How to support a pupil with Asperger’s Syndrome
23rd January 2020
What is Asperger syndrome?
Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and something that the person diagnosed will have for life. It is characterised by social and communication difficulties and restrictive or repetitive patterns of behaviour.
You will find that students with Asperger syndrome will have average or above average intelligence. They may have fewer problems with speech and learning that other children on the autistic spectrum, but they will still have trouble processing and understanding language which will affect their learning in the classroom.
Fortunately, having a teacher who understands the syndrome can help students with Asperger’s to be able to lead a happy and fulfilling school life.
How do I identify a pupil with Asperger’s?
Asperger syndrome is diagnosed by a team of medical professionals including a pediatrician and a psychologist. However, because Asperger syndrome can be different from person to person, it can take a while to diagnose — sometimes the diagnosis can happen later on in childhood or even as an adult.
Another reason that Asperger’s can be harder to spot is that it is considered to be a high-functioning form of autism — especially if the student has learned to copy and reflect social etiquette. Remember that students with Asperger’s have advances in language but not necessarily understanding — so they might not actually fully comprehend something they are appearing to talk intelligently about.
Getting a diagnosis for a student as soon as possible will help the child get the support they need and will help you understand how to help them as their teacher.
There are signals which you will be able to spot in the classroom that might help to give you an indication and these are listed below. Remember that there is no set behaviour in those with Asperger’s — some students with Asperger’s may have certain characteristics listed below, but not others:
- No or little eye contact
- A great memory for information
- Delayed speech
- Memorised speech and/or monotone, a loud, unmodulated voice
- Not understanding the concept of an authority figure
- Oversensitivity of touch, taste, smell and sound
- Difficulties in balancing and with coordination
- Trouble choosing or prioritising
- Difficulty in turn-taking
- Focusing on fragmented elements rather than the whole
- Not showing the expected emotional response
- Not asking someone how they are feeling or asking an opinion
- Honesty which can be mistaken for rudeness
- Struggling to understand metaphors, sarcasm, jokes and irony
- Difficulty in expressing feelings
- No need for social contact
A teenager with Asperger’s might have some of the characteristics in the list above and also experience new challenges in the age group such as:
- Difficulty in moving to secondary school with a change of routine
- Depression, intensified by hormones as they become aware they are different
- Aggressive behaviour as a result of frustration
- Eating disorders due to depression or anxiety
- Difficulty with organisation skills at secondary school
- Refusing to go to school
Strategies for supporting a child with Asperger’s
The best thing you can do to support a pupil with Asperger’s is to learn as much as you can about it so that you don’t misunderstand their behaviour in the classroom and you will be able to use successful approaches to teaching them. Without that understanding, a student with Asperger’s could be simply seen as naughty or disruptive. Although the student needs to know it is unacceptable if they throw something or shout out, it is vital that the teacher understands why they might be doing so.
It is crucial that you have a good line of communication with the parents and meet regularly with them. You also need to look out for potential bullying from their peers — things such as eye-rolling or laughing at the Asperger’s student because of their different way of thinking or their confusion.
There are also some formal strategies that you can research and apply such as:
- Structure, Positive approaches and expectations, Empathy, Low arousal, Links — SPELL
- The SCERTS Model
- Teaching, Expanding, Appreciating, Collaborating, Cooperating, Holistic — TEACCH
- Social Use of Language Programme — SULP
Technologies to assist pupils with Asperger’s in education
Assistive technology can be used in the classroom for the huge benefit of students with Asperger’s. Many students (whether or not they have Asperger’s) enjoy using technology and have a natural affinity for it.
Here are some of the ways in which technology can assist pupils with Asperger’s in education:
There are numerous apps for helping educate students with autism with specially designed platforms and educational games.
Brain in Hand is an app which provides the student with personalised support from their mobile phone.
Allowing students to type on a computer instead of writing with a pen and paper can help ease any frustration and can help focus their attention. They can also utilise speech-to-text software if they need to.
Students with Asperger’s might find it hard to organise themselves or remember lesson times and where they need to be, particularly when they transition to secondary school. As their teacher, you can help them to set up reminders and a calendar on a mobile phone or tablet. Graphic organisers like mind maps and concept maps are also useful as they let the student see the bigger picture. You can find graphic organiser apps for the student’s handheld device.
One of the biggest struggles for students with Asperger’s is the difficulty in understanding nonverbal cues. Assistive technology can help the students to recognise tone of voice and facial expressions through special programmes.
How parents can help support education at home
Positive reinforcement is considered to be the most effective behaviour management strategy in dealing with students with Asperger's syndrome. As human beings, we naturally act in a way which gives us desirable consequences, for example going to work to be able to pay our bills. Positive reinforcement applies the same thinking to encourage a child to change their behaviour — it acts as an incentive. This is not to be confused with bribery as the reward comes after a task has been completed, whereas bribery is offered before.
This is something parents can do at home and will help you to manage disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Initially, ask the parent to reward the child every time a behaviour occurs and then ask them to offer less as the good behaviour is achieved. Ultimately the parent will scale the reward down to verbal praise and the child will learn that the parent’s pleasure is the reinforcer.
It is vital that the child sees the goal is achievable and that reinforcement is possible.
Practical and social skills
There are many things that a parent can do at home to help the child improve their social skills at school. The parent can encourage the child to look at how other children are behaving and emulate them. They can also practice making eye contact with the child, as eye contact is a skill that can be practised at home. The parent can also role-play with the child on what to ask others to be polite ie ‘how are you?’ including practising a look of concern if another child is sad or hurt.
Another thing that the parent can help with at home is to teach them popular figures of speech and metaphors and what they mean.
Between you and the parent it is also helpful to think of a ‘safety phrase’ that the child can use at home or school when they are confused or feeling anxious. Something like ‘I’m not sure what you mean / I’m not sure what to do now’ can be practised at home.
There are sensory diets which can be enjoyed at home and could potentially help your pupil to stay focused in the classroom. Research supports a gluten free diet helping with symptoms. It is something that you can suggest researching, but it is up to the parents as to whether they can see the benefit.
Providing positive reinforcements
Positive reinforcements can be provided at school as well as in the home so that there is continuity. When choosing what positive reinforcements to provide, ask the child what they like and dislike to motivate them. Avoid things like sweets as sugar most likely won’t help their behaviour and you can’t hand out sweets to just one child in a class! Toys are also not appropriate in a school environment. Remember that the positive reinforcements will soon become verbal praise.
✔ A job they like doing (ie helping the headteacher with a job as a privilege)
✔ Free time
✔ A certificate
✔ Stickers (ie when collect five stickers they gain some free time on the computer)
Students with Asperger’s are not being awkward — they think and view the world differently and because they are not able to see from our perspective, a teacher must try to see from theirs. As soon as you do, you will be able to teach them things which will be invaluable to them and immensely rewarding for you.