Understanding Asperger's in the Classroom
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
Imagine this: It’s time for math, but your students sit at tables covered with watermelons and napkins. Today is a hands-on day, and they get to estimate the number of seeds in each piece of melon before counting them. Then you hear it: Caleb has thrown himself on the floor in a full-blown tantrum. He’s crying, he’s shaking, and you’re not sure what to do.
Let’s face it, when you have 30 kids in a classroom, keeping your cool when one of them has lost his can be hard. But Caleb has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder similar to but milder than autism. His tantrum may seem inexplicable, but the trick, especially when dealing with a child who has Asperger’s, is to dig a little deeper.
“If a child with Asperger’s is scared of an activity or suddenly resistant, there is usually a strong reason why,” says Kariana Dahlen, a mother of a 7-year-old son with Asperger’s who lives in San Francisco. “And there are ways to fix it by altering classroom activity without altering the learning intent. A teacher may think, ‘We’re going to do this fun activity with shaving cream.’ Well, shaving cream for some kids is a pretty big sensory assault.”
Asperger’s is classified as one of the autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). It is sometimes mistakenly diagnosed as ADHD, but early diagnosis is very important in order to redirect brain changes as social skills are developing. The list of ASD symptoms includes notable difficulty with social interaction, sensitivity to stimulation, and intense fixation on particular objects or tasks.
Although Asperger’s has only recently become commonly known, it was first described in the 1940s by pediatrician Hans Asperger. An estimated 1.5 million people have Asperger’s, and the diagnosis often comes later than other autism spectrum disorders, after age 3.
Armed With Knowledge
Teaching a child with Asperger’s can seem daunting, especially if you are unfamiliar with the disorder. But it doesn’t have to be, says Jacki Riffey, a sixth-grade teacher in Montana’s Columbia Falls School District. Riffey likes the challenge of helping unusual students. “I was kind of excited about it,” she says of having a child with Asperger’s in her class for the first time. “A new child to learn about and to help grow.”
If you are about to teach a student with Asperger’s, understanding the syndrome is your best preparation. Children with Asperger’s tend to have normal or above-normal intelligence and high verbal skills, though they may have a hard time expressing their thoughts, says Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community located at Indiana University. As younger children, they may show the ability to focus on one task for a long period of time, but they typically do not understand sarcasm, innuendo, or double meaning and have a hard time reading body language and social clues. Pratt also says that teachers are more likely to see boys rather than girls with Asperger’s. In fact, there’s a 4 to 1 ratio.
Children with Asperger’s may have a very specific and even obsessive interest, such as baseball statistics, trains, or dinosaurs. If a child in your class is interested in a particular subject, incorporating it into your teaching, when appropriate, can help keep him focused on the lesson.
Following the "Rules"
Because many children with Asperger’s have difficulty with social interaction, they sometimes appear to be misbehaving when they don’t mean to be. “Some children do not realize that classroom rules apply to them,” Pratt says. “They may develop their own ‘rules’ and have a high demand to be perfect.”
Dahlen says she sees her own son’s “rules” in action when it comes to his schoolwork. “He likes to finish what he starts,” Dahlen says. “When the teacher says, ‘Time’s up, stop writing,’ he won’t want to because his page isn’t full yet. The teacher now has to remind him that it’s time to move on and he can finish the page later.”
While some students with Asperger’s can focus on one subject, you might find they have trouble concentrating in other areas. A visual cue, such as a yellow warning card placed on the desk for distracting behavior or personalized instructions for what to do during downtime can help keep a child focused, says Allison Woods, a special education teacher in the Alief Independent School District in Texas who also has a child with Asperger’s.
As students grow older and school routines change, different tactics might help. Riffey’s school used a peer educator to help his student with Asperger’s. “The peer educator would meet him at his locker in the morning, because he wouldn’t remember which book to bring,” Riffey says. “It helped cue him about what he needed to get together.” Riffey also found that sitting the student next to compassionate students or children with similar interests, such as baseball, improved the atmosphere.
Teaching your students about asd can help them handle with maturity and compassion the challenges classmates with Asperger’s can present. While many students may not grasp the concept of the autistic spectrum, they can understand that certain children are more sensitive and need a bit of extra help. Some parents may choose to come have a discussion about Asperger’s, while others may leave talking about people’s individual differences to the teachers. Riffey’s class had a discussion about differences and bullying, led by student council leaders, that helped include his student with Asperger’s.
“Kids at that age don’t understand disabilities unless they’re explained,” Riffey says. “‘It isn’t that he’s trying to be this way, it’s just the way he was born.’ They can relate in that way. I’m not even sure I used the word ‘Asperger’s.’”
Helping your students understand Asperger’s, or at least recognize some of its traits, will help them cope when they experience a meltdown. Riffey would often ask her student’s peer educator to help him calm down by walking with him. “He just needed time to have a quieter environment where he could settle down and talk about what he’s upset about,” Riffey says. “It wasn’t easy for him to brush things off, but he could get control, come back, and be part of the group again.”
Giving a child time to recompose — by sitting in a special “study desk” or talking to a counselor or teacher in the hall — can help get things back to normal. Ask what caused the meltdown: for a younger kid, it might be the texture of a pencil; an older kid may have felt flustered when the room got too chaotic. But be warned: Sometimes they may not be able to express what happened without a little digging on your part.
“A tiny shift in environment can make a huge difference for kids with Asperger’s,” says Dahlen. If you’re not sure just what tiny shift your environment needs, experts recommend talking to the parents, who will most likely know their child better than anyone else.
Keeping Good Communication
Meeting with parents and children separately before school starts, if possible, is one good way to transition into a new year. Riffey also shows the children their desks, lockers, and the restroom. Expect that things might be a bit rough for a few weeks. Just like you’re getting to know your new students, they are trying to figure you out, too — while adjusting to a new schedule and new surroundings as well. Woods says that a positive change in the demeanor of a child with Asperger’s typically happens after a few weeks, once they feel more comfortable in their setting.
Keeping the line of communication with parents open, be it through e-mail or notes sent home, can help them work together to provide a positive learning environment. The goal is to help kids with Asperger’s learn and be able to adapt socially, and teachers need to consider every way of reaching them.
“Think outside the box and try different things,” says Woods. “Find out what makes them tick.”
A teacher and mother of an autistic child, Larissa Beckstead recommends these resources for teachers.
- The Autism Society of America has the latest on research, treatment, and education, with a section on Asperger’s, and resources in Spanish.
- Asperger Syndrome.org has a breadth of facts, including a useful social skills section and a kids’ corner with links to poems and stories written by autistic children.
- The Council for Exceptional Children is an excellent source of ideas on teaching special education students, as well as gifted students.
- Since the 1970s, many teachers have used the TEACCH Autism Program is research-based program in their classroom to help special education students achieve success.
- Straight Talk on Autism by Dr. Travis Thompson
- The Asperger’s Answer Book: Professional Answers to 275 of the Top Questions Parents Ask by Susan Ashley
- The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz