The student with Asperger Syndrome in a middle or secondary classroom

08/21/2012  |  BY DR. JUANITA KASPER
Special Needs
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Your new student is: reliable, persistent, accurate, attentive to detail, logical, conscientious, knowledgeable, honest, original in problem solving with strong rote memory and an average to above average IQ. This list of qualities would appear to make them the perfect student, but with these strengths, there can be challenges. He may have problems with: a lack of eye contact, a rigid need for rules and routine, anxiety and/or depression, sensory processing difficulty, perseverative thought processes and struggle with the unwritten rules of social interaction (Attwood, 2007). This brief description provides some examples of the many facets of an individual with Asperger Syndrome (AS).

Over the past decade there has been an increase in the number of children diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorders including Asperger Syndrome. The predominant characteristics of individuals with AS are: difficulty with language and communication; restricted, repetitive and stereotypical patterns of behavior, interests, and activities; and qualitative differences in appropriate social interaction (DSM- IV- TR, 2000).

Even though this article speaks in generalities, keep in mind that each student with AS is an individual with unique traits which manifest in varying degrees. One student may talk in class all of the time preventing any other discussion, while another may speak very little. The accommodations that a student receives in the classroom are based on their individual needs and are not disability specific.

Challenges in the Classroom

An individual with AS may have unusual responses to sensory input by being overly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells, and sights. They may prefer soft clothing, certain foods, and be bothered by sounds or lights that no one else seems to hear or see. Gross motor skills can lead to physical awkwardness. Challenges to fine motor skills can make handwriting indecipherable. Stress and anxiety can become overwhelming for the student with AS. Academic failure can more likely be related to issues with stress management rather than a lack of intellectual ability or commitment (Heflin and Alaimo, 2007). Time management or misinterpretation of instructions can also interfere with the completion of projects. They may not ask for help even when they need it.

Communication and Social Issues

Students with AS may exhibit speech and language impairments in the areas of semantics, pragmatics, and prosody (volume, intonation, inflection, and rhythm). When expressing themselves, their speech may have a different pattern and sound unusually formal. They may have an extensive vocabulary but talk “at” rather than talk “to” the listener. In the area of receptive language, confusion can occur when they misunderstand nonliteral language or figurative expressions (i.e., humor, sarcasm, idioms). These communication issues can also impact social skills (Heward, 2009).

Difficulty reading and understanding the feelings of others can be due to an inability to understand nonverbal communication including gestures and facial expression. They may invade personal space when communicating and not notice the discomfort of the other person. When students with AS try to explain how to follow rules they may be perceived by peers and teachers as being rude or bossy. Few teachers appreciate being corrected or told as a matter of fact that their class is “boring.” For individuals with AS, interest in developing friendships may unknowingly be thwarted by these behaviors resulting in loneliness, stress and anxiety (Attwood, 2007; Heward, 2009; Heflin & Alaimo, 2007).

Student challenges in the classroom may be masked by their large vocabularies, vast knowledge on particular topics, and/or excellent memories (Heflin & Alaimo, 2007). It is important for educators to be aware of these possible challenges and provide support to help students be successful.

Accommodations

Developing a study plan or organizer can help students manage time and academic commitments. Use of a reminder on a cell phone can prompt students to complete projects in a timely fashion. Being able to use a computer to complete assignments or exams can assist with handwriting deficits. Options for note taking may include taping classroom lectures or assigning a scribe to make a copy of their notes (Safran, 2002).

Providing clear feedback on a regular basis is important because the student may be unaware of their progress until it is very late. Extended time on exams may assist students who need more time to process the content. An alternative testing site or preferential seating can help students who have sensory issues with lighting or acoustics. The use of noise cancelling headphones can also cut back on environmental sounds. It can be helpful to have a plan that allows a student permission to leave the classroom for a break when sensory issues or anxiety occurs (Heflin & Alaimo, 2007).

Supplementing spoken instructions with written instructions can help avoid problems with auditory memory. To avoid confusion when giving verbal directions, it helps to wait until the first task is completed before explaining the next task. Be aware that the student may miss concepts that are nonliteral. Humor or sarcasm may need to be clarified in a quiet manner that doesn’t call attention to the student.

Individuals with AS can be socially naïve and may be vulnerable to teasing and ridicule. Group work can be difficult. An appointed student “buddy” or mentor can provide friendly advice regarding social protocols and expectations (Attwood, 2007). This individual can also serve as an academic tutor to assist with organization and study skills. It can also help to give students a choice of individual work in lieu of group assignments. Consultation with a special educator can assist with providing social skills interventions that may require more time than is practical in a regular classroom. The special educator can also access support if there are concerns related to emotional issues such as depression or anxiety.

Conclusion

It is important to avoid disciplinary actions for behaviors that are part of the disorder such as: avoidance of eye contact, talking to self, slow response time, lack of “respect” for others, repeating words or phrases, student anxiety in crowds or noisy environments, perseveration on a topic of interest, and or emotional upset by changes that occur during the day (Heflin and Alaimo, 2007). One key for the student to succeed in this social minefield we know as the classroom is the acceptance of the classroom teacher. It is important to modify expectations and not be offended or annoyed by some of the characteristics of AS expressed by the student. When treated with patience and understanding, a student with AS can navigate the “neurotypical” world and be an excellent student.

Dr. Juanita Kasper has worked in the field of special education for over 25 years. She is the Graduate Program Head in Special Education and Assistant Professor in the Department of Early Childhood and Special Education at Edinboro University. She has worked as a classroom teacher, behavioral specialist, and vocational supervisor. In fall of 2007, she became a member of the Brain STEPS Team with the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania.ReferencesAttwood, T. (2007). Complete guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. p. 292-303.Heflin, J. L., & Alaimo, D.F. (2007). Students with autism spectrum disorders: Effective instructional practices. Upper Saddle River: Merrill.Heward, W.L. (2009). Exceptional Children. Upper Saddle River: Merrill.Safran, J. S. (2002). Supporting students with Asperger’s Syndrome in general education. Council for Exceptional Children, 34(5), 60-66.
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