With Asperger Syndrome For The First Time
Coulter Video, July 28, 2005
For more articles like this
teacher. You've just found out that you're going to have a
student with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in class this year. You're
in for an interesting year. And that's not coded language for
"brace yourself." It's a real-life perspective that teaching a
child with AS often gives you as many opportunities as
First, the nuts and bolts stuff. Asperger Syndrome is a
neurobiological disorder on the higher functioning end of the
autism spectrum. It's an increasingly common diagnosis and many
kids with AS are in regular school classes.
Kids with Asperger Syndrome can have a variety of symptoms and
behaviors, but they generally have problems with social and
communications skills. That's only half the story, though. They
also typically have IQs in the normal to very superior range.
Asperger Syndrome has sometimes been described as "little
professor" syndrome, because often kids with AS become walking
encyclopedias about topics that interest them. And therein lies
one of the biggest problems for these kids. Many look so normal
and are so advanced in some ways that it's hard for people to
understand why one can't read a teacher's facial expression, or
another has trouble making eye contact, or a third takes
expressions literally and misses implied meanings.
It can be tough to fathom why a child who has an extensive
vocabulary and knows the material you assign inside out can't
seem to hold a casual conversation with a classmate.
Here's the good news. You can often build on that child's
strengths to help him modify his "out of the norm" behaviors and
make a lot of positive contributions to your class.
That's really the bottom line for you: finding ways to make the
year a good experience for every child in the room, including
the one with AS -- and, of course, for you.
You can't discount your needs in the process. So let's make them
a priority, too. First, you may want to learn a bit more about
Asperger Syndrome. One of the most user-friendly sources is the
It's run by a non-profit "education network" with a lot of
clear, easy to access information. Their "What Is Asperger
Syndrome?" page is a great concise overview of AS. Your school
counselors may also have information or may be able to put you
in touch with other teachers who've had experience with AS.
Once you understand a bit about AS, a child's parents often can
help you understand how it affects him or her. You're not asking
them to tell you how to teach, you're looking for accurate
information that can help you determine ways to successfully
direct and motivate their child. You and the parents may even be
able to cooperate to identify behaviors a child needs to work on
and reinforce them at home and at school.
For example, many kids with AS are impulsive. You may teach a
student who loves class participation, but has trouble sensing
when she should stop talking and give someone else a chance. You
might work out some signals that only the two of you and her
parents know (like putting your hand to your chin as if you're
considering what's being said or walking to stand right in front
of that student's desk) that cue her it's time to stop talking.
If you have a student with AS who is especially eager to
participate, you may want to routinely call on that student
first or second, so he isn't coming out of his chair in his
eagerness to contribute.
Kids with AS often need structure and respond best when they
have clear, consistent direction. Some teachers find it works to
write the homework on the blackboard in the same place every
day, announce tests well in advance and routinely remind the
class of the dates when longer term projects are due. Such
techniques usually benefit the entire class.
There are lots of specific things you can do, but the most
important thing is your approach. Your approach is the magic
bullet that can help the entire class learn one of the lessons
that matters most to all of us: how to accept and get along with
a variety of people.
When I was in elementary school, we had a category on our report
cards called, "citizenship." There are all sorts of outside
pressures that tear at the kind of behavior that got you an "A"
is citizenship. TV commercials routinely encourage viewers to be
greedy with their products. The message: if you want to be cool,
keep the best stuff for yourself -- people who care about other
people are suckers. Commercials that target kids also talk a lot
about having "attitude," in a way that confuses confidence with
arrogance and selfishness. Comedians casually toss around the
word "retarded" as an insult.
Teachers can serve as a powerful role model to counteract these
negative influences. Having a child with Asperger Syndrome in
your class gives you the chance to show your students that
people who have challenges can also have strengths. That in
looking past someone's quirks, you can find someone worth
knowing. That life is richer if you don't solely interact with
kids who are like clones of yourself.
Academics can be a bridge. My son has Asperger Syndrome and was
not sought after for teams on the playground. But back in class,
kids would eagerly seek to get Drew on their academic teams
because he routinely knew the right answers. That's not to say
every kid with AS is an academic whiz, but most have special
interests and strengths.
The first signal to a class on how to treat a kid with Asperger
Syndrome often comes from the teacher. If students sense that a
teacher is impatient and critical of an AS student's behaviors,
it's like declaring open season to ignore or tease him -- in and
out of class. Approach that student with patience and respect,
and you've set that tone for everyone else. It can mean the
world to some kids with AS just to have other kids say, "Hello."
One of the key issues you may face is helping a student tell the
rest of the class about Asperger Syndrome. Whether or not to
disclose a disability is a decision for the student and his
parents. If they decide to tell the class, you can play an
important role in treating AS as just another one of those
differences that we all have. In my experience, other kids are
more likely to give a student who has some odd behaviors the
benefit of the doubt if they know the reason.
A student might choose to talk with the class himself about AS,
or his parents might make a presentation or bring in a
psychologist or other expert. Some kids with AS want to be in
the room for such a presentation and some don't.
If you take part, here's a tip I picked up. It's a good idea to
write "Asperger Syndrome" on the board and pronounce it for the
class right off the bat. This makes it less likely that some
comic in your class will hear the name as "Ass Burger" and have
a field day with it. You might even mention that the condition
is named after a Viennese doctor named Hans Asperger who
identified the syndrome more than 50 years ago.
I find kids are interested to know that Dan Aykroyd from
Saturday Night Live has disclosed in interviews that he has
Asperger Syndrome. There's a fair amount of speculation that
people such as Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart, and Isaac Newton had AS. Even though no one can
prove historical figures had the syndrome, I think it's fair to
note that these folks all had documented behaviors which are
common to people with AS. The point is not to suggest that every
kid with AS is a genius, but that people with AS can have a
range of talents.
Having a kid with Asperger Syndrome in your class may be the
greatest opportunity in your career to change a student's life
for the better. My son's about to head off for his senior year
of college, and my wife and I always enjoy getting the chance to
visit with some of the great teachers he's had along the way to
let them know how he's doing - and thank them.
Here's thanking you for reading this article and for being
interested in helping that kid in your class who needs something
extra to make it.
He'll remember you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Dan Coulter is the producer of the
videos "ASPERGER SYNDROME: Success in the Mainstream Classroom"
and "INTRICATE MINDS: Understanding Classmates with Asperger
Syndrome." You can find more articles on his website:
Copyright 2005 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved. Used by
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