Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome is a neurological disease typically diagnosed in children ages two to four. It is a form of functional autism that largely affects a person’s communication and social skills. Some children with Asperger Syndrome (AS) must be placed in special education classrooms, while others function relatively well in standard education classes.

In my tenure of teaching, I have taught sixteen children with Asperger Syndrome, and it has been both a challenging and rewarding experience. Children with AS often have discipline problems and have trouble interacting with other children, but they are usually quite bright. In fact, their IQ’s are sometimes approaching genius level, and many are child prodigies in one area or another. Many take to memorizing facts, which has earned them the affectionate nickname of “little professors.”

The complications with working with children who have Asperger Syndrome are two-fold. On the one hand, many teachers are uncomfortable with the quirks and idiosyncrasies of AS children, and they have trouble communicating with the students beyond their limitations. At the same time, teachers must also deal with other students’ reactions to a child with Asperger Syndrome.

Characteristics of Children with Asperger Syndrome

As with many other behavioral disorders, symptoms of AS vary among those who have it.That said, here are some common behaviors that you might notice:

1. Avoiding eye contact.
2. Taking expressions literally.
3. Misunderstanding directions.
4. Over-eagerness to answer questions or participate in classroom activities.
5. Constant reiteration of facts and figures related to subjects that interest them.
6. An extremely reliable memory.
7. Inability to grasp implied meanings.
8. Lack of control of facial expression.
9. Pedantic way of speaking.
10. Clumsiness
11. Preoccupation with a specific subject
12. Consistent adherance to routines and schedules.
13. Higher comfort level with adults than with peers.

A child with Asperger Syndrome may have only one of these symptoms, or he or she might suffer from them all. AS can be diagnosed in a wide range of severity.

Research

The first time a child with Asperger Syndrome was placed in my classroom, I was informed about it during the summer by my Assistant Principal. He called to let me know a little bit about the child, and gave me a few brochures about the disease. He wanted to be sure that I was comfortable with the arrangement – which I was – and I thought that he handled the situation very professionally.

If you are not given the same courtesy, or if you are concerned about teaching a child with AS, do your research. Understanding the disorder is foremost in learning how to most effectively teach a student. The most valuable source of information would be the website that deals with Asperger Syndrome: www.aspennj.org. You’ll find a longer list of characteristics, news clippings, further resources and is run by an education network.

You might also speak to your school guidance counselor and see if he or she has any literature on the subject. Your local library should have books about Asperger Syndrome, as should your local bookstore.

Parents

In any situation like this, your best resource is the child’s parents. They shouldn’t mind your calling or requesting a meeting to discuss their child’s specific symptoms of Asperger Syndrome, and to pick their brains about what works best. They will invariably have little tidbits of information to share that will assist in everyday activities with their child, and they will be grateful for your concern and attention.

Classroom Activities

You are likely to discover that children with Asperger Syndrome are not dim-witted at all, but actually rather intelligent. In this respect, they are easier to handle than children with other disorders. They invariably understand that they have a condition, and might even be aware of their uncommon habits, but are simply unable to control it themselves. Knowing this, you can work with them in the classroom to maintain order.

1. Impulsiveness

Many children with Asperger Syndrome are very impulsive, and want very much to participate. They will eagerly raise their hand in class, blurt out answers and insist they have turns before other students. To counteract this, work out a signal that only you and the student knows. For example, when you walk in front of their desk, they know that they should calm down. Or if you scratch your ear, they understand that they should give someone else a turn. This has proved highly effective.

2. Misunderstandings

If you find that the student has trouble understanding what other people are saying – taking literal interpretations of expressions, for example – be proactive in explaining things to him or her. You might discover that other students in the classroom are put off by this behavior, but simply step in if you see a problem. Take control of your classroom in this way, and be there when assistance is needed.

3. Preoccupation

I had one student four years ago who was quite intelligent and also quite sweet, but had a habit of shouting out statistics about car crashes at random. He had researched car crashes, crash test ratings and safety reports, and knew everything there was to know about the subject. I loved his enthusiasm, but it wasn’t helpful when he would blurt out statistics in the middle of English class. If you observe this behavior, be kind but firm. Every time he or she goes off-topic or talks out of turn, ask him or her a question related to the subject you are teaching. For example, every time my student would shout out a statistic, I would ask him to list the main characters in the book we were reading. It worked quite well.

4. Other Children

This is a decision that must be made with the child and parents, but I have found it enormously helpful if the child with AS explains to the class what Asperger Syndrome is. Twelve of my sixteen AS students have agreed to stand in front of the class and take questions about their condition. This works only in high school age children – not elementary or junior high, because of maturity – but it is highly effective.

Using this method, the other students become comfortable with Asperger Syndrome and are unlikely to tease or to be mean to the student. At the same time, it helps the student with AS to become comfortable talking about his or her condition, and to feel confident when interacting with his or her peers.

Teaching children with Asperger Syndrome can be a rewarding experience if approached in the right mindset. Remember to encourage positive behavior, discourage negative behavior, and to do your best to that student as much as the others.

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