Children with Asperger's Syndrome offer special challenges to general education teachers. Often they have excellent academic skills and need to spend most of their day in a general education class to best access the general education curriculum and also to enjoy FAPE (A Free and Appropriate Public Education) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Still, their challenges fall in the following areas:
- Sensory needs
- Hyper-focus on preferred subject
- Poor executive function
- Low frustration level
Students with Aspergers, like all children on the autism spectrum, face challenges with processing sensory input. They often have "hyper-sensitivities" which make them intolerant of certain sensory input, such as the labels in the collars of shirts, the waistbands in pants with belts and snaps, high pitched noise, any noise, bright lights or other environmental factors.
Paying attention to how your students with Asperger's syndrome respond to these sensory inputs will help you avoid or modify the impact of these stimuli. Students may become overwhelmed or distracted by sensory inputs, and seating away from distractions or using study carrels can help these students manage their level of arousal.
Some students with Asperger's syndrome also have "hypo-sensitivities" and may appear very tolerant to certain sensory inputs, like loud noises, rough surfaces, cold or heat. This is only problematic when their tolerance to sensory input creates noises that disrupt your classroom. These students are not "being bad:" they often are unaware of the disruption their activity or loud noises are creating. It is usually only a matter of giving them feedback: "Please don't make that high pitched noise in the classroom. It makes it hard for the other students to study."
Sensory inputs for calming: Many students with Asperger's respond well to sensory input as a way to calm themselves down before they can refocus to complete assignments. Observation may provide input: some students are chewers and may benefit from a little surgical tubing at the end of a pencil. Other students may benefit from a couple of wooden "worry beads" on a string in their pockets. A pilates ball in the reading corner rather than a bean bag may also provide sensory integration, though it is important to guage whether it might in fact over stimulate a student.
Hyper-focus on a Preferred Subject
Students with Asperger's may at first strike you as brilliant, until you realize that they tend to dwell on a single subject. The challenge is to use their interest to scaffold interest in other topics. A student who loves dinosaurs? Why are certain parts of the country rich depositories for fossils, like Utah? That can lead to an exploration into earth science. How do they know that dinosaurs are more like birds than reptiles? That can lead to an exploration of life science.
Helping students with Asperger's syndrome envision their future can help motivate them in areas of less interest: do they want to be a paleontologist ? What kind of educational program do they pursue in college? Do you need good math skills (of course, measurement is key to understanding fossils and their relationship to prior discoveries.
Let your student with Asperger shine, on occasion, in their area of interest. Schedule a presentation, permit them to show part of a favorite (appropriate) video. If you show respect for their area of expertise, they are more likely to return the respect when you are studying the American Revolution or learning to read maps.
Poor Executive Function
Executive function is a cognitive skill that many students on the spectrum lack. It may be quite surprising when your "little professor" has difficulty remembering to turn in his field trip money, or leaves his lunch on the playground. It may also get in the way of completing assignments or participating appropriately in class projects.
Many students with Asperger's syndrome are visual learners, and will benefit from graphic organizers and work charts. These need not be particularly elaborate systems. I once used a simple "gym ticket" to help a student focus on what he needed to do in gym at the top of the ticket: 1) Follow directions, 2) Stay with the class 3)Dress quickly and get to your spot on the gym floor. The student was, unlike most middle school students, un-self-conscious about wearing it around his neck. He presented it to the teacher for feedback at the end of each class, and went from the student who needed a classroom aide to succeed in gym to the child with an A in gym. Visible, tangible reminders like these help students with Asperger's syndrome overcome their deficit in the area of executive function.
Low Frustration Level
Students with Asperger's Syndrome may seem like little professors until they have a full blown tantrum. Their frustration threshold may remain low, even as they get into high school. One of the things they need to become responsible for is learning how to calm themselves down. These might include:
- Asking for a break. Keep a dollar store timer handy: it need not be longer than five minutes. I also like a "Time Timer" as it is silent, helps students visually see how much time they have left, and it doesn't disrupt other students in the class.
- Go on an errand. Some teachers with students on the spectrum will keep a basket of messages to take to the office or books to return to the library. They can even be "fools errands" if they give the child a sense of importance and give him or her a chance to decompress.
- Writing or drawing about what frustrates them. Students can fold a paper in half and write or draw what frustrates them on the left side and their solution to the problem on the right side.
It's also wise to attempt to avoid the things that frustrate them. Adapt assignments by cutting the number of problems the child needs to do. I have one student who finds that he is better able to handle a page of math if he folds it in half, does the top, takes a five minute break to look at a favorite book, and then finishes the bottom half.
Homework: this is a royal battlefield for students with Asperger's. They may feel that the fact you gave them homework effectively makes you an invader on his or her home turf. Brenda Myles Smith, a world renowned authority on Asperger's Syndrome has a hard and fast rule: no more than 30 minutes homework for student with Asperger's. Start with a smaller amount of homework and work up: in middle school I consider homework more as a way to get them ready for high school homework than a truly important part of their academic program.
Working with students with Asperger's can be a real joy. They are bright and have a quirky way of looking at and experiencing the world. They have difficulty with change and can seem terrifically inflexible. You need to stay flexible for them. Celebrate their successes with them, especially social successes, when they succeed in making and maintaining friendships, when they participate appropriately in collaborative groups and remember to use the courteous speech that makes for friendships. Hopefully, whether you are resource room teacher, a autism specialist or a general education teacher, you will learn to appreciate this special population.