Supporting Students with Asperger's Syndrome in General Education
Safran, Joan S., Teaching Exceptional Children
In Honors classes, Gary's academic achievement is strong. He is not a bully. In fact, he doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He has been selling candy and helping at car washes for the past 2 years earning money for the traditional eighth-grade trip to Washington, DC, but as the trip approaches, an obstacle appears. None of the other boys wants to room with him. The outcome: He can't go.
This scenario, heartbreaking to families and teachers who care, is a familiar one for people with Asperger's syndrome. Identified by Austrian Hans Asperger in 1944, but only recently gaining prominence in the educational community (Safran, S. P., 2001; Wing, 1981), this neurologically based, autism-spectrum disorder significantly affects social perception, interactions, language, and nonverbal communication. With average to superior intellectual capacity, the child with Asperger's looks typical but lacks the social awareness and skills needed to connect with his or her world.
This article provides educators with strategies that will help children practice and learn the classroom and life rules that many students naturally acquire; moreover, these strategies represent good teaching practices that benefit all children.
What Is Asperger's Syndrome?
The most "official" definition of Asperger's in the United States comes from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV of Mental Disorders (DSM IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) and the DSM IV Text Revision (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). A diagnosis requires that four of five listed criteria be present, including at least two indicators of a qualitative disability in social interaction (e.g., serious impairments in peer relationships, social reciprocity, nonverbal behaviors, empathy) and at least one in the category of restricted interest and stereotyped behaviors or rituals (e.g., rigid adherence to rules or routine, preoccupation with a narrow interest, parts or objects, repetitive motor movements; also see diagnostic checklists: Ehlers, Gillberg, & Wing, 1999; Myles, Bock, & Simpson, 2001).
The child with Asperger's may move into the personal space of others, failing to recognize body language and even verbal cues that he or she has transgressed. Friends and new acquaintances alike may be acknowledged with tight and enthusiastic hugs. Bypassing typical greetings like "Hi, how are you?" the student may launch into a diatribe on the latest topic of concern. This narrow special interest (e.g., Civil War maritime strategies, accuracy of train schedules) may be age-inappropriate (e.g., "Power Rangers" cartoons at age 16) or boring, but the child continues to elucidate, oblivious to disinterest, "looks," or snickers from the group.
Tony Attwood (1999), a noted expert on Asperger's syndrome, remarked that while the child with Asperger's is talking, "I could leave, go make a cup of tea and come back and he would never know I had gone." Although there is no clinically significant delay in language development or cognitive abilities, there may be speech and language peculiarities. The child's language may be stilted and formal; his or her voice may be monotone or much too loud. It has been said that while the autistic child lives in a world of his own, the child with Asperger's lives in his world but within ours. Lacking both the skills to blend in and the visible disability that might signal a need for understanding, this child is truly alone.
Although relatively few students with Asperger's have been formally recognized, growing awareness and attention in the educational community will likely lead to significantly increased identification. The emerging literature on interventions primarily addresses the structure and potential of a variety of individual and group social-skills therapies. But given their intellectual ability and range of social impairment from mild to profound, most students remain in general classes, some with full-time one-to-one aides or other "official" inclass supports; others without any formal special education recognition. …