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Working with an Asperger’s Student in the Classroom

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Taking the Time to GET IT! Working with an Asperger’s Student in the Classroom

by Liz Meister

Autism Asperger’s Digest | March/April 2007

 

Reading through the July-August 2006 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest, I came upon an article about homeschooling a child with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). I was moved by the mother who wrote of her less-than-positive experiences with the public school and by the teachers who didn’t understand how to help her child, teachers who DON’T GET IT when it comes to autism spectrum disorders. As a regular ed teacher myself, I thought, How sad for our profession! As teachers, we need to GET IT. The futures of these children are in our hands!

I have had many students with AS over the past several years, and they have always held a special interest for me because they are all so uniquely different. Yes, there have been “challenges” but also great joys. I’ve been so enamored by these children, in fact, that I spent the last six months researching Asperger’s for my Masters thesis. During my “action research” – interviewing parents of AS children – two revelations were repeatedly echoed: the importance of teamwork in teaching, and the vital role parents play in the future success of their AS child.

All parents feel nervous about sending their children to school; imagine how the parent of a special needs student must feel! Then imagine how this parent feels when we teachers dismiss or disregard the wealth of information they can provide us. They know the child’s quirks, sensitivities, and idiosyncrasies better than do we, and they can give us background information that will help us understand how their child learns best. Yet, too often we discredit parents consciously or subconsciously, all because we see ourselves, not them, as the “teacher.” As true teachers, we need to listen to these parents and recognize them as the experts they are about their child.

In researching Asperger’s Syndrome and looking for techniques that will help our AS students learn, it quickly became apparent that many factors play into the success of these children. The purpose of this article is to share some of this practical information in the hopes it will encourage teachers to put forth a little extra effort to make the school year a success for all involved, our AS students, their parents, and those of us entrusted to guide and teach these children on their way to adulthood and independence.

Working with AS Children

Children with AS face many problems in the classroom. Although most have average to above average intelligence, they may experience academic difficulties because of their different ways of thinking and processing, specifically their lack of higher-level thinking and comprehension skills and very literal interpretation of language. Comprehension tends to be at a factual level and these students have difficulty generalizing information and applying knowledge to other subject areas. Teachers are often unaware of these problems because students give the impression they understand more than they actually do. Because students with AS have difficulty processing material that is presented orally, their learning style and information processing skills are often incompatible with the way information is presented in many classrooms. Furthermore, these students need extended time to process and understand words used in the contexts of sentences and paragraphs.

Students with AS also face challenges in school in the area of personal management and self-control. They have problems finishing their work, taking care of their belongings, turning in assignments on time, changing activities, and accepting correction. They can experience problems when a teacher is absent, or when they have to wait too long for an event. Making a mistake – even one we consider trivial – can be traumatic for these children. Many have all-or-nothing, black and white thinking where all mistakes are equally bad, and they often have unrealistic expectations of themselves. Social communication and social reciprocity can also be problematic for an Asperger’s child because of their deficits in social thinking. Cooperative learning activities that involve sharing, turn-taking, offering help, and inviting others to share are generally difficult for these students.

An AS student can also experience sensory issues that affect their schoolwork and ability to function within a classroom. Many of these students receive sensory integration therapy or have sensory diets created to help them cope with the rigors of the school day. Sensitivity to sound, light, and smells can present problems in the classroom. They may be defensive about being touched, prefer deep touching to light, and be sensitive to certain types of clothing. Florescent lights, sensitive hearing or visual processing problems are just some of the issues an AS child faces in school of which a teacher needs to be aware.

Learning from AS Students’ Parents

The first month of school is always chaotic for teacher and student, filled with new people and putting new routines in place to engage our students and get the year off to the best possible start. Teachers are generally overwhelmed, trying to establish rapport with each individual student on some level. Make it easier on yourself – I did!

The past two school years I have had the pleasure of interviewing the parents of my AS students. This has not only opened lines of communication, but has truly been a time and lifesaver for me. The interview usually lasts about 60 minutes, either after school or at the parents’ convenience. It starts with broad questions about the child’s history and gets progressively more specific, into areas such as sensory issues, special diets, motor problems, behavior reinforcement, etc. The interview provides me the opportunity to quickly get an overall history of the child, learn about the child’s strengths and weaknesses, how he learns best, and how to handle those frustrations and meltdowns that are sure to happen during the school day.

What a strongbox of information these parents have been!  They welcomed the chance to share relevant information about their child with me, and in each interview, doors of understanding, respect, and communication were opened with just the first question. In most cases, parents of AS children are just waiting to tell their story if we, as teachers, will give them a chance. More importantly, their children need to have the story told. Each interview provided me with wonderful insights that saved me hours upon hours of work later, and allowed me to work more efficiently and effectively with the child.

Parents of my students freely expressed the good and bad times of their children’s educations. They shared the successes and failures experienced in regular education classrooms, were quick to applaud teachers who understood their children and equally quick to recognize those who did not. The one sentiment I heard over and over was this: the teacher’s approach to their child was the deciding factor in whether the child had a good year or a bad year at the school.

This year one of my students is the son of an English mother and an American father. Charles is an absolute delight to have in class. His mother says of some of his mannerisms, “I’m not quite sure if it is the Brit in him or the Asperger’s.”  In her interview she spoke of Charles’ teachers and related how some were open to Charles and how some were very regimented and close-minded to his special needs. I raise this question: Do teachers have the right to regiment their classrooms to the point that we are neglecting individual student needs? In the classroom, Charles has lower frustration levels than many of the other students. He can be overwhelmed by homework and this elevates his anxiety. His mother also described his language delay and that he loved the game of tag because it was his way of interacting with the other students without having to use speech. The students are very sensitive to Charles and his needs. They support him and love him for who he is. Of the twenty-four students in my classroom this year, nine ran for student council. Charles was one. He spent his entire recess memorizing his speech and practicing it as he paced the playground. He was amazing. Obviously, the students thought so also. Charles became one of our three representatives to student council. Perhaps the students GET IT better than do teachers.

Another parent I interviewed is the mother of John, an 11 year-old fifth grader. John has had anxiety difficulties since starting school, stemming mainly around homework and creative writing. He has frequent meltdowns and visits the occupational therapy room three times a day as part of his sensory diet. John’s mother always has her son’s best interest in mind and is very willing to work with teachers to help her son succeed. Since the interview she has been very open and proactive and we have stayed in close communication all year. Her support to me has been wonderful and working together, we have created a positive learning environment for John.

In interviewing my parents, several common threads were mentioned again and again. The mothers all commented that life was lonely for the parents of an AS child. They felt their child’s disappointment when he or she stopped receiving birthday invitations, sometime in the third grade. Being heard and having a teacher who respected their wisdom about their child meant a lot to them. Most shared they had to fight to get their child identified and fight even harder to get appropriate services that would help their child. They all loved their children and wanted the best possible learning experience for them.

Final Thoughts

Once a teacher has gathered background information on an AS student, it’s much easier to make the necessary accommodations to help the student succeed in the classroom. For instance, the teacher can provide visual organizers to help with problem solving weaknesses and also to structure creative writing assignments. Asperger’s students need strong scaffolding when attempting open-ended projects, whether they work independently or in a group. Connections must constantly be made to real life situations and the Asperger’s student’s area of interest. When those connections are made, the child is more motivated to learn and then success will follow.

Finally, it is important for teachers to provide as many social cues as possible for these students. Rehearsals prior to social situations, advance preparation for schedule changes, and lessons with the entire class about accepting and celebrating the differences of others ensures success for all students within the regular education classroom. When these strategies and others like them are implemented, Asperger’s students can be successful in the regular education classroom and reach their academic potential.

It is our job, as professional educators, to provide a positive learning experience and an environment of fairness to all students. We need to remember that fair does not mean equal. Fair is every student getting his or her needs met. If you have a student identified as Asperger’s, take the time to interview the child’s parents and then continue the conversation throughout the year. Let the parents know you are a team player and want to be on that child’s team, right alongside the child’s parent. When you do this, success will follow. Be the teacher who GETS IT, because when the teacher GETS IT, all children will benefit.

BIO

Liz Meister has taught fifth grade in Sylvania, Ohio for the past 18 years. Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome was the subject of her recently completed Master’s Degree thesis from the University of Toledo.

 

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2007. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

 


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