“A student with Asperger” are words that can bring fear into the heart of the most seasoned teacher. Why are they in my class? Where did they all come from? What am I to do? These questions have very complex answers that often do not feel like answers at all and when all is said and done the student is still yours to deal with.
I began my career as a school psychologist in Detroit and then moved on to what was then the country’s largest school for students with autism, Burger School in Garden City, Michigan. That is where I received my first exposure to Asperger and where I learned what I know about these children.
Asperger is a form of autism. The diagnostic difference is that children with Asperger don’t have speech delays. In fact, they can sometimes sound like little professors. They are also usually of average to above average intelligence (although there might be areas in which they are not typical and other areas in which they are above average). They can learn easily, especially when it is an area of interest. They often like to learn facts about their favorite subjects and share those facts with everyone. They just as often do not want to spend their time on subjects that do not interest them. They are socially awkward or uninterested or shunned or all of the above. Sometimes this bothers them and sometimes they are quite content with being alone. Sometimes they have meltdowns or irrational fears (I knew one student who was afraid of lint and another who was afraid of the color yellow). Sometimes their biggest concern is for changes in routine. They often seem completely self-involved and will not work for praise or the usual sorts of social rewards that other children do.
If it seems like the word “sometimes” has made the whole subject a little vague and uncertain, it is. The reason these things are “sometimes” is that all children with Asperger/Autism are as individual as any other student. They all share common autism characteristics but for one child it might be the narrow, restricted range of interest that is at the forefront and for another student it is an unexpected change in routine that throws them into a tail spin. For yet another it is sensory input such as loud noises or the close proximity of other students. And for all students they are better able to cope on some days than on others. For that reason it is imperative that you figure out your student’s “flavor” of autism.
If your student has problems because of changes in routine then a schedule of activities is often necessary for them. Some students need a daily reminder of activities while others will be okay with a weekly reminder. These schedules can be attached with Velcro to their desks and can be carried with them if needed. Also, there should be room in that schedule for breaks (listed, as well). These students don’t do well with not knowing what is next so that even if there is a change in routine it will help them a great deal if you can point out that math is still next or reading. Also, some time should be devoted to teaching them how to behave and what to do if there is a change in routine. Expectations for these students should be spelled out in a systematic way. For example, you might list:
1. Remember we talked about possible changes in routine and this is one of them.
2. We will go back to the regular schedule as soon as this assembly/fire drill/speaker is over.
3. I will be okay with the change and will cooperate.
4. I will ask for help in dealing with things if I need it.
5. I will be allowed to carry a favorite object or sit by someone that is calming for me.
6. I will be allowed a break with a favorite activity when this is over.
Strategies for the student whose Asperger is more about an obsessive interest are somewhat less structured but must be just as consistent. These students often have a surprising ability to shift a conversation back to their interest area within one or two conversational exchanges, regardless of the subject. Again, the direct approach is really the only approach with these students. They do not pick up on or often care about subtle suggestions about behavior. You must have a conversation with them about expectations and then remind them about those expectations when they slip up. However, you must also allow them some time when it is okay to talk about their subject. This can take the form of a reward. For example, I knew one student whose special interest was Pokemon. A reward for not obsessing and talking about Pokemon and maybe not doing work during specific lesson times would be to allow time at the end of the day when they have your undivided interest for five minutes (set a timer, you will need it) where they can tell you whatever they want. You can also allow them one statement about Pokemon before answering a question about math or language arts. You will not eradicate that interest but you can find ways to make it work for students instead of against them.
Perhaps the most controversial and difficult behavioral element of Autism/Asperger is their response to sensory stimuli. This was the most difficult for me to come to terms with as a psychologist. We were taught that behavior could be addressed by a strictly behavior modification approach with rewards and consequences. This is still basically true. However, the sensory issues associated with autism are often so overwhelming for the student that there is no other reward or consequence that can compete with those needs. Sensory issues are also so varied and variable that they often seem incomprehensible. All students with autism will have some sensory problems, on some days. What can be helpful is a thorough assessment of what these issues might be for that student. This assessment can be done by your occupational therapist or school psychologist and will let you know whether your student is trying to avoid stimuli or is seeking it and whether they are avoiding in one sensory system or seeking it in another. From that information the occupational therapist should be able to offer up a “sensory diet” of strategies to be used to help regulate that student’s sensory systems before behaviors occur. For example, often the playground is a sensory overload of stimuli. Therefore, after recess (or recess can be taken in a quiet area for that student) he might return to the classroom and have a transitional time where he can deliver a folder to the office, take a walk around the school, walk to the end of the hall or read a book for five minutes before being expected to sit down to desk work. As you address those self-regulatory issues for the student, behaviors should decrease.
Whatever your student’s flavor of autism it will require diligence on your part, a real knowledge of how your student works and direct instruction in areas that are usually learned incidentally by your other students. In the process, however, you may find that these strategies benefit all of your students and make for a much better learning experience.
Author: Juanita Dotson, Sp.A., School Psychologist, Washington County School District