Part 12: Teaching Strategies for Students with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism – Emotional Vulnerability

Kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have the intelligence to participate in regular education, but they often do not have the emotional resources to cope with the demands of the classroom. These “special needs” kids are easily stressed due to their inflexibility. Self-esteem is low, and they are often very self-critical and unable to tolerate making mistakes.

Young people with AS and HFA, especially teenagers, may be prone to depression (as a side note, a high percentage of depression in grown-ups with AS and HFA has been documented). Rage and temper outbursts are common in response to stress and frustration.

Kids with AS and HFA rarely seem relaxed and are easily overwhelmed when things are not as their rigid views dictate they should be. Interacting with peers and school staff – and coping with the ordinary demands of everyday life take constant strenuous effort.

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

Programming Suggestions for Teachers:

1. Teachers must be alert to changes in behavior that may indicate depression (e.g., greater levels of disorganization, inattentiveness, isolation, decreased stress threshold, chronic fatigue, crying, suicidal remarks, etc.). Do not accept the youngster's assessment in these cases that he is "OK."

2. Teach the AS or HFA student how to cope when stress overwhelms her in order to prevent outbursts. Help the youngster write a list of very concrete steps that can be followed when she becomes upset (e.g., breathe deeply three times; count the fingers on your right hand slowly three times; ask to see the special education teacher, etc.). Include a ritualized behavior that the youngster finds comforting on the list. Write these steps on a card that is placed in the pocket so that they are always readily available.

3. Report symptoms to the youngster's therapist or make a mental health referral so that the youngster can be evaluated for depression and receive treatment if this is needed. Because AS and HFA kids are often unable to assess their own emotions and can’t seek comfort from others, it is critical that depression be diagnosed quickly.

4. Kids with AS and HFA are so easily overwhelmed by environmental stressors and have such profound impairment in the ability to form interpersonal relationships that it is no wonder they give the impression of fragile vulnerability and immaturity. When these “special needs” youngsters are compared to their “typical” peers, it becomes very evident just how different they are and the enormous effort they have to make to live in a world where no concessions are made and where they are expected to conform.

5. Prevent outbursts by offering a high level of consistency. Prepare these kids for changes in daily routine in order to lower stress. Kids on the autism spectrum frequently become fearful, angry, and upset in the face of forced or unexpected changes.

6. AS and HFA kids who are very fragile emotionally may need placement in a highly structured special education classroom that can offer an individualized academic program. These kids require a learning environment in which they see themselves as competent and productive. Accordingly, keeping them in the mainstream where they can’t grasp concepts or complete assignments serves only to lower their self-concept, increase their withdrawal, and set the stage for depression. In some situations, a personal aide can be assigned to the youngster rather than special education placement. The aide offers emotional support, structure and consistent feedback.

7. Kids with AS and HFA must receive academic assistance as soon as difficulties in a particular area are noted. These kids are quickly overwhelmed and react much more severely to failure than do other kids.

8. It is critical that teenagers with AS and HFA who are mainstreamed have an identified support staff member with whom they can check-in at least once daily. This person can assess how well the student is coping by meeting with him daily and gathering observations from other teachers.

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

9. Be aware that teenagers with AS and HFA are especially prone to depression. Social skills are highly valued in the teenage years, and the AS or HFA student realizes she is different and has difficulty forming normal relationships. Academic work often becomes more abstract, and the teen finds assignments more difficult and complex. In one case, teachers noted that an AS teen was no longer crying over math assignments, and therefore believed that she was coping much better. In reality, her subsequent decreased organization and productivity in math was believed to be a function of her escaping further into her inner world to avoid the math, and thus she was not coping well at all.

10. Affect as reflected in the teacher's voice should be kept to a minimum. Be calm, predictable, and matter-of-fact in interactions with the AS or HFA youngster while clearly indicating compassion and patience. The teacher who does not understand that it is necessary to teach AS and HFA kids seemingly obvious things will feel impatient and irritated. Do not expect the “special needs” youngster to acknowledge that he is sad or depressed. In the same way that they can’t perceive the emotions of others, these kids can also be unaware of their own emotions. They often cover up their depression and deny its symptoms.

Teachers can play a vital role in helping kids with AS and HFA learn to negotiate the world around them. Because these kids are frequently unable to express their fears and anxieties, it is up to caring adults to make it worthwhile for them to leave their safe inner fantasy lives for the uncertainties of the external world.

Staff who work with these youngsters in schools must provide the external structure, organization, and stability that they lack. Using creative teaching strategies is crucial, not only to facilitate academic success, but also to help these young people feel less alienated from other human beings and less overwhelmed by the ordinary demands of everyday life.

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA


•    Anonymous said…  you are not alone!"Just keep swimming..."
•    Anonymous said… Absolutely spot on in relation to my 10 year old son.. & worthwhile sharing with his school!
•    Anonymous said… Absolutely spot on. How I've described my son and why I moved him to a school which actively seeks to get the best from him every day, without the mainstream inadequacies. He has gone from strength to strength.
•    Anonymous said… Absolutely...my 16 year old is dealing with a chaotic class right now. He has not failed a class ever but is on the verge. He is begging to be switched out, so we are pushing the admin to allow him to move.
•    Anonymous said… Every time I read " depression" next to "mainstream", I hardly believe that school officials would be accommodating or patient enough to deal with emotional HFA child. I suspect they'll just drop it on the clinical psychologist laps to avoid liabilities.
•    Anonymous said… I just started homeschooling my 11 year old girl. I don't know what took me so long! Five years of banging my head against the wall of the public school system. What was I waiting for??
•    Anonymous said… I'm thinking about pulling my 10 year old 4th grader from Public School!!! Same as you both, I'm mad at myself for letting him suffer this long.
•    Anonymous said… It's a fear thing. If I didn't have the K12 program I don't think I would have the guts to do it yet.
•    Anonymous said… Mine is in her thirties. I had to fight with the school almost constantly (and college was no picnic neither). She lacks one class from having an Associate's Degree. She lacks a science class because we just could not find a science class instructor who really cared to do any modification at all. She did have a "special populations" counselor at the college and that did help to an extent (but not when it came to the science dept ... ironic how ignorant they are). The modification would have been minor (although it is not a minor issue when not put into place) and she is, of course, expected to complete the workload and pass the exams just like everyone else. I am almost sixty. My husband just retired and I am totally burnt out. At least she does have three technology degrees from the college (and she definitely EARNED them). However, she is a grocery store clerk and has not found a job in her chosen field ... kind of doubtful (although hopeful) that she someday will. I feel like I fought with the school district the entire time she was growing up. They did not seem to understand what autism is at the time she attended school .... much less that there are different levels of autism. They tried to label her MR, but I resisted. They said that they did not have a program for autism. I told them that they were ACQUIRING one! She was mainstreamed, because I insisted. Sure, there were bullies .... both children AND adults. However, there were some of the most wonderful people .... both children AND adults .... who came to her aid at times. And, yes, I did have to go to the school and make the school officials confront the bullies. I had to actually threaten the school district with a law suit one time because the prinipical did not want to contront the bullies who were htting my child by the lockers. The principal stated that she could not punish the bullies as she did not witness the abuse. I countered that comment with the fact that she could "call them on the carpet and put them on notice" and tell them and their parents what she had heard about their behavior. Fortunately, this was resolved ..... however, it was totally inappropriate on the school's part that I had to take such measures to protect my child. I realize that I have rambled on, but this is a small slice of our experience. It seems that it is an uphill battle, but, although burnt out, I am glad that I fought. It still is not ideal. She lives with us and the government does not give her any type of check (as some people probably think). Her father and I have always been working class people. Lol ... the government relies on people like us to support welfare with the taxes they take from our paychecks. Our daughter takes care of very basic things with her part-time job money. She cannot afford to pay rent, so she lives with us. (Not many people are catagoried as "full-time" in the grocery store). She did qualify for "Obama-Care" so at least she has some type of coverage. We live in Texas (that probably explains part of it anyway).
•    Anonymous said… So incredibly timely for me as my 13 yo ASD son is struggling with school. I will be sharing this with this school. They have been wonderful in working with him.
•    Anonymous said… So very true. My son calls high school - social hell.
•    Anonymous said… Thank you for posting. I am going to pass this on to my daughters principal.
•    Anonymous said… That describes my child so well!
•    Anonymous said… That's why I homeschool my oldest for right now. When I have tried communicating his needs before we started school they seemed like they didn't want to help at all.
•    Anonymous said… The school structure just didn't fit him- so much stress from transitions, unexpected changes, assemblies, substitutes and rule changes. He would fall behind and only two teachers tried to do anything. He is homeschooling this year and is doing fantastic and also making friends!
•    Anonymous said… This is so spot on! Hand this to all of your Aspie's teachers!
•    Anonymous said… this is what I was talking to u about...
•    Anonymous said… Very helpful!
•    Anonymous said… We pulled our son from the public system in the 5th grade and enrolled him in a mainstream, small private school where he does much better socially...but it still isn't perfect. He does not require a special needs school, but he does require specialized care at times. I really wish there were more options out there for these high functioning, quirky kids.
•    Anonymous said… Yay! The BEST description of my son!
*  Anonymous said... This was my son to a T, and despite lawyers, advocates, etc. we never got him the support he really needed in school. Barriers included many teachers' unwillingness or inability to believe that this very bright, verbal, gifted and often funny kid was so significantly affected by this hidden disability; my son's unwillingness to have supports/accommodations that singled him out as "different;" and the fact that by the time he got diagnosed he already had full-blown depression as well as (I believe) PTSD from all the stress of the first 7 years of his schooling, and from being blamed for all his own problems by almost everyone. I really hope this information is passed along and helps others.....If you suspect your child may have special needs, do not put off going to a specialist!! Our pediatrician was treating him for ADHD all those years and even when he was getting in trouble in school no one suggested further testing until I got him to the right therapist. 

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