Capitalizing on the Strengths of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Oftentimes, the focus is on the deficits of a youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), which is common due to the child’s communication difficulties, learning disabilities, poor social skills, and/or tendency to experience meltdowns and tantrums.

Years of corrective measures are often spent trying to fix the child’s deficits, rather than capitalizing on his assets. For example, if he has poor handwriting skills, hours are spent teaching that youngster using methods that didn't work in the first place, which often results in behavior problems. A youngster who is acting-out is a youngster who is frustrated over failure or perceived failure.  If he can’t learn the way he is taught, he may as well be in a foreign language class.

Behavior problems can get in the way of teaching to a youngster's assets.  Discipline may reduce or eliminate problematic behavior temporarily, but does not provide stepping stones to more appropriate behavior. Usually there are triggers for behaviors that, when identified and eliminated, result in a dramatic reduction of problematic behaviors. Focusing and building on the youngster's assets usually leads to a reduction in classroom-related problems as well.

A youngster on the autism spectrum already knows that he is different. It is up to educators to teach this child that different is not bad, and that each of us has special talents. Educators can help this process along by showcasing the youngster's assets and special interests. All children have assets, but sometimes they're not obvious. Thus, educators must “hunt down” those strong points and build on them. Every youngster must feel he is making a contribution to his environment. Every youngster must feel important – and must taste success.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

If the AS or HFA youngster does not have obvious areas of strength, educators should explore every possibility, be it in sports, solving puzzles, photography, mechanical inclinations, collecting insects, the arts – anything of interest that is creative and stimulating for the child.  When the focus is on the child’s “special interests” and areas of strength, the process of building self-confidence and self-reliance begins as well. Of course, parents need to be on board with the business of focusing on strength as well. It is crucial to have a concerted effort both at school and at home, with clear communication between the teacher and parent.

Specific methods for assisting with special needs and capitalizing on strengths:

1. The AS or HFA child should have a special job at school in an area related to her interests and needs. It can be something such as assisting with a classroom chore, feeding the fish in the fish tank, helping the teacher with passing out lesson material – anything that is a regular job. This job does not need to be time consuming. Five to ten minutes a day will work. Accommodating this need takes creativity and ingenuity, but it's crucial. 

Unfortunately, the youngster with a “disorder” that impacts social skills and behavior is often the last youngster picked to assist with different classroom tasks. But, it's one of the single most effective methods to help the AS or HFA youngster gain self-confidence, and should be included as a “need” – not a reward! All “special needs” children need to feel they are making a contribution to their environment. They feel important when they are singled out for a special responsibility, even if it is only for five minutes a day. When these young people feel recognized and valued for their contribution, problematic behaviors often diminish or disappear. They walk taller, gain self-confidence, and have a more positive outlook.

2. The AS or HFA student needs structure and routine in order to function. Thus, try to keep his world as predictable as possible. If there will be any significant change in the youngster's classroom or routine, it is advisable to notify parents as far in advance as possible so that everyone can work together in preparing the child for it.

3. Often times, the AS or HFA youngster who is easily distractible in the classroom shows significant improvement when work is accomplished on a computer. Many kids on the autism spectrum tend to lose their thoughts somewhere between brain and pencil, but are great writers when using a computer. Since these children tend to be visual thinkers/learners, there is an instant connection between brain and screen. Through bypassing faulty circuitry that gets in the way of genuine learning, problem solving and organizational skills often show remarkable improvement. The focus can then shift from the writing deficits to the content assets.

4. Kids on the autism spectrum tend to be reclusive; therefore, teachers should foster involvement with others. Encourage active socialization, and limit time spent in isolated pursuit of interests (e.g., the teacher's aide seated at the lunch table could actively encourage the youngster to participate in the conversation of his peers, not only by soliciting his opinions and asking him questions, but also by subtly reinforcing other students who do the same).

5. Always remember that the AS or HFA youngster's difficulty with social cues, nonverbal communication, figurative language and eye contact are part of her neurological makeup. She is not being deliberately rude or disrespectful.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

6. Take the example of an AS or HFA child who is struggling with spelling, sometimes spending as much as 2 hours a night trying to learn a list of 15 to 20 words. In this case, a great modification would be to cut the list in half. Alternatively, the teacher may want to consider allowing that youngster to spend spelling time on the computer. With the use of word processors and spell checkers to offset spelling and organizational difficulties, many of these “special needs” students suddenly blossom into creative writers.

7. Remember that the AS or HFA youngster is an individual, not a diagnosis. Teachers should always be alert and receptive to the things that make her unique and special.

8. Although they lack personal understanding of the emotions of others, kids on the spectrum can learn the correct way to respond. When they have been unintentionally insulting, tactless or insensitive, it must be explained to them why the response was inappropriate – and what response would have been correct. They must learn social skills intellectually, because they lack social instinct and intuition.

9. Perhaps the youngster understands math concepts, but has difficulty performing the actual calculations on paper. A calculator is a great tool for such a youngster. Sometimes teachers insist that their students have to first learn math the "old fashioned way." However, if the child can't perform very basic math calculations by the 5th or 6th grade, it will probably always be difficult. It would be best to start early to help the AS or HFA child who has difficulty with math to progress rapidly with the concepts by using a calculator.

10. Kids on the spectrum have eccentric preoccupations, or odd, intense fixations (e.g., sometimes obsessively collecting unusual things). They tend to (a) relentlessly "lecture" on areas of interest, (b) ask repetitive questions about interests, (c) have trouble letting go of ideas, (d) follow their own inclinations regardless of external demands, and (e) sometimes refuse to learn about anything outside their limited field of interest. In these cases, teachers can use the youngster's fixation as a way to broaden her repertoire of interests. A case in point: During a unit on rain forests, one AS student who was obsessed with animals was led to not only study rain forest animals, but to also study the forest itself since this was the animals’ home. He was then motivated to learn about the local people who were forced to chop down the animals’ forest habitat in order to survive.

Children with AS and HFA are unique, and they can affect the learning environment in both positive and negative ways. In the classroom, these students can present a challenge for the most experienced teacher. They can also contribute much to the classroom, because they can be extremely creative and see things and execute various tasks in different ways. These “special needs” children may come from different family backgrounds and leave your classroom for different futures, but they spend a significant portion of their young lives with you right now. Next to the parents, you have the greatest opportunity and the power to positively influence their lives.

Struggling with your "special needs" student? Click here  for highly effective teaching strategies specific to the Asperger's and HFA condition. 

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:


Teaching Impulse-Control to Children on the Autism Spectrum

"How can I teach my child to not be so impulsive, that is, acting/saying things without thinking?"

Have you ever witnessed a youngster who doesn’t seem to know how to wait his or her turn, refuses to share, grabs objects out in public even after being told not to touch, has a meltdown in the middle of a crowded store, or constantly dominates a conversation?

Impulse-control is one of the most important skills that moms and dads can teach their children, because it is exceedingly important for success later in life. By learning impulse-control, children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can make appropriate decisions and respond to stressful situations in ways that can yield positive outcomes.

Parents can indeed teach impulse-control, but they need to understand that this skill is learned through a lot of discovery and repetition, not through reprimands and discipline – and this discovery and repetition happens slowly throughout childhood. Parents can’t teach self-control with a one-time lecture, rather they have to do one teachable moment, one situation at a time.  

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Below are 16 strategies for tackling this challenge:

1. Allow “do-overs.” AS and HFA kids learn from experience far more than they learn from words. The best way to increase their learning is through repetition. After parents have completed any instructive corrections, they should give their youngster a chance to try again. This serves as a punctuation point on the lesson.

2. Demonstrate frustration-management skills. Low frustration-tolerance can be a big factor in impulse-control. Teach your “special needs” youngster how to manage her frustration so she can calm herself down when she’s upset. Time-outs are be a great way for children to learn how to calm themselves down. Your child will be less likely to act-out or seek revenge when she has a better understanding of how to manage her frustration.

3. Focusing on what your youngster did wrong is only half the equation. Parents need to tell their youngster what they want her to do instead. For example, say something such as, “You’re not permitted to hog the video game when you have your friends over. Think of three things you can do while your guests play so you’re able to share.”

4. Impart listening skills. Oftentimes, a child will behave impulsively because he doesn’t listen to the directions. Before parents have finished their sentence, the child is up and moving without really hearing what they said. Teach your youngster to listen to the directions first by having him repeat back what he has heard before he takes action.

5. Model good impulse-control yourself. If you're in an aggravating situation in front of your child, tell him why you're aggravated, and then discuss potential solutions to the problem. For example, if you've misplaced your cell phone, instead of allowing yourself to get agitated, tell your child it is missing and then search for it together. If your phone doesn't turn up, take the next practical step (e.g., retracing your steps when you last had your phone in-hand, calling your phone from a different phone, etc.). Show that good emotional control and problem solving are the ways to deal with challenging circumstances.

6. One of the hardest skills for an AS or HFA youngster who has attention deficits is to learn to wait.
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If he is unable to wait, he will usually act-out his frustration in the form of tantrums and/or meltdowns. Since children on the autism spectrum are visual learners, one of the best ways to teach “waiting” is through the use of visual learning techniques – along with something reinforcing or rewarding to the youngster. Thus, create a “wait picture” along with a picture of the reward. Tell your youngster that you and he are going to practice waiting (e.g., 5 minutes sitting quietly on the coach), and then he can have his reward (e.g., an additional 10 minutes of “computer game” time).  Praise your youngster for good behavior during this waiting time.  If he has difficulty demonstrating good behavior, try again for a shorter period until you have success (e.g., 3 minutes).  Then, in subsequent practice sessions, gradually extend the time your youngster has to wait for the reward (usually no more than 15 minutes, though).

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Another way to help an AS or HFA youngster learn to wait is to teach her time-telling skills.  To some kids, the words "five minutes" mean nothing because they don't know how long that is.  Some kids do well with digital clocks.  There is also a cool device called a "time timer," which shows the amount of time passing as well as providing an audible sound when the time is up.

7. Play impulse-control games. Play games that provide your youngster with a fun way to practice impulse-control. Games like Follow the Leader, Red Light Green Light, and Simon Says require impulse-control (playing memory games can improve impulse-control as well).

8. Promote physical exercise. When a child is physically active, she has a better chance at managing her impulses. When she is a bundle of energy, she is more likely to act without thinking.

9. Provide structure and routine. Providing structure can help parents keep their discipline consistent. When a child knows what to expect, there is less confusion and less opportunity for impulsivity. Repeat the rules and set clear limits often.

10. Repeat yourself as often as needed when giving instructive corrections. The key to curbing impulsive behavior is to teach your youngster how to think BEFORE he acts, and that requires repetition of your lessons.

11. Talk to your child about emotions. When “special needs” children develop an understanding of the difference between emotions and behaviors, it can help them control their impulses. For example, a youngster who understands that it is alright to feel angry – but not okay to push someone – can see that she has choices about how to deal with her feelings without reacting impulsively.

12. Teach problem-solving skills. When an AS or HFA youngster learns problem-solving skills, he will learn how to think before he acts. Thus, teach your youngster how to develop several solutions to a problem, and then analyze which one is likely to have the best outcome. For example, instead of instinctively pushing a classmate who cuts in front of him in line, he can problem-solve several different ideas of how to respond.

13. Teaching “cooperative games” (i.e., where players work together toward a common goal) also teaches impulse-control (e.g., doing puzzles together while taking turns adding pieces). Parents can share tasks as well (e.g., watering the plants together, unpacking the shopping bags, etc.). In addition, parents can give their child things to share with her friends on occasion (e.g., a special snack, a roll of stickers, etc.). To encourage sharing, use positive reinforcement rather than punishment. But, remember that it's reasonable for your youngster to hold back certain items; she shouldn’t have to share everything. As she matures, she will learn that sharing with her playmates (who are becoming increasingly important to her) is more satisfying than keeping things to herself.

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

14. Teaching an AS or HFA youngster how to play independently will also help her to develop impulse-control.  There are many times when parents can’t provide one-on-one attention to their youngster (e.g., when preparing meals, doing chores, talking on the phone, etc.).  It is usually during these times that behavior problems are witnessed, because the youngster is having difficulty waiting for undivided attention.  Thus, create an “activity menu” to help your youngster during these times. Take some pictures of activities that she has been seen to do independently.  Have a selection of these pictures for her to choose from during those times when you need her to play without your assistance.  Make sure that all the materials for the activities are easily available.  Set a timer for how long you want your child to engage in the activity – and every few minutes (5 - 10), praise her for playing independently.

15. To an AS or HFA child, impulses can feel like they have overtaken her, bypassing any logical thinking, causing her to disregard what she knows she should do. In order to help the youngster learn about impulse-control, parents need to break down that process for the child, helping her to become aware of her impulses before they lead her to a bad choice. Look for – and make note of – your child’s “impulsivity-triggers” (i.e., things that immediately precede her impulsive behaviors), and share your observations with her.

16. When giving instructive corrections, don’t preach. AS and HFA kids need time to process and integrate information. When parents lecture, their youngster becomes overwhelmed with too much information and melts down – or shuts down – and stops listening. Instead, be brief, using short statements and instructive action. 

Many behavior problems center around children struggling to manage their impulses. Aggression, parent-child conflict, disrespect, and oppositional behavior can often be decreased by teaching impulse-control techniques.  AS and HFA kids are not always able to express themselves calmly and in words. Frustration with people, things or circumstances occurs frequently – especially before they have the vocabulary to talk things out. But, there are many ways to teach your youngster how to express thoughts and feelings in a more constructive way. The techniques you choose will depend on his or her age and developmental readiness.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


50 Positive Traits of High-Functioning Autism

People with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome do have some challenges -- for sure! But their strengths far outweigh their weaknesses. Watch this video!


Back-to-School “Quick Tip Sheet” for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum

Parents of kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have a bigger influence than anyone else on how their children make it through the new school year. Be part of the solution with effective methods that will make this the best school year ever – by participating, organizing, advocating, and any other means necessary.

Here are 10 ways to help your “special needs” child cope with his or her return to school:

1. Adopt the mind-set of “change the environment.” For example, if the educator regularly complains about your youngster's lack of desk-sitting etiquette, save the day with ideas for managing movement, reducing sensory overload, and increasing comfort. Click here for more information on creating an effective learning environment.

2. A “fine motor skill” is the coordination of small muscle movements, usually involving the synchronization of hands and fingers with the eyes. Many AS and HFA children have fine motor skills deficits. Therefore, finding the best writing instrument can make a significant improvement in the quality of their written work – and their classroom behavior. Don't just throw a random box of #2s into your cart and hope for the best. Rather, see if your youngster can benefit from a more specialized approach. Click here for more information on fine motor skills deficits.

3. Create a “contact log.” Getting what your AS or HFA youngster needs from school staff is much easier when you can quote the date you were promised something (e.g., an IEP meeting), when it was promised to occur, and who promised it to you. Instead of leaving all this information to your overworked memory bank, jot it down in a contact log.

4. Keeping your spirits up will be difficult when you're battling educators who don’t understand autism spectrum disorders, dreading report cards, and struggling over homework. But, maintaining a positive “can-do” attitude WILL put your youngster on the road to academic success. When you show your child that you have faith in him, he will begin to have faith in himself. Click here for more information on homework-related issues.

5. Parents of “special needs” students need to learn about the differences between a 504 plan under the Americans with Disabilities Act and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Click here for more information on IEPs.

6. Organization is a common problem for many kids on the autism spectrum. Disorganization often results in missed assignments and tests, not having the correct books for homework, etc. Talk with your youngster and get her input on where she needs the most help. Then, the two of you make a plan. When making this plan, consider the following: how homework be communicated (e.g., written down or dictated); if color-coding books by subject would help; what type of binder or folder will be used for loose papers; what type of school bag will work best; what your youngster’s new timetable will be at home and school; whether or not having two sets of school books/tools would be helpful; and if a calendar or diary will be helpful. Click here for more information on organization skills.

7. You are the expert on your child. A simple way to share your knowledge with school staff is by preparing a summary of information on your youngster. The summary should include the following: calming methods, emergency contact numbers, medications, strategies that don’t work, strategies that do work, strengths, and weaknesses. Keep your summary short, and format it so that it is easy to read. Give copies to all school staff who will have interactions with your youngster. Click here for a fact sheet (email or hand-deliver a hardcopy) that provides a short description of AS and HFA – and associated behaviors.

8. Parents are the best advocates for their AS or HFA youngster, because they know their youngster best. However, they can’t be an effective advocate if they don’t have a good working relationship with the individuals involved in their kid’s education. How can moms and dads foster a working relationship with their youngster’s educators, aides, and other school staff in the new school year? Get involved in any parent/teacher organizations. Make and maintain contact with your youngster’s educators before any issues arise. Thank your youngster’s educators when they make a special effort for your youngster. Also, volunteer to help in your youngster’s classrooms, schools, or on field trips. Click here for more information on advocacy.

9. Your youngster doesn't just sit at her desk all day. There are other, less-structured moments that can act like stumbling blocks on the road to academic success. So, stay informed on what your youngster goes through as the school day progresses (e.g., on the bus, at recess, lunch, gym, in the restroom, etc.), and know how intervene.

10. When the parent is standing up for her youngster's rights, it's important to have a good command of the bureaucratic language – especially when the parent is involved with individuals who throw out lots of elaborate terms to let her know they know more than she does. Thus, learn a few IEP acronyms with a cheat sheet (one is provided below).

Cheat Sheet—

Here are the key terms parents will see and hear as they work with the IEP team: 
  • Transition plan: This part of the IEP is for older students and lays out what your adolescent must learn and do in high school in order to succeed as an adult. He and the IEP team develop the plan together before it takes affect at age 16. The transition plan includes goals and activities that are academic and functional, but they extend beyond school to practical job training and life skills.
  • Special education: This is specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of your youngster. It should be designed to give her access to the general education curriculum. 
  • Related services: This includes any support services your youngster needs to benefit from special education (e.g., transportation, occupational therapy).
  • Present levels of performance (PLOP): This is a snapshot of how your youngster is doing currently. PLOP describes your youngster’s academic skills (e.g., reading level) and functional skills (e.g., making conversation, writing). The school prepares this report for the IEP meeting. This is the starting point for setting annual IEP goals.
  • Accommodation: This is a change to (or in) your youngster’s learning environment. Accommodations can help him learn and then show what he’s learned without having his deficits get in the way (e.g., if your youngster takes longer to answer questions, he can be given extra time to take a test). Even with accommodations, “special needs” children are expected to learn the same content as their classmates.
  • Standards-based IEP: This alternative to the traditional IEP is only used in some states. A standards-based IEP measures a child’s academic performance against what the state expects of other children in the same grade.
  • Due process: This is a formal process for resolving disputes with a school about special education and IEPs. Other ways to resolve a dispute include mediation and filing a state complaint.
  • Annual goals: The IEP document lists the academic and functional skills the IEP team thinks your youngster can achieve by the end of the year. These goals are geared toward helping her take part in the general education classroom. 
  • Parent report: This is a letter that parents write. It’s a good way for them to document their youngster’s strengths, challenges, and success at school, home, and in the community. By sharing the report with the IEP team, parents give the team a more complete view of the youngster.
  • Modification: A modification is a change in what the child is expected to learn and demonstrate (e.g., the educator may ask the class to write an essay that explores five major battles during a war, but the “special needs” youngster with a modification may only be asked to write about the basic facts of those battles). 
  • Least restrictive environment: Children with documented disabilities must be taught in the least restrictive environment (i.e., they must be taught in the same setting as children without documented disabilities as much as possible). The school must offer services and supports to help the youngster with an IEP succeed in a general education classroom.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): IDEA is a federal law that guarantees all kids with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education.
  • General education curriculum: This is the knowledge and skills that all children throughout a state are expected to master (curriculum varies from state to state).
  • Supplementary aids and services: These are supports to help your youngster learn in the general education classroom (e.g., special equipment, assistive technology, audiobooks, highlighted classroom notes, etc.).
  • Extended school year services (ESY): Some children receive special education services outside of the regular school year (e.g., during the summer, during Christmas break).
  • Disability: To qualify for an IEP, your youngster must have a disability that is one of the 13 categories listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Learning and attention issues usually fit into one of three categories: specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, and other health impairment (e.g., ADHD).
  • Behavior intervention plan (BIP): This is a plan designed to teach and reward positive behavior. The plan usually uses techniques to prevent and stop problematic behaviors. It can also have supports and aids for your youngster. To get a BIP, your youngster must have a functional behavioral assessment (FBA).
  • Progress reporting: This refers to how the school will report to parents on their youngster’s progress on annual goals. 
  • Assistive technology (AT): This includes any device, equipment or software that helps the youngster work around his deficits. AT can help the youngster learn, communicate, and function better in school (e.g., apps that read text aloud).

Starting school is usually a difficult time for kids on the autism spectrum. Every youngster is hesitant to go somewhere new and see a bunch of strangers she has never met before. Moving up a grade means having a new teacher, facing more academic demands, and adjusting to a changing social circle. Children who are starting school for the first time or moving to a new school have to cope with an even bigger adjustment. The good news is that with a little bit of preparation, parents can make those first weeks of school easier for their AS and HFA children.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...