From the Teacher’s Desk
How can you help your student with Asperger’s be successful?
Kathi Grace, an award-winning special educator in Vermont, has a few tips for her colleagues working with students with Asperger‘s.
Every child with Asperger Syndrome perceives the world in a unique way and often reacts to it in unpredictably. Therefore, understand that something that works with one student with Asperger's may not work with another. Also, we know more about Autism today than we did even two years ago, so it is important to keep learning and building up your toolbox.
To get started, invite your student with Asperger's to your classroom before the first day of school so you can meet his/her parents, show them around the classroom and help them become acclimated before too many people occupy that space. Within the first two weeks of school ask permission from the child’s parents to hold a class meeting where they or you can explain their child’s unique “gifts and challenges.” Emphasize the need for “our class” to work together to make school a positive experience for all the members of “our” classroom.
I often have my students make a list of the reasons they like school (recess is always at the top of the list) and then ask if they think these reasons would be different for the student they will get to know this year. Sometimes anticipating and answering questions before problems occur help other students understand each other's differences and how best to interact with each other. There are several books available for this purpose. Two older but valuable books are "The Don't Give up Kid" by Jeanne Gehret and "Don't Look at Me" by Doris Sanford.
Maintain ongoing communication with the child’s parents or guardians through a daily communication log that can be easily instituted with email. You don’t need to write a book but the communication can be crucial for both home and school in alerting each other to any special concerns during the day or from the night before that might still be ruminating upon by the child the next day. Parenting a child with autism can be very lonely. Demonstrating a partnership between home and school goes a long way toward establishing the bond needed to ensure success.
Children with Autism can become quickly overwhelmed and have difficulty with transitions. Maintaining a predictable environment with a clear, organized structure and routine is essential. Some children may need a visual schedule composed of pictures and charts to help them envision the day and prepare for changes in advance. If teachers know ahead of time that something is going to be particularly difficult in terms of change, it is helpful to work with the speech/language pathologist or the child’s assistant (if they have one) to help prepare a Social Story about the upcoming event.
Social stories are booklets made by a teacher or SLP that targets the unique situation the child will face. It is a rehearsal of sorts but told in a story format with the child as the main character. For example, if a child was going on a field trip to a granite quarry, the story would focus on all the parts of trip the student would experience so there would be no surprises. Role-playing can also be effective dependent on the age and abilities of the child with Asperger’s.
Children with Asperger syndrome react to their environment differently than their peers, and sometimes both teachers and peers can misunderstand those reactions. Don’t assume the child with Asperger syndrome is disrupting class or misbehaving to get attention — the child could be reacting to a sensory issue he/she finds particularly overwhelming or uncomfortable. It could be the ticking of a clock, the beating of a drum, the fabric of their shirt, the smell or texture of a snack or the brightness of the sun that distracts them.
Focusing can be difficult when this type of sensory overload occurs. The child may become so overwhelmed that he/she also becomes frustrated which then leads to disruptions like pencil tapping, verbal outbursts, etc. What appears like a disruption to a teacher and the classroom may be the child’s way of dealing with sensory overload. Therefore, the teacher should insure the classroom environment is not over stimulating and the child should be taught some coping skills like squeezing a soft rubber ball, stroking a worry stone or doodling.
Don’t assume a child with Asperger syndrome is not paying attention if they are not focusing on the teacher, lesson or learning partner. Since they often experience difficulty with both oral and non-verbal communication, doodling or staring into space may be a way that they are calming themselves or trying to maintain their focus. They are not aware that they may be communicating to the teacher or other people that they aren’t listening or are bored.
Children with Asperger’s can sometimes hyper-focus on a particular object or subject so they fail to focus on what is being discussed or presented at the time. They do this because they understand the object or subject of their attention so well that they are not overwhelmed by it. Teachers can try to use this subject of the child’s attention to build rapport and establish a connection to a unit of study. For example, I once had a child who was obsessed with hieroglyphics. That is all he wanted to talk about until we studied that time period.
Children with Asperger's often need social-skills training. Non-verbal body language and non-verbal social messages might be taken for granted by most typical adults or children. But students with Asperger's have to be specifically taught how to engage and interact in a two-way conversation by asking questions in an appropriate manner, using manners and maintaining personal space, etc. Being able to practice social interaction with a small group of their peers led by a trained professional is very important in helping them become an active participant in their classroom and larger school community.
Do not demand that children with Asperger Syndrome look you in the eye. Limited eye contact is part of the disability. It is extremely difficult for them to focus their eyes on a person for any length of time.
Students with Asperger's often cannot take in oral language at the same pace as their peers. Therefore, pairing oral presentations with visual representations is extremely important. When giving directions, minimize requests and use two or three-step directions. Check for comprehension and avoid using figurative language whenever possible since children with Asperger’s tend to be very literal.
Children with Asperger’s are frequently visual learners. Use graphic organizers or idea webs when introducing new material or as prediscussion or prewriting tools. There is a multitude of websites that provide graphic organizers for all kinds of topics and tasks.
Asperger students often have difficulty with written language due to an array of difficulties that may involve oral language, processing information, organizing their thoughts and/or the physical act of writing. I find writing templates very useful in helping children get started on a writing assignment. For example, I use a paragraph frame template for responding to a compare/contrast question, a cause/effect question, etc. These types of questions are often difficult for Asperger kids so using a response frame where the organizational language is already done for them can prevent them from getting “stuck” on the task from the outset.
Asperger students are generally able to picture a task and/or how to solve it in their heads. Therefore, they do not see the need to spend the time writing out the answers since paper/pencil tasks are difficult for many children with Asperger's. Therefore, they can become quite frustrated if a teacher demands that they show their work, particularly in mathematics. Sometimes having an adult scribe their verbal explanation of the process can be a compromise and an allowable accommodation on national tests if it is written in the student’s IEP or Accommodation plan beforehand.
Recent developments in technology also have made it much easier for an student with Asperger's to show what they know without actually doing the physical handwriting. Voice-activated software, for example, allows children to compose as fast as their thoughts come to mind without the frustration of having to physically and often laboriously create each word.