Students with Asperger's Syndrome Need Help and Understanding

By Hoffmann-Zak, Karen | Teach, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Students with Asperger's Syndrome Need Help and Understanding


Hoffmann-Zak, Karen, Teach


Ever come across a child who seems to know everything and nothing at the same time? This is the child who puts up his hand at every question. His knowledge and its expression seem vast, encyclopedic, and-like a dam about to burst its banks-almost unstoppable. Then, you ask him to prepare a presentation with a group of classmates. He crumbles. He cannot work in a group, compromise, or take turns. Insults, hurt feelings, tears often result.

Who is this child? How can you help him to maximize his potential and minimize his problems?

As schools become increasingly integrated and as the rise in autistic youth continues, teachers learn more about autistic students. Many are non-verbal and intellectually challenged. What teachers may not realize is that at the upper end of the autistic spectrum are Mr. and Ms. Encyclopedia-an estimated one of every 300 youth-with Asperger's Syndrome. These students are typically average or above average in intelligence but below average in social and emotional maturity due to a brain abnormality-a neurological disorder.

"What these kids are missing is the script of life," said Margot Nelles, founder and executive director of the Asperger's Society of Ontario. "Their biggest problem is knowing what's expected of them. You may look at this kid and think, 'He's smart; he should know better.' Well, he doesn't. It's not enough to tell him that what he's doing is wrong. You need to tell him what's right, going step by step."

Because students with Asperger's Syndrome (often referred to as Aspies) can be bright and verbal, their learning disabilities, often non-verbal, may be overlooked. But despite their intelligence, sometimes brilliance (think Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), these students miss more than 80 percent of what's happening. That's because Aspies don't understand body language, including facial expressions and verbal intonations, accounting for more than 80 percent of communication.

"Learning a social language is twice as difficult as learning a second language," said Dr. Tony Attwood, an internationally-renowned psychologist specializing in Asperger's Syndrome, who spoke at a recent Toronto conference.

While many Aspies master facts effortlessly, social nuances are another matter. They don't comprehend the give and take of conversations (especially small talk), taking turns, and knowing when to start or stop talking. They may seem arrogant or indifferent, but are usually loving people who can't read other people's thoughts or feelings, said Attwood.

People sometimes assume that Aspies choose solitude. Typically, however, they crave friends and normality. As teenagers, their social awkwardness, rejection by others, and resulting isolation can lead to low self-esteem and debilitating depression.

Desperate for friends, Aspies sometimes do silly things from naiveté and a desire to please. Always ask, "Why did you do it? Did somebody put you up to it?" said Attwood.

Aspies get bullied frequently and may, eventually, retaliate fiercely. Then, it's important to punish all involved, said Atwood. If you only punish Aspies, they may lose faith in school and society and may drop out or stop following rules.

As well as struggling with social cues at recess, many Aspies battle verbal cues in class, the result of central auditory processing difficulties. "When the teacher says, 'Take out your math book, turn to page 158, and do questions one to seven, but skip 5B,' all the other kids get it, while the Aspie kid is still at 'take out your math book,'" said Nelles. Aspies value their intellects and hate looking stupid. In embarrassing situations, such as the one above, they may refuse to work, or misbehave to get thrown out of class.

These students are then often mistakenly diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), said a therapist from Integra, a children's mental health centre in Toronto. …

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