NAVIGATING THE BEHAVIORAL MAZE OF A CHILD WITH ASPERGER’S SYNDROME

08/24/2015
SPECIAL NEEDS
By Sylvia R. Smith, Ed.D.

It’s no surprise to you that no two students are the same. As a teacher, you have long recognized that your individual students have different personalities, learning styles and socialization approaches. Sometimes, however, you may encounter a student who has a unique developmental pattern. This student appears normal but presents distinct challenges.

A student who functions just outside the norm is often difficult to understand and even more difficult to help in a classroom of 25 to 30 students.

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Despite your classroom management experience, it’s difficult to identify the right approach to help this student succeed You understand that, before learning can occur, a student must be ready to learn both cognitively and behaviorally. This student may or may not have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, but you know that some “difference” exists and want to help this child both academically and socially, while also maintaining a smooth and effective classroom environment for all of your students.

Getting to the Heart of the Issue

Some kids have behavior issues and a small, but growing, number of cases are the result of Asperger’s Syndrome. Having a student with Asperger’s Syndrome impacts the academic and socialization culture of your classroom. Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder affecting a child’s ability to successfully socialize and communicate. As a result, for example, Asperger’s students may “blurt out” their thoughts as statements of fact, resulting in an appearance of insensitivity and lack of tact. However, these students may not understand that some thoughts and ideas should be kept to themselves, and not spoken out loud — encouraging these students to whisper, rather than just state their thought loudly is helpful. Other common characteristics are insistence on sameness, repetitiveness, impairment in social interactions and the inability to read nonverbal behavior; limited range of social competence, inattention, emotional vulnerability and academic difficulties.

Dealing with the multiple dimensions of Asperger’s Syndrome is easier said than done. The maze of behaviors both endearing and challenging are constantly in play throughout the school day. Unfortunately, an Asperger’s child’s inability to clearly communicate his feelings can set off a chain of events that leads to a difficult situation, or sadly, a total meltdown. The triggers that set off difficult behaviors can range from minor to major; however, being proactive and familiar with the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome can help you take positive steps, not just with this child, but your entire class. As with all techniques in your classroom management toolbox, knowledge and preparation are essential.

As you begin to navigate the inner workings of Asperger’s, consider conducting a quick inventory to provide context for the situation. Ask yourself:

  • Does your student react too sensitively or tend to overreact to everyday situations?
  • Does your student appear to be disrespectful or defiant as a characteristic of their everyday behavior?
  • Does your student’s behavior seem extremely repetitive or out of control?

Answering these three basic questions can help you to begin to create a management plan for your student. The level or degree of the child’s behaviors provides you with a framework for deciding targeted support for your student. As with the general population, each student with Asperger’s Syndrome is different. One size does not fit all.

A few fundamentals about students with Asperger’s:

  • They operate on “Asperger time.” This means, “Twice as much time, half as much done.” Don’t expect your student to complete activities and assignments at the same pace as your other students. Consider creating a visual schedule that includes daily activities to help your student to become more independent.
  • Students with Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty distinguishing between information that is essential and information that is not. To help with this, you can provide graphic organizers and prompt questions for assignments that provide a focused guide.
  • Students with Asperger’s Syndrome are often average to above average intelligence; however, they may require targeted teaching strategies. If approached with conventional teaching strategies that do not address their needs, they may appear to some people as being lazy, defiant, or uninterested in learning. Asperger’s students that seem defiant may be acting in this way as a nonverbal request to be seen and heard. This behavior comes from a sense of isolation, disconnection or feeling unheard. Lori Petro, a parent blogger and an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, suggests that to address a child’s feeling of being unheard, you can build a bridge by using words like these to provide context: “I never realized how strongly you feel about this...”; “I clearly underestimated your passion...”; “We disagree but I believe that we can come to a place where we can work out our differences...”

Learning Characteristics

Familiarity with learning characteristics of students with Asperger’s prepares you for their reactions during classroom activities. People with Asperger’s are not just “being difficult.” They are responding in ways that reflect how they see the world.  Such individuals:

  • Translate communications very literally
  • Are predisposed to be easily confused by assignments that consist of multiple components
  • Struggle with auditory commands or information
  • Tend to be inattentive, have poor organizational skills, are easily distracted in class activities and have trouble working in groups with peers
  • Have fixations or an extremely narrow focus on a topic or concept
  • Have difficulty with classroom routine, change or transitions

Defusing a Difficult Situation   

Understanding the behavioral maze associated with Asperger’s Syndrome is fundamental to teaching the whole child. Before you can teach a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, your student must be ready to learn from a behavioral perspective; i.e., you must be able to not only talk with them, but also interpret their nonverbal behavioral language. A key strategy for supporting an Asperger’s student is to adjust how you are communicating. If an Asperger’s student, for example, hit another child, you will not be effective saying, “Don’t hit other children” or “when you hit, it hurts other children.”

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome rarely indicate verbally that they are under stress and think more literally and visually. They need context and visual cues to receive the message you are trying to deliver. Rather, you might respond by saying, “You were playing nicely with your friend outside. Then, when you hit your friend, it hurt her a lot! She cried, because she didn’t like the way that it felt. It seems like you are having a hard time right now, but we must play nicely with our friends, just like you were doing at first.” Such very concrete explanations help the child with context for their actions.

To defuse a difficult situation and successfully create a follow-up action process, try using the four elements in the chart below (based on a visual and refection approach) in your discussions your student.

Conclusion:

Having a child with Asperger’s Syndrome adds a unique puzzle piece to your classroom dynamics. This child may look and sound the same as all your other children but he will need targeted modifications. Using the “blame, shame, judgment, and guilt” approach does not work with most people, especially a child with Asperger’s Syndrome. Be prepared to deal with difficult situations before they occur. Trying to handle and defuse a difficult situation on the fly rarely works as well. Learn, plan, and act in a positive way to creatively complete your class puzzle.

Understanding the behavioral maze of Asperger’s Syndrome will help you to skillfully navigate the characteristics and nuances of this developmental disorder. Armed with this knowledge, you will be better prepared with practical techniques and strategies to effectively help all of your students — not just those with Asperger’s Syndrome — fulfill their full cognitive and behavioral potential.

Sylvia Cadena Smith earned her Doctorate in Instructional Technology, Master of Science in Curriculum and Supervision, and Bachelor of Science in Special Education. Her areas of expertise include reading, instructional design, curriculum development, e-learning, technological integration and assessment and evaluation.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

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