Aspergers syndrome (AS) is a development disorder on the austic spectrum. The difficulties caused by the condition are there from birth or soon after and continue throughout their lives, although people often learn to cope better as they get older.
It affects approximately 1 pupil in every 250, and the majority of those are boys.
The average age for diagnosis for Aspergers syndrome is 9, however it is entirely possible for some individuals to remain undiagnosed well into adulthood.
Pupils with AS typically have a low average to higher IQ but comparatively low social awareness of others’ feelings and thoughts, struggling to “read” facial expressions and body language. They have difficulties in communicating effectively, often having problems interacting with adults and other pupils appropriately and adhering to the “unwritten” social rules which come naturally to other pupils.
Each pupil with AS will be different. Some will be very quiet, others noisy and “in your face”. What unites each one is a fundamental difficultly in the understanding of other pupils and peers—and an ability to behave in a way that will make them make friends and keep friends easily.
Having Aspergers syndrome (AS) does not affect someone’s physical appearance. The signs of whether a pupil has the syndrome are evident in their pattern of behaviour—this requires careful observation.—Aspergers syndrome is common than generally realised.
A pupil with AS may display some of the following signs. –
- Struggle to make and maintain friends of the same age—due to poor social skills, or show little interest in others
- Find it hard to understand instructions—unless very clearly spelt out, have difficultly completing class work or homework, despite reasonable intelligence.
- Often they are a potential target for bullying or teasing because of the way they appear and react to other pupils. Or do they act aggressively towards other pupils?
- Find unstructured times—such as lunchtimes difficult to cope with, for example sitting on their own, or withdrawing from groups.
- Show a poor awareness of others, and how they are affected by their behaviour—for example not sharing or making inappropriate comments, talking too loudly or over re-acting to losing a game.
- Find changes in routine difficult to cope with—for example getting annoyed at having a supply teacher or having to change classrooms—Are they quite concerned if things don’t happen in a set order?
- Find group activities difficult—for example because they have poor social skills or want things doing their way!
- Often appears anxious in busy, social situations—for example in the dining hall or during PE
- Have body language which makes them stand out—for example they stand awkwardly, lack spontaneity in gestures or displays limited or unusual facial expressions?
- Their tone of voice
- Communicate, using words or phrases that are unlike those of their peers.
- Exhibits behaviours or interests that make them stand out from other pupils in their class.
An Alien Culture
Imagine being suddenly being in place where the people seem different to you, where you are always in danger of breaking social rules you don’t understand, and where you struggle to interact with those around you who seem to find it easy. – This is what it feels like to be a pupil in school the Aspergers.—BEWILDERING
As soon as we meet someone we make all sorts of judgments. Just by looking we can often guess their age or status, and by their expression, what they are feeling. This enables us to know what to say and how to say it. Sometimes we do this subconsciencly. This ability most people have, is the one central communication difficultly that pupils with AS have.
Often pupils with AS are lacking in motor skills, and will often be considered clumsy, this is reflected in their dislike for physical games at school.
It is recognized however that pupils with AS are keen to engage in social interaction and in many cases these social skills can be learned in the same way as other pupils learn practical skills. Pupils with AS often also have difficulties with emotional feelings, they tend to demonstrate concrete thinking and find it more difficult than non AS pupils to form relationships/friendships.
- Be patient! – A few pupils will seem aloof ( avoid eye contact), rude or disinterested. This is rarely the case. Pupils with AS usually do not have the basic social understanding to realise how they “appear” to others.
- Be clear in communication! – say exactly what you mean. Anything merely implied will not be understood—for example, asking “would you like to get your work out now?” may get the very honest (but unintentionally annoying) answer “NO!”
- Slow down your communication—allow several seconds for pupils to process new information and to respond before giving them more information, or repeat your request.
- Keep language direct—avoid use of double meanings, teasing, subtle jokes or multiple questions, unless you are sure the pupil understands. Ensure you also have full eye contact—this can be difficult but try.
- Do not “talk” down to the pupil, but ensure they know what they have to do—Don’t assume he understands, just because he can repeat back the instruction just given to him processing information tends to be harder for pupils with AS.
- Do not confront an angry/upset pupil by arguing or raising your voice, many pupils with AS are sensitive to noise and raising your voice will not help the pupil understand what you want. Instead try to divert and diffuse the situation—for example allow the pupil to give an alternative choice or compromise if possible. Use a calm, neutral tone, don’t expect the pupil to be able to read facial expressions or gestures. If there is no room for compromise then make your request a couple of times, allowing plenty of time for the pupil to process the information, then calmly, with few words implement the consequences of non-compliance (which the pupil should have already been told).
- Keep 1 1/2 arm length distance between you and the pupil—do not invade their personal space when trying to defuse a difficult situation. Many pupils with AS are sensitive to an invasion of space and may lash out if their anxiety levels rise.
- Most difficulties occur as a result of insufficient information being given to the pupil or member of staff about what to do in different social situations. So it is imperative that they know what is expected of them, for example where they should be for each lesson period, how to negotiate the school site, what homework is expected of them, where to go at break times or lunchtimes if being in the playground causes too much stress. And for staff , to react to, difficult to manage behavior
- Ensure that there is an “EXIT” route available if a pupil has behavior difficulties in class, for example, a quiet room they can go to when stress levels get too high.
This is a good straight forward and useful way to support a pupil with Aspergers syndrome. It involves carefully selecting a small group of sensible pupils to “look out” for the person with Aspergers.
The form of support will depend on the pupils needs, for example—helping the pupil at break and lunchtimes, ensuring that they get to the next class on time or reminding them about homework, or just being a walking home buddy to prevent bullying.
Understanding Aspergers Syndrome and forming some practical ways to cope can be very rewarding, both for you and the pupil with AS: below are some suggestions for getting along together.
Basic Traits of Aspergers Syndrome
They may have
- Difficulty in communicating
- Difficulty within social relationships
- A lack of imagination and creative play.
They may also be extremely
- Clever at something (such as computers)
- Very knowledgeable about something (such as dinosaurs or trains)
- Well-mannered, well-meaning and have a good sense of humour.
Things to ask yourself
- How am I speaking to this pupil?
- Would I say this in the same way to a non AS pupil
- Does this pupil know WHY I am asking them to DO/NOT do something?
- Do I need to give more information?
- Am I being clear without patronising?
Socialising with others
Sometime pupils with AS may ask or say things that other pupils or teachers may feel are inappropriate or too personal, odd or even bizarre. It is important to understand that this is not done on purpose or to annoy or cause upset to others, but merely based on a lack of understanding about accepted rules of conversation. It may help to provide the pupil with AS a list of inappropriate topics of conversation, alongside a list of appropriate topics. It may also be helpful for teachers to provide AS pupils with some key “opening phrases” which can be used to start a conversation.
Pupils with AS usually like structure and routine and can find breaks and lunchtime difficult to manage, because these are usually unstructured “social” times. It may be helpful for teachers to introduce “structure” such as—
- Bringing a book or magazine to read
- Going for a short walk each day after lunch
- Doing a crossword or puzzle
- Being allowed to sit in the library or other quiet room
- During breaks and at lunchtime
- Perhaps helping with a specific job or role
Obsessions and rituals
Pupils with AS may have obsessions and /or rituals, which are part of their everyday life. Sometimes these obsessions or rituals affect their work, and can irate or upset fellow pupils. If this happens constructive strategies may need to be introduced by teachers to overcome problems. An example of this behaviour is pacing up and down the classroom without apparent purpose, – in this case the pupil could be asked to take a note to the teacher even if the note is just a blank piece of paper. If the behaviour appears to have a point it can be rendered less disruptive to the other pupils in the classroom.
Understanding social expectations
This is an area that pupils with AS have most difficulty with. Things that other pupils take for granted can be seen to a pupil with AS as “unwritten rules”. For example some pupils may “take turns” to collect homework assignments for everybody. This is an “unwritten rule”, but for someone with AS, they may not take their turn and this can cause distress and appear to be unsocial able or deliberately awkward.
Giving and receiving instructions—Be clear and concise when giving instructions in a class group, you may need to reinforce what you have explained until you are satisfied that the instruction have been understood fully—Ambiguity can cause a great deal of anxiety for a pupil with AS—in short;
- Don’t assume they know what to do
- Don’t shout instructions
- Be aware that verbal instructions may not always be adequate written instructions can sometimes be more beneficial
- Try not to give instructions when the pupil is busy or concentrating on something else.
- It may be beneficial to ask the pupil to repeat what they have just been shown or told
Make sure everyone giving instructions is consistent; don’t confuse a pupil with AS with variations on original instructions.
Remembering those instructions
Pupils with AS are prone to asking numerous questions relating to tasks they have been asked to do. This is their way of checking that they are doing their job properly, and whilst it can be both frustrating and time consuming, a useful strategy is to get the pupil to write down the answer in their file or workbook, as you give it. That way if the question is asked again they can be redirected to their note. This is useful to cut down on interruptions and can also promote confidence in the pupil with AS. Over a period of time the pupil will become familiar with the information in their notes and will refer to those first instead of asking questions all the time in lesson time.
Many pupils with AS have difficulty in organising themselves effectively in the classroom. Again written guidelines can be very helpful. It may not be obvious to a pupil that they do not need 3 pencils when 1 will be sufficient. Also by helping a pupil to organise there desk space to help reduce stress and lead to more efficient working
Many pupils with AS will have difficulty in planning their day and cannot see how they can “fit” all the work tasks they have been assigned to do in the time available. For example a “visual” time table of tasks to be completed and deadlines may be helpful
Feedback—Teachers need to be prepared to give feedback which is honest, consistent and constructive. As pupils with AS are not proficient at reading social cues and picking up the “unwritten rules” in the classroom and playground, they will assume that their performance is acceptable unless explicitly told otherwise.
- If you ask a pupil with AS not to do something, you also need to tell them what they should be doing instead, for example saying “stop that” or “don’t so that” gives no useful indication as to “how” they might change their behaviour.
- Terms such as “silly “ or “naughty” are unsuitable
- It is important to have inappropriate behaviour pointed out
- Tell the pupil in a clam and clear manner—as soon after the event as possible—what is inappropriate and “suggest” constructive alternative behaviour.
- Getting to know the person the pupil with AS will help you gauge the effectiveness of your feedback.
- Pupils with AS can really benefit if you are able to be open about and social slip-ups they have made.
Pupils with AS think and learn differently. Therefore they require a different approach and this may mean a different application of the rules on occasions.
This is not an excuse poor behaviour. But is an understanding that punishing a pupil with AS is often “counter-productive” since their behaviour difficulties usually stem from their lack of “real understanding”.
For example, aggressive behaviour can more often be related to anxiety from an inability to understand the behaviour and motives of other people around them. Attention seeking behaviour is often about feeling left out from being unable to follow the subtleties of everyday social interaction and jokes going on around them.
This is a common occurrence and is rarely the result of poor parenting.
The over-riding physical state for most pupils with AS is anxiety. This anxiety is a result of trying to constantly keep up with teachers’ demands as well as other pupils jokes and conversations.
It can be difficult for teachers who have not come across AS before, to appreciate the level of anxiety especially as many pupils have learned to develop a superficial veneer of coping—appearing to “fit in” socially in order to avoid being labelled “odd” or “difficult” because many pupils with AS are keeping up with school work.
However, many pupils explain that by the time they get home or to school they are feeling stressed, angry and worn out. These true feeling inevitably come out as “bad behaviour” and a way of “venting” their frustrations!
Pupils with AS are highly individual, the same as everybody else, and therefore what works for one pupil with AS will not necessarily work for another. Remember pupils with AS
- Want to get on with their classmates—they may need help doing this
- Want to do things well
- Want to fit in
- Are no more likely to deliberately wind teachers up than the other pupils in the class
- While a pupil with AS may appear different, they have feelings just like you and will always respond to help, support and friendship.