although he may be unaware of others’ desires or emotions, he is aware of his. This can be useful in education if the teacher takes the time to determine what is pleasing to the AS or HFA youngster. Once this pleasure has been discovered, the teacher can request the desired behavior and reinforce the behavior with the object of desire.

Many of the traits of AS and HFA can be "masked" by average to above average IQ scores, which can result in the student being misunderstood by teachers. Teachers often assume that the student is capable of more than is being produced. Lack of understanding of the child in this way can significantly impede the desire of the teacher to search for techniques useful in overcoming the hindrances caused by the disorder.

Another misunderstanding is the relationship between curriculum and social education. For instance, a youngster with AS or HFA may find a social setting overwhelming and distracting. If pupils are placed in a small group for project work, this may predominantly become a social setting to an AS or HFA student. It is possible that she would be so over-stimulated by the social aspect that it would be extremely challenging to focus on the curriculum aspect of the group.

If asked to design an environment specifically geared to create anxiety in a child with AS or HFA, one would probably come up with something that looked a lot like a classroom. The ingredients for a stressful experience would include the following:
  • regularly scheduled tours into what can only be described as socialization hell (e.g., recess, lunch, gym, the bus ride to and from school, etc.)
  • regular helpings of irritating noise from bells, schoolmates, band practice, alarms, and crowded/echoing spaces
  • periods of tightly structured time alternating with periods lacking any structure
  • countless distractions
  • an overwhelming number of peers
  • a dozen or so daily transitions with a few surprises thrown in now and then

All of these types of stressors must be taken into consideration when evaluating what types of techniques will be helpful to the AS or HFA student. In fact, the learning environment is itself a strategy, which we will cover in Part 2 of this series on “Teaching Strategies for Students with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism” – so stay tuned!

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

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