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Asperger's Syndrome - the Highest Functioning End of the Autism Spectrum

Social and Executive Function Weaknesses Impede Academic and Social Success

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Asperger's Syndrome - the Highest Functioning End of the Autism Spectrum

Students with Asperger's Syndrome learn from projects

Websterlearning

Asperger's Syndrome exists at the highest end of the autism spectrum. Children with Asperger's have excellent language and often good academic behavior which may mask the very real difficulties they have in academic situations. Often they are not diagnosed, or diagnosed late in their academic career, because their difficulties in social situations haven't stopped them from succeeding academically. Their lack of good social skills and understanding of social interaction eventually inhibit their ability to function in upper elementary and middle school settings, where their academic skills often outshine their social challenges. They are frequently found in inclusive settings because of their ability to function well in academic settings, but challenge the general education teachers who teach them.

Areas of High Interest and High Ability

The movie Rain Man familiarized the American public with the notion of the "idiot savant." Although a fairly infrequent occurrance, "savantism" may appear in children with autism or with Asperger's Syndrome. The hyper-focus or perseveration on specific top is typical of students diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Children may exhibit exceptional ability in language or math, and may have areas of extraordinary ability. I had one student who could tell you what day of the week your birthday might be in 5 or 10 years without referring to a calendar. Students may also have extraordinary knowledge about a specific topic, such as dinosaurs or vintage movies.

This hyperfocus or perseveration may actually be the result of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which is not uncommon in children with Asperger's disorder. Physicians often can use appropriate medication to help manage the obsessive behavior and help students re-focus on a broader range of information and interests.

Social Deficits

One of truly human skills that children on the spectrum seem to lack is "joint attention," the ability to join with other humans in attending to what they find important. Another deficit is in the area of "theory of mind," the innate ability that most human organisms have to project their own emotional and intellectual processes onto other human beings. Early in development, typically developing children respond to their mothers' faces and early on learn to respond to their parents' moods. Children on the Autism Spectrum do not. Children with Asperger's syndrome often long to develop relationships, especially with peers. Since most children with Asperger's Syndrome are boys, they are especially interested in how to relate to the opposite sex.

Many children with disabilities have weak social skills. They all benefit from social skill training, but none as much as children on the autism spectrum. They lack emotional literacy, and need explicit instruction in how to recognize and manage different emotional states. Tantrums are frequent in young children with Asperger's Syndrome, because they do not know how express their frustration nor how to negotiate with parents, siblings or peers. "Use your words" is often the mantra with students with Asperger's Syndrome, and often the challenge is teach them the skills they need to express their wants and needs.

Executive Function Deficits

Children with Asperger's Syndrome often have weak "Executive Function." Executive function is the cognitive ability to visualize and plan ahead. It includes the short term ability to understand the steps needed to complete a task. Long term it involves the ability to anticipate the many steps that may be required to graduate from high school, to complete a degree, even to follow through on a science fair project. Because these children are often very bright, they may be able over-compensate in elementary or middle school for their lack of ability to visualize, anticipate and prepare for future eventualities. Children with extraordinary potential may end up as the 30 year old still in his or her own bedroom because they have not been able to prioritize and then master each of the steps necessary to get to a final goal.

Gross and Fine Motor Skills

Students with Asperger's Syndrome often have poor balance and poor gross motor skills. This can become exaggerated as they grow older because they often prefer watching television or using the computer to athletic activities. The preference may come from poor over all coordination rather than a learned preference.

These same students may also have poor fine motor skills and may dislike using pencils and scissors. They may be very hard to motivate to writ. Unless students with Asperger's are really motivated to learn to write "long hand", they should not be forced to learn to write in cursive. Keyboarding on a computer may also be a better investment of time than stressing handwriting.

Academic Deficits

Students with Asperger's syndromes often have areas of great strength and areas of academic weakness. Some students have strong academic deficits across the board, from language to math, and are often diagnosed late because their obvious intelligence and academic performance, challenged by deficits in social skills and executive function, struggle to perform in academic settings.

English/Language Arts: Often students with strong language may struggle to develop the skills that they need to do well in English and Language Arts. Often they have strong vocabularies, especially when they have strong interests that they have read about. Some students with Asperger's gain strong vocabularies because they "script," or repeat entire movies they have heard.

Children with Asperger's with strong language skills often exhibit good reading skills, but not always are good readers. Once students reach fourth grade, they are expected to answer "higher level thinking" questions, such as questions that ask students to synthesize or analyze what they have read (as in Bloom's Taxonomy.) They may be able to answer questions at the lowest level, "Remember," but not questions that ask them to analyze ("What made that a good idea?") or synthesis ("If you were Hugo, where would you look?")

Because of executive function and short term memory challenges, students with Asperger's syndrome often face challenges with writing. They may have difficulty remembering how to spell, they may forget writing conventions such as punctuation and capitalization, and they may face fine motor challenges that make them reluctant to write.

Math: Children with strong language or reading skills may have poor math skills, or vice versa. Some children are "savants" when it comes to math, memorizing math facts quickly and seeing relationships between numbers and solving problems. Other children may have poor short and long term memory and may struggle with learning math facts.

In all or any case, teachers need to learn to recognize students strengths and needs, using strengths to identify ways to approach deficits and build their over all functional and academic skills.

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