Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome

John DabellI trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project… Read more about John DabellWhat is Asperger’s syndrome?It is quite likely that there is at least one child in your school with Asperger’s and so all teachers need to develop an understanding of how the syndrome affects his/her perception of the world and the way in which someone is able to learn.The 18th June is Autistic Pride Day. The autistic spectrum is broad and as teachers we will encounter many autistic learners including those children with Asperger’s syndrome.What is Asperger’s Syndrome?Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum.It gets its name from Hans Asperger, a Viennese paediatrician who in 1944 wrote about four boys who had unusual social, linguistic and thinking abilities. He regarded them as having a personality disorder which he referred to as ‘autistic psychopathy’.The term Asperger’s syndrome was first used by Lorna Wing in 1981 and she described the main features as being:Lack of empathyNaïve, inappropriate, one-sided interactionLittle or no ability to form friendshipsPedantic, repetitive speechPoor non-verbal communicationIntense absorption in certain subjectsClumsy and ill-coordinated movements and odd posturesThere are three key features of Asperger’s syndrome and most of the difficulties faced by children who have the syndrome can be categorised asDifficulty with relationshipsDifficulty with languageDifficulty with thinkingWhat causes Asperger’s syndrome?No one is certain about what the causes are. What we do know is that Asperger’s is connected to the way the brain works and it could be linked to various different physical factors. It is a form of autism and children with Asperger’s are sometimes referred to as ‘able autistic’ and often display above average intelligence.Recognising Asperger’s syndromeA child with Asperger’s syndrome will experience many challenges including:Communication (both listening and expressing themselves)Pedantic, formal style of speaking often called “little professor” verboseExtreme difficulty in developing age-appropriate peer relationships. (e.g. may be more comfortable with adults than with other children)Understanding their emotions and even the most basic emotions of others. Being unable to empathise with another person, either in real life or in a storyDifficulty with “give and take” of conversationStereotyped or repetitive motor mannerismsFascination with maps, globes, and routesSuperior rote memoryPreoccupation with a particular subject to the exclusion of all others. Amasses many related facts.Responding to requestsCoping with noise, whether from people, machines or fire alarmsMaking eye contactBeing close to other children, for example in a line or working at a tableResponding to praiseCoping with change in their routine or work area, including school trips and changes of staffFocusing on work they do not see as relevantLiteral interpretation of language (not understanding idioms or expressions); difficulty comprehending implied meaningsTaking turnsWorking as part of a teamUnderstanding the difference between fact and fiction, in stories and in realityExtreme difficulty reading and/or interpreting social cuesExtensive vocabularyUsing advanced vocabulary but often without the understanding of the words or contextHaving obsessions about particular things (cars, toys or characters from a book)Hurting someone, often just to get a reaction, without understanding what this feels like for the other personA dislike of physical contactDifficulty judging personal space, motor clumsinessA dislike of clutter, too much bright colour, a dislike of fluorescent lightsSensitivity to the environment, clothing and food textures, and odoursFinds the change to secondary school stressful – they do not find it easy to cope with new teachers and pupilsUndiagnosed Colour Vision Deficiencies (colour blindness)What you can do: 9 tipsMeeting the needs of a child with Asperger’s syndrome requires careful consideration. The following tips are practical suggestions to keep in mind:1. Be clearMake sure that your instructions are crystal clear and easily understood. Reinforce oral instructions with writing so that a child with Asperger’s can spend longer absorbing what it is that you want. Avoid metaphors and figures of speech but if you do use them then explicitly say ‘this is a phrase’ or something similar.2. Limit distractionsClassrooms are noisy and active places full of distractions which can’t always be avoided. What you can do though is position yourself so that a child with Asperger’s can hear you clearly and avoid sitting near a noise source such as an open window.3. Provide verbal cluesDevise a code so that children with Asperger’s know that you are speaking directly to them. This could be a simple word such as ‘listen’ or just by using their name but it is important to use a ‘cue’ to get their attention.4. Explain changesIf there is any change to a routine then explain it. Routines get broken frequently in school but wherever possible explain beforehand that something is going to be different.5. Build on strengths and weaknessesBe alert and aware of the child’s specific strengths and make use of them. Use them as a class ‘expert’ on a particular topic.6. Talk about feelingsOccasionally use opportunities to explain how people think and feel but take this slowly and discuss reasons. Gradually encourage role play.7. Use other childrenOther children can be used as role models so when you want a child to behave in a certain way, point out children who are already doing what is expected.8. GamesProvide opportunities for cooperative games so that a child with Asperger’s will experience and develop skills of taking turns, contributing ideas and listening to the ideas of others. Avoid competition though.9. BefriendEncourage other children to act as befrienders or buddies so they can help. They can also act as guardians to stick up for someone with Asperger’s when others are less than sympathetic.More helpBy identifying children in your school with Asperger’s you are able to help them develop their social relationships, their language and their thinking.Championing autism across the school is essential in establishing a positive and healthy culture so that children with autism can thrive socially, emotionally and educationally alongside their peers.This is the thinking behind Joy Beaney’s new book  Creating Autism Champions.There are also book resources that you can access which help to develop your own CPD such as:Asperger’s Rules!: How To Make Sense of School and Friends by Blythe GrossbergAsperger Syndrome Pocketbook by Ronnie Young The Asperger Children’s Toolkit by Francis MusgraveAsperger Syndrome, Second Edition: What Teachers Need to Know by Matt WinnerUseful websites:The National Autistic Society Autism Independent UKRelated

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