Teaching Students with Asperger Syndrome
Asperger Syndrome (Asperger's) is an Autism Spectrum Disorder, meaning that Asperger Syndrome shares many characteristics of autism (social impairment, low frustration threshold, lack of empathy, etc.). Asperger's is distinct from autism, however, because cognitive and linguistic abilities are relatively unaffected.
Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed, students with disabilities must be taught in the least restrictive environment possible. As a result, students with Asperger Syndrome are typically taught in general education classrooms, and often exhibit excellent academic skills. However, there are a number of symptoms of the syndrome which prove challenging for teachers. These symptoms include sensory processing issues, obsessive focus on one subject, a low frustration threshold, and executive functioning gaps. Teachers may become frustrated by these symptoms, but with the application of a few basic teaching strategies, students with Asperger Syndrome can learn to thrive in the classroom environment.
As with autism, Asperger's Syndrome is often characterized by hypersensitivity to certain sensory input. Students may be unable to tolerate the texture of their clothes against their skin, for instance, or the sound of the radiator, or any number of sensory stimuli. These sensory issues can lead to behaviors which greatly disrupt the entire class. The actual sensory issue varies by the individual, so it's important for teachers to identify the source of the irritation. Once the source of the irritation is identified, steps must be taken to lessen its impact on the student. Study carrels, which remove the student somewhat from distracting stimuli, can be very effective in mitigating this issue.
While some students with Asperger's Syndrome exhibit hypersensitivities to sensory stimuli, others exhibit the exact opposite: hyposensitivities. Students with hyposensitivities are overly tolerant of sensory stimuli (loud noises, temperature, flashing lights, etc.). This only becomes an issue when the student creates or perpetuates a stimuli that everyone else finds irritating. Vocalizing, or making loud noises, is a common manifestation of this issue. More often than not, the student is not meaning any harm. They are simply hyposensitive to the sensory input, and are unaware that it may be irritating to others. Try not to be harsh or snap at the student if this happens. A simple verbal reminder is generally sufficient.
Sensory stimuli may present a challenge for the classroom, but they may also be used as a valuable tool for helping students with Asperger's Syndrome calm down. Techniques will vary based on the student's individual needs. For example, some students are calmed by movement (rocking, jumping, bouncing on a pilates ball, etc.). Others are calmed by tactile sensations (touching certain textures of surfaces, chewing, weighted vests, etc.). It's important to find out what sort of sensory integration your student needs to be successful. Be cautious: an excess of any of these inputs may become overstimulating and lead to other problems.
A hallmark characteristic of Asperger's Syndrome is an obsessive focus on one favorite subject. Students often become fixated on this subject to the complete exclusion of everything else, and their academic experience and social relationships can suffer greatly as a result.
Don't try to extinguish this interest. You won't be successful, and the conflict you'll create by trying will lead to a host of other problems. The student is passionately interested in the subject, so the question is: how can that passion be harnessed? How can the interest be diversified and connected with other subjects? Perhaps your student is fixated on sci-fi films, for example. While remaining supportive of the interest, you might assign the reading of some sci-fi short stories, and begin to connect to the study of English, language arts, and literature. Or perhaps the student could draw his own sci-fi aliens, label the physiology of the alien (skeletal system, organ systems, etc.) and thereby connect to the subjects of biology and life sciences. Pay attention to what the student responds to, and be creative.
While it is important to diversify the student's interest, it won't do much good to always deflect that interest towards schoolwork. Once in a while, let the student show off his or her talents a bit. Some extra credit for a short presentation on the subject can be highly rewarding, motivating, and enjoyable for your student with Asperger's Syndrome. Just be sure to clearly communicate your expectations about the time limit beforehand!
Low Frustration Threshold
Students with Asperger's Syndrome often display several areas of outstanding academic ability balanced by areas of ability far below their grade level. Your student may be a genius with computers and technology, but be unable to write a grammatically correct sentence. He or she may have an encyclopaedic knowledge of dinosaurs, but be unable to do a page of arithmetic problems. When confronted with these academic gaps, students with Asperger's Syndrome understandably become very frustrated, and may experience a "meltdown."
Knowing how to avoid meltdowns is crucial to maintain a functioning and effective classroom. Once again, strategies for avoiding meltdowns will depend largely on the individual student. Identify what triggers the student's frustration, first of all, and avoid these things as much as possible. If the trigger can't be avoided (math lessons, for example), then perhaps it can be modified or adapted to better fit the student's needs. Frequent breaks may be necessary for the student to complete the task, or fewer problems assigned, or the promise of a reinforcer after the work is done.
Most importantly, these students need to learn strategies for coping and calming themselves down. Asking for a break can be a very appropriate way to lessen frustration levels. Keep a visual timer displayed during work time; this way, students have a finish line in sight. You might have the student draw a picture of the source of his frustration, with some written lines of how to best cope with it. This practice can be very cathartic and empowering.
Students may sometimes need to take a walk to cool down. In these instances, send the student on an errand, perhaps to deliver an attendance roster to the office, or to give a message to another teacher. The errand itself isn't important, but the act of errand-running will keep the student in a mode of class participation and of following directions, while simultaneously giving him or her a break from the source of frustration.
Executive Functioning Gaps
"Executive Functioning" is the series of mental processes that allow us to plan and organize, and to visualize the steps required to complete a multi-step task. Asperger's Syndrome is characterized by deficiencies in executive functioning, which means that students may be overly forgetful and disorganized. Forgetting homework assignments, or losing track of what they were doing, is quite common.
This issue can be helped by using visual learning tools. Students with Asperger's Syndrome are typically visually oriented, and benefit by visual schedules, written to-do lists, or work charts. They needn't be overly complicated; just a simple, visual reminder of the sequence of steps required. This may be a bulletin board with the day's activities posted on it, or it may be a small note card which the student carries throughout the day.
Asperger's Syndrome presents a wide variety of challenges. Students with this condition may at times seem frustrating, but by consistently using the teaching strategies described in this article, these students can become successful members of your classroom. The key is to remain flexible and to work with the reality of the student's condition; don't try to force them to be something they're not. When this positive relationship is established, students with Asperger's Syndrome can truly be a delight. With such a unique perspective, and such an interesting set of strengths, you might find yourself learning as much from them as they do from you.