Teaching Kids with Asperger Syndrome for the First Time
By Dan Coulter
You’re a teacher. You’ve just found out that you’re going to have a student with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in class this year. You’re in for an interesting year. And that’s not coded language for “brace yourself.” It’s a real-life perspective that teaching a child with AS often gives you as many opportunities as challenges.
First, the nuts and bolts stuff. Asperger Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum. It’s an increasingly common diagnosis and many kids with AS are in regular school classes.
Kids with Asperger Syndrome can have a variety of symptoms and behaviors, but they generally have problems with social and communications skills. That’s only half the story, though. They also typically have IQs in the normal to very superior range. Asperger Syndrome has sometimes been described as "little professor" syndrome, because often kids with AS become walking encyclopedias about topics that interest them. And therein lies one of the biggest problems for these kids. Many look so normal and are so advanced in some ways that it’s hard for people to understand why one can’t read a teacher’s facial expression, or another has trouble making eye contact, or a third takes expressions literally and misses implied meanings.
It can be tough to fathom why a child who has an extensive vocabulary and knows the material you assign inside out can’t seem to hold a casual conversation with a classmate.
Here’s the good news. You can often build on that child’s strengths to help him modify his "out of the norm" behaviors and make a lot of positive contributions to your class.
That’s really the bottom line for you: finding ways to make the year a good experience for every child in the room, including the one with AS -- and, of course, for you.
You can’t discount your needs in the process. So let’s make them a priority, too. First, you may want to learn a bit more about Asperger Syndrome. One of the most user-friendly sources is the www.aspennj.org website. It’s run by a non-profit education network with a lot of clear, easy to access information. Their "What Is Asperger Syndrome?" page is a great concise overview of AS. Your school counselors may also have information or may be able to put you in touch with other teachers who’ve had experience with AS.
Once you understand a bit about AS, a child’s parents often can help you understand how it affects him or her. You’re not asking them to tell you how to teach, you’re looking for accurate information that can help you determine ways to successfully direct and motivate their child. You and the parents may even be able to cooperate to identify behaviors a child needs to work on and reinforce them at home and at school.
For example, many kids with AS are impulsive. You may teach a student who loves class participation, but has trouble sensing when she should stop talking and give someone else a chance. You might work out some signals that only the two of you and her parents know (like putting your hand to your chin as if you’re considering what’s being said or walking to stand right in front of that student’s desk) that cue her it’s time to stop talking. If you have a student with AS who is especially eager to participate, you may want to routinely call on that student first or second, so he isn’t coming out of his chair in his eagerness to contribute.
Students with AS often need structure and respond best when they have clear, consistent direction. Some teachers find it works to post homework assignments in the same place every day. That could be on a blackboard, whiteboard, or bulletin board. It also helps to announce tests well in advance and routinely remind the class of the dates when longer term projects are due. Such techniques usually benefit the entire class.
There are lots of specific things you can do, but the most important thing is your approach. Your approach is the magic bullet that can help the entire class learn one of the lessons that matters most to all of us: how to accept and get along with a variety of people.
When I was in elementary school, we had a category on our report cards called, "citizenship." There are all sorts of outside pressures that tear at the kind of behavior that got you an "A" is citizenship. TV commercials routinely encourage viewers to be greedy with their products. The message: if you want to be cool, keep the best stuff for yourself -- people who care about other people are suckers. Commercials that target kids also talk a lot about having “attitude,” in a way that confuses confidence with arrogance and selfishness. Comedians casually toss around the word "retarded" as an insult.
Teachers can serve as a powerful role model to counteract these negative influences. Having a child with Asperger Syndrome in your class gives you the chance to show your students that people who have challenges can also have strengths. That in looking past someone’s quirks, you can find someone worth knowing. That life is richer if you don’t solely interact with kids who are like clones of yourself.
Academics can be a bridge. My son has Asperger Syndrome and was not sought after for teams on the playground. But back in class, kids would eagerly seek to get Drew on their academic teams because he routinely knew the right answers. That’s not to say every kid with AS is an academic whiz, but most have special interests and strengths.
The first signal to a class on how to treat a child with Asperger Syndrome often comes from the teacher. If students sense that a teacher is impatient and critical of an AS student’s behaviors, it’s like declaring open season to ignore or tease him -- in and out of class. Approach that student with patience and respect, and you’ve set that tone for everyone else. It can mean the world to some kids with AS just to have other kids say, "Hello."
One of the key issues you may face is helping a student tell the rest of the class about Asperger Syndrome. Whether or not to disclose a disability is a decision for the student and his parents. If they decide to tell the class, you can play an important role in treating Asperger Syndrome as just another one of those differences that we all have. In my experience, other kids are more likely to give a student who has some odd behaviors the benefit of the doubt if they know the reason.
A student might choose to talk with the class himself about AS, or his parents might make a presentation or bring in a psychologist or other expert. Some kids with AS want to be in the room for such a presentation and some don’t.
If you take part, here’s a tip I picked up. It’s a good idea to write "Asperger Syndrome" on the board and pronounce it for the class right off the bat. This makes it less likely that some comic in your class will hear the name as "Ass Burger" and have a field day with it. You might even mention that the condition is named after a Viennese doctor named Hans Asperger who identified the syndrome more than 50 years ago.
I find kids are interested to know that Dan Aykroyd from Saturday Night Live said in a National Public Radio interview that he has Asperger Syndrome. He said he’s obsessed with police work and carries a police badge with him wherever he goes. There’s a fair amount of speculation that people such as Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Isaac Newton had AS. Even though no one can prove historical figures had the syndrome, I think it’s fair to note that these folks all had documented behaviors which are common to people with AS. The point is not to suggest that every kid with AS is a genius, but that people with AS can have a range of talents.
Having a kid with Asperger Syndrome in your class may be the greatest opportunity in your career to change a student’s life for the better. My son’s about to head off for his senior year of college, and my wife and I always enjoy getting the chance to visit with some of the great teachers he’s had along the way to let them know how he’s doing -- and thank them.
Here’s thanking you for reading this article and for being interested in helping that student in your class who needs something extra to make it.
He’ll remember you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the producer of the videos "ASPERGER SYNDROME: Success in the Mainstream Classroom" and "INTRICATE MINDS: Understanding Classmates with Asperger Syndrome." You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2005 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By Permission