by Peter Andrew Sacco, Ph.D.
Something struck a cord with me this past spring while teaching a master’s degree level class in education. I found it interesting how many students, who were already teaching in their careers or “student teaching” kept referring to one type of Autism—Asperger syndrome which is on the Autism Spectrum Disorder continuum. The cord struck was how many of my students were already coming in contact with these children possessing Asperger syndrome. No matter what school they discussed there was an experience with a child who had Asperger syndrome!
Before delving into this article, I am not here to express my overwhelming surprise by the number of children with Asperger syndrome in the school system. Then again, I was a tad bit curious as to the number of diagnoses in the past couple of years! Instead, what I was more surprised at was the number of individuals I spoke with working in the elementary and secondary school systems who had little or no experience, or training in understanding what Asperger syndrome is. Instead, it would seem all the eggs were put into the ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) baskets.
For those of you reading this article and not too familiar with Asperger syndrome, here is the quick skinny on it and what teachers would expect to see in students with it. First, the most notable feature is children demonstrate difficulties in social interaction. Many of these kids have difficulty expressing themselves appropriately in the right context around other kids and in situations. Many kids act out repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. I had one student ask me if this was like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man. Not really, but ironically many look for this savant aspect of the disorder in kids—like looking for a unicorn!
Other characteristics of Asperger syndrome include areas where social skills are greatly lacking. Many kids lack nonverbal communication skills. For the most part, nearly 85% or more of our communication is non-verbal. Children with Asperger syndrome often times do not pick up underlying messages in non-verbal communication which can make it trying for both students and teachers alike. Furthermore, many children with this syndrome possess limited empathy skills, which is their ability to emotionally relate to other children. This sometimes makes them appear as outcast, or perceived as social deviant. This becomes an unfortunate label and stigma these kids face, not to mention their parents! Finally, some children with Asperger syndrome are physically clumsy and uncoordinated. This often times leads to rejection in physical education classes and fun activities at recess, thus further pushing them onto the sidelines of life.
Most individuals with Asperger syndrome improve over time with adequate teaching and behavior modification strategies. Even though some possess difficulties with communication, social interaction and independence, which often continues into their adulthood lives, most individuals can and do live very healthy, fulfilling lives!
Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! This famous saying is very applicable to individuals with Asperger syndrome. It is important not to give up on them or make them outcasts from their peers. School teachers and counselors will be the biggest influence in their lives as they spend the most time with them during the course of a day. Furthermore, they are not only teaching them but also facilitating situations where the social skills they will be using throughout the rest of their lives will flourish or wilt.
It is important for teachers today to become educated in teaching and facilitating classes which have individuals with Asperger syndrome. Educators and school boards alike need to learn the behavioral strategies which will set these kids up for success rather than making them feel inferior and leading them to believe they are society’s outcasts!