Students with Asperger Syndrome
Guidelines for Faculty
These notes are intended as a basic guide to the difficulties that may be experienced by students with Asperger syndrome and to the possible ways in which faculty can help to minimize the impact of such difficulties on their studies. Further information can be obtained from the Office of Disability Services.
Learning and Behavioral Characteristics of Students with Asperger Syndrome
- Asperger syndrome is characterized by a qualitative impairment in social interaction. Individuals with AS may be keen to relate to others, but do not have the skills, and may approach others in peculiar ways (Klin & Volkmar, 1997). They frequently lack understanding of social customs and may appear socially awkward, have difficulty with empathy, and misinterpret social cues. Individuals with AS are poor incidental social learners and need explicit instruction in social skills.
- Although children with AS usually speak fluently by five years of age, they often have problems with pragmatics (the use of language in social contexts), semantics (not being able to recognize multiple meanings) and prosody (the pitch, stress, and rhythm of speech) (Attwood, 1998).
- Students with AS may have an advanced vocabulary and frequently talk incessantly about a favorite subject. The topic may be somewhat narrowly defined and the individual may have difficulty switching to another topic.
- They may have difficulties with the rules of conversation. Students with AS may interrupt or talk over the speech of others, may make irrelevant comments and have difficulty initiating and terminating conversations.
- Speech may be characterized by a lack of variation in pitch, stress and rhythm and, as the student reaches adolescence, speech may become pedantic (overly formal).
- Social communication problems can include standing too close, staring, abnormal body posture and failure to understand gestures and facial expressions.
- The student with AS is of average to above average intelligence and may appear quite capable. Many are relatively proficient in knowledge of facts, and may have extensive factual information about a subject that they are absorbed with. However, they demonstrate relative weaknesses in comprehension and abstract thought, as well as in social cognition. Consequently, they do experience some academic problems, particularly with reading comprehension, problem solving, organizational skills, concept development, and making inferences and judgments. In addition, they often have difficulty with cognitive flexibility. That is their thinking tends to be rigid. They often have difficulty adapting to change or failure and do not readily learn from their mistakes (Attwood, 1998).
- It is estimated that 50%-90% of people with AS have problems with motor coordination (Attwood, 1998). The affected areas may include locomotion, ball skills, balance, manual dexterity, handwriting, rapid movements, lax joints, rhythm and imitation of movements.
- Individuals with AS share common characteristics with autism in terms of responses to sensory stimuli. They may be hypersensitive to some stimuli and may engage in unusual behaviors to obtain a specific sensory stimulation.
- Individuals with AS may also be inattentive and easily distracted and many receive a diagnosis of ADHD at one point in their lives (Myles & Simpson, 1998).
- Anxiety is also a characteristic associated with AS. It may be difficult for the student to understand and adapt to the social demands of school. Appropriate instruction and support can help to alleviate some of the stress.
Strategies for Faculty
The following identifies the specific learning difficulty a student with Aspergers/Autism may face and suggests a number of possible classroom strategies:
Difficulties with language
- tendency to make irrelevant comments
- tendency to interrupt
- tendency to talk on one topic and to talk over the speech of others
- difficulty understanding complex language, following directions, and understanding intent of words with multiple meanings
What you can do:
- encourage student to seek assistance when confused
- explain metaphors and words with double meanings
- encourage the student to ask for an instruction to be repeated, simplified or written down if he does not understand
- pause between instructions and check for understanding
- limit oral questions to a number the student can manage
Insistence on sameness
- wherever possible prepare the student for potential change
Impairment in social interaction
- difficulty understanding the rules of social interaction
- may be naïve
- interprets literally what is said
- difficulty reading the emotions of others
- lacks tact
- problems with social distance
- difficulty understanding “unwritten rules” and when they do learn them, may apply them rigidly
What you can do:
- provide clear expectations and rules for behavior
- educate peers about how to respond to the student’s disability in social interaction
- may need assistance from you with group projects. Explicitly identify their role within the group.
Restricted range of interests
- limit preservative discussions and questions
- set firm expectations for the classroom, but also provide opportunities for the student to pursue his own interests
- incorporate and expand on interest in activities and assignments
- often off task
- may be disorganized
- difficulty sustaining attention
What you can do:
- frequent, clear feedback
- break down assignments
- seating at the front
- use nonverbal cues to get attention
- usually average to above average intelligence
- good recall of factual information
- areas of difficulty include poor problem solving, comprehension problems and difficulty with abstract concepts
- Often strong in word recognition and may learn to read very early, but difficulty with comprehension
- May do well at mathematical computations, but have difficulty with problem solving
- don’t assume that the student has understood simply because he/she can re-state the information
- be as concrete as possible in presenting new concepts and abstract material
- use graphic organizers such as semantic maps
- show examples of what is required
- avoid verbal overload
- capitalize on strengths, e.g., memory
- most common sensitivities involve sound and touch, but may also include taste, light intensity, colors and smells
- types of noises that may be perceived as extremely intense are:
- sudden, unexpected noises such as a telephone ringing, fire alarm
- high-pitched continuous noise
What you can do:
- be aware that normal levels of auditory and visual input can be perceived by the student as too much or too little
- allow the use of coping mechanisms within the classroom such as: taking breaks, use of a hood or hat, or sunglasses.
- minimize background noise
- use of ear plugs if very extreme
- Get to know your student’s particular needs in advance.
- Be prepared to meet the student before the course starts to discuss needs.
- Provide clear, detailed information (oral and written) about structure of course, practical arrangements, assessment requirements and deadlines
- Be consistent in approach and keep variations to a minimum.
- If a change (e.g. in timetable, room, lecturer) is inevitable give clear, specific information as far ahead as possible.
- Give explicit instructions and make intentions explicitly clear.
- Be patient, encouraging and supportive.
- Guide gently and respectfully back on task if necessary.
- If praising, say exactly what is right or appreciated and why.
- Respond immediately to bullying/harassment by others.
- Help them to understand the needs of others - tell them confidentially in clear, simple terms if what they say upsets someone; in group work make clear exactly what is required of them; mediate to resolve disputes in calm, logical way.
- Set concrete, realistic goals to assist motivation
- e.g. “If you want to become an engineer you must complete all parts of the course, even the essays.”
- Present material in a structured way
- If broken into small steps, show how these come together as a whole.
- Use clear, unambiguous language (spoken and written)
- Avoid or explain metaphors, irony etc and interpret what others say.
- Provide subject word lists, glossaries of terms and acronyms