Understanding Students with Asperger’s Syndrome
By Karen Hoffmann-Zak
Ever come across a child who seems to know everything and nothing at the same time? This is the child who puts up his hand at every question. His knowledge and its expression seem vast, encyclopedic, and—like a dam about to burst its banks—almost unstoppable. Then, you ask him to prepare a presentation with a group of classmates. He crumbles. He cannot work in a group, compromise, or take turns. Insults, hurt feelings, tears often result.
Who is this child? How can you help him to maximize his potential and minimize his problems?
As schools become increasingly integrated and as the rise in autistic youth continues, teachers learn more about autistic students. Many are non-verbal and intellectually challenged. What teachers may not realize is that at the upper end of the autistic spectrum are Mr. and Ms. Encyclopedia—an estimated one of every 300 youth—with Asperger’s Syndrome. These students are typically average or above average in intelligence but below average in social and emotional maturity due to a brain abnormality—a neurological disorder.
“What these kids are missing is the script of life,” said Margot Nelles, founder and executive director of the Asperger’s Society of Ontario. “Their biggest problem is knowing what’s expected of them. You may look at this kid and think, ‘He’s smart; he should know better.’ Well, he doesn’t. It’s not enough to tell him that what he’s doing is wrong. You need to tell him what’s right, going step by step.”
Because students with Asperger’s Syndrome (often referred to as Aspies) can be bright and verbal, their learning disabilities, often non-verbal, may be overlooked. But despite their intelligence, sometimes brilliance (think Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), these students miss more than 80 percent of what’s happening. That’s because Aspies don’t understand body language, including facial expressions and verbal intonations, accounting for more than 80 percent of communication.
“Learning a social language is twice as difficult as learning a second language,” said Dr. Tony Attwood, an internationally- renowned psychologist specializing in Asperger’s Syndrome.
While many Aspies master facts effortlessly, social nuances are another matter. They don’t comprehend the give and take of conversations (especially small talk), taking turns, and knowing when to start or stop talking. They may seem arrogant or indifferent, but are usually loving people who can’t read other people’s thoughts or feelings, said Attwood.
People sometimes assume that Aspies choose solitude. Typically, however, they crave friends and normality. As teenagers, their social awkwardness, rejection by others, and resulting isolation can lead to low self-esteem and debilitating depression. Desperate for friends, Aspies sometimes do silly things from naiveté and a desire to please. Always ask, “Why did you do it? Did somebody put you up to it?” said Attwood. Aspies get bullied frequently and may, eventually, retaliate fiercely. Then, it’s important to punish all involved, said Atwood.
If you only punish Aspies, they may lose faith in school and society and may drop out or stop following rules. As well as struggling with social cues at recess, many Aspies battle verbal cues in class, the result of central auditory processing difficulties.
“When the teacher says, ‘Take out your math book, turn to page 158, and do questions one to seven, but skip 5B,’ all the other kids get it, while the Aspie kid is still at ‘take out your math book,’” said Nelles. Aspies value their intellects and hate looking stupid. In embarrassing situations, such as the one above, they may refuse to work, or misbehave to get thrown out of class.
These students are then often mistakenly diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), said a therapist from Integra, a children’s mental health centre in Toronto. It’s an inability to follow sequences, rather than ODD, that’s central to their problems.
Aspies need to be taught to clarify teachers’ expectations. Teachers can help by speaking slowly, by giving Aspies extra time for questions and answers, and by teaching and assigning both visually and orally.
As many Aspies learn visually, teach with diagrams and encourage visualization. Aspies of all ages do better with visual aids, agendas, and notebooks, rather than stray papers. Checklists can help, as can breaking assignments into steps, so as to not overwhelm students.
Social skills can also be taught visually with social stories: short stories composed of a few sentences, pictures and, sometimes, cartoon-like balloons. Find social stories, such as those written by Carol Gray, pioneer of the technique, or create your own for children and teens.
“It’s social learning rather than self-directed learning that Aspies need,” said Attwood, referring to homework. Attwood and Nelles emphasize Aspies’ intense anxiety. If you’ve ever had the kind of day where everything goes wrong, tensions and anxiety mount, and all you’re fit for by day’s end is takeout pizza and a relationship with your TV, you’ll have sampled a portion of what Aspies endure daily.
“There’s no way we can expect these kids to be receptive to what we’re trying to teach them if their anxieties or obsessions continually get in the way. It’s important for Aspies to have time to relax and recover in order to get up and do it all over again the next day,” said Nelles. Limiting daily homework to 20 to 30 minutes is, therefore, important. So, too, is giving Aspies time alone when needed during the school day, term, and year, said Attwood. Generally, the calmer and more controlled their environments and routines, the better.
Drawing, too, relieves stress for many Aspies, said Attwood. In class, they can draw and listen to you simultaneously. Stop them drawing, and they’ll feel more anxious and angry.
Even exam stress can be defused. Fiona Green, a British teacher, writes about an Aspie who froze at a difficult question, a common response. Green taught him to colour code questions (“green for CAN DO, orange for THINK, and red for NO.”) Consequently, the boy both felt and did better in his exams, wrote Green in a newsletter published by the Asperger’s Society of Ontario.
Other ways exist to boost the low self-worth of Aspies. Motivate and encourage students by praising their intellects. A compliment like, “You know so much about bees,” means more to them than “I’m proud of you; good job.” In addition, build on their many strengths. Ask them to give a presentation on something they’re especially interested in or to help classmates with their work—a win-win scenario.
Socially, you can help these students, too. Start lunchtime buddy and leadership clubs (where mature students learn to include and protect more vulnerable students), and pair or surround Aspies with mature students in class. A teacher’s attitude of acceptance, tolerance, and even appreciation towards Aspies, who are often interesting and creative, contributes to an accepting atmosphere school wide.
With an Aspie in your class, it is often essential to get expert help. In Ontario, for instance, Nelles recommends contacting your board’s PDD autism team, and bringing in an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome to work with the team. (Remember that individuals with autism and those with Asperger’s Syndrome, although diagnosed along the same spectrum, are very different and must be treated differently.) The Asperger’s Society of Ontario is an excellent resource and one of few organizations worldwide dedicated to the syndrome. Informative books have been written on the subject, including Asperger’s Syndrome, A Guide for Parents and Professionals, by Dr. Tony Attwood.
Lastly, remember parents. Many parents of Aspies are experts on the syndrome and, more importantly, on their child. Though your class may be calmer without Aspies, “Our civilization,” writes Attwood, “would be extremely dull and sterile if we did not have and treasure people with Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Tips for Working with Aspies
- Many Aspies can better understand and concentrate when not distracted by eye contact and facial expressions. For one-on-one discussions, it’s often better to sit side by side.
- Punishing an Aspie for tactlessness is like punishing an asthma sufferer for coughing. Try to teach tact but know that it can take years of weekly therapy to truly succeed.
- As Aspies can feel overpowered by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch, prevent or solve sensory problems by seating them in quiet spots. When in doubt, ask what’s bothering them.
- Aspies can be stoical about intense pain. Act immediately if an Aspie expresses even mild discomfort—it may be serious.
- Soothe angry or anxious Aspies before attempting to discipline or reason with them. When angry, they may argue with you, but they won’t really hear what you’re saying.
- Educate rather than punish misbehaving Aspies, as rewards and punishments often fail with these students. Collaborative problem solving approaches help too
Karen Hoffmann-Zak is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2007