Understanding the Literacy Difficulties of Students with Asperger's Syndrome in Middle Years' Classrooms

By Mercer, K. Louise | Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Literacy Difficulties of Students with Asperger's Syndrome in Middle Years' Classrooms


Mercer, K. Louise, Literacy Learning: The Middle Years


Introduction

Many students experience difficulties with academic learning. In Australian schools, estimates indicate that 10 to 20 per cent of students face such challenges (Westwood & Graham, 2000). Among these students are children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (World Health Organization (WHO), 2007) or, as it is known in North America, Asperger's Disorder (American Psychiatric Association (APA), 2000).

Although recent epidemiology studies indicate that the prevalence of Asperger's syndrome (AS) within the general population is fairly stable (Fombonne, 2005; Prior, 2003), more and more children are being diagnosed during their school years. This apparent increase is most likely due to a growing awareness of the disorder, improved identification procedures, and an increase in the provision of services for affected children and their families (MacDermott, Williams, Ridley, Glasson & Wray, 2007). Estimates of prevalence rates within the general population vary widely from a low of 0.4 in every 1,000 children (Lauritsen, Pedersen & Mortensen, 2004), through 4.8 in every 1,000 children (Kadesjo, Gillberg & Nagberg, 1999), to a high of approximately 1 in every 250 children (Atwood, 2007). At present, approximately four boys are diagnosed for every girl diagnosed. This imbalance may be due to girls' greater abilities to camouflage their differences in social settings (Attwood, 2007).

Whether Asperger's syndrome is an increasingly prevalent disorder among students or not (MacDermott et al., 2007), many teachers are becoming increasingly familiar with the perplexing challenges faced by these students. As a consequence, many classroom teachers are looking for specific guidance in teaching and supporting these students in inclusive classrooms (Jones, 2006; Marks, Shaw-Hegwer, Schrader, Longlaker et al., 2003).

What is Asperger's syndrome?

Asperger's syndrome is a complex, life-long, pervasive developmental disorder presumed to be neurobiological in origin and which affects an individual's communication skills, social understanding and behavioural functioning. The syndrome was first described by Hans Asperger, a Viennese physician, in 1944, but did not receive much attention until described by British psychiatrist, Lorna Wing in 1981 and subsequently included in the World Health Organization's International classification of diseases (ICD-10) in 1993 and the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994 (APA, 2000; Attwood, 2007; Lerner & Kline, 2006; WHO, 1993).

Asperger's syndrome is sometimes described as mild or 'high-functioning' autism (Macintosh & Dissanayake, 2004), but it is important to recognise that a student with Asperger's syndrome has a learning and behavioural profile that is very different from a student who has been diagnosed with Autism or Autistic Disorder (Attwood, 1998). Although students with Asperger's syndrome do not have clinically significant delays in cognition or general language development, they do have communicative, social and functional impairments. This triad of impairments constitutes the core element of a diagnosis. In addition to these areas of impairment, many students also present with motor co-ordination and sensory difficulties (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Attwood, 2007).

Although researchers and clinicians continue to debate the characteristics that are consistently displayed by individuals with Asperger's syndrome (Klin, Volkmar & Sparrow, 2000), it is generally agreed that the common characteristics include the following (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Attwood, 2007; Barnhill, Cook, Tebbenkamp & Myles, 2002; Conway, 2005; Cumine, Leach & Stevenson, 1998; Mercer, 2008; Myles & Simpson, 2002):

Communication difficulties

Have speech and language peculiarities that may include odd prosody (rhythm); tend to be long-winded and pedantic; have difficulties communicating with peers (i. …

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