Help for the Emotionally Fragile Student on the Autism Spectrum

“My high functioning autistic child struggles emotionally while at school. His self-esteem is low, and he is often very self-critical and unable to tolerate making mistakes. Also, he is easily overwhelmed when things are not as his rather rigid views dictate they should be. Any suggestion for his teachers in this regard?”

Kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s 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. Many are easily stressed due to their inflexibility. Temper outbursts are common in response to anxiety and frustration. Also, interacting with classmates and coping with the ordinary demands of schoolwork can produce a significant amount of self-doubt (e.g., the child starts to believe that he or she is “dumb”).

These “special needs” students 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 emotional instability. Most children on the autism spectrum are aware of how different they are and the enormous effort they have to make to participate in a world where few concessions are made and where they are expected to conform to the “typical” way of doing things.

With these traits in mind, here are a few suggestions for your son’s teachers:

1.  Teachers must be alert to changes in behavior that may indicate frustration and discouragement (e.g., greater levels of disorganization, inattentiveness, isolation, anxiety, etc.). Do not accept the HFA youngster's assessment in these cases that he or she is "OK." Also, do not expect the youngster to acknowledge that he or she is sad, confused, angry, etc. In the same way, the child has difficulty perceiving the feelings of others.

2.  Teach the student how to cope when stress overwhelms him or her. Help the youngster write a list of very concrete steps that can be followed when he or she becomes upset, for example:
  • Ask to see the special education teacher
  • Breathe deeply three times
  • Count the fingers on your right hand slowly three times

Include a ritualized behavior that the youngster finds comforting on the list. Write these steps on a card that is placed in his or her pocket so that they are always readily available.

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

4.  Teachers can play a vital role in helping students on the autism spectrum learn to negotiate the world around them. Because they are frequently unable to express their fears and anxieties, it is up to significant adults to make it worthwhile for them to leave their safe inner fantasy lives for the uncertainties of the external world.

5.  Students who are very fragile emotionally may need placement in a highly structured special education classroom that can offer individualized academic program. These “special needs” kids require a learning environment in which they see themselves as competent and productive. Therefore, keeping them in the mainstream, where they can’t grasp concepts or complete assignments, serves only to lower their self-esteem, increase their withdrawal, and set the stage for tantrums and meltdowns.

6.  Adults who work with these youngsters in schools must provide the external structure, organization, and stability that they lack. Using creative teaching strategies is critical – not only to facilitate academic success, but also to help them feel less alienated from their peer-group and less overwhelmed by the ordinary demands of schoolwork.

7.  In some situations, a personal aide can be assigned to the youngster rather than special education placement. The aide can offer affective support, structure and consistent feedback.

8.  Kids on the spectrum should receive academic assistance as soon as difficulties in a particular area are noted. They are quickly overwhelmed and react much more severely to failure than do “typical” kids.

9.  For the student who fears making mistakes, be sure to articulate that mistakes are a necessary part of the learning process and should be expected - and accepted. Praise the child for small, independent steps regardless of outcome. Gently brush aside his or her anxiety about not getting the answer by refocusing attention on the problem at hand. Ask the child to build on what he or she already knows about the problem, and ask for one possible approach to the problem.

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 HFA student, while clearly indicating compassion and patience. These students need very concrete instructions. Teachers who don’t understand that it is necessary to teach students on the spectrum seemingly obvious things may come to feel impatient and irritated. 

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