The role of the classroom teacher is of utmost importance in ensuring the success of the child with an Asperger Syndrome. The classroom teacher sets the tone of the class and is responsible for making sure all the needs of the children are being met. Like an orchestra conductor, the teacher is the one person that keeps things together and “in tune.” (Cumin, Dunlop, & Stevenson 1998) The teacher creates an environment that values all learners, and helps children succeed in their own individual ways.
With appropriate supports and accommodations, students with AS can excel and be very rewarding to teach. Here in a nutshell are some of the best educational practices culled from my twenty years in education. In order to help students with AS succeed—even flourish—in your classroom, try these strategies:
Create a calm, orderly classroom with clear rules, routines, and expectations, reviewed regularly. Consistency and structure help our socially challenged children be successful.
Watch and protect children with AS, to make sure they are not excluded, teased, or bullied. No child should have to live in fear—and fear makes it very hard to learn and grow.
- Create a class environment where all children feel comfortable. In all your words and actions, model respect and acceptance for all the children. You will make a lasting impression on your students.
- Be aware of the social structure of the classroom: Who are “popular” kids in the class? How much do others listen and follow their lead? How can you intervene to change attitudes, and prevent bullying and teasing of vulnerable students with AS?
- Foster positive interactions among peers in the classroom, and in less structured environments such as the playground, cafeteria, and hallways. You may wish to ask a speech therapist how to do “social coaching” for your student with AS.
- Classroom disclosure—teaching all students about AS—can be a powerful antidote to intolerance. AANE can suggest strategies, books, DVDs, and articles.
- Encourage your school administration to institute school-wide or district-wide bullying-prevention curricula.
Respect each child’s unique learning style.
- Modify assignments to fit learning styles.
- Use both whole class and individual instruction, as appropriate.
- Encourage children to develop an understanding about how they learn best.
Help students with AS keep up with academic work.
- Set clear expectations, providing detailed written instructions as well as oral instructions.
- Check regularly to make sure students are doing assignments correctly.
Build a positive relationship between home and school.
- Parents know their children better than anyone—but teachers also have important information to share.
- The child has the best chance of success in school when parents can share information about the child with the classroom teacher, in a non-confrontational manner, and when teachers welcome parents’ input.
- Ideally, parents and teachers function as a mutually supportive team, working together to understand the child, solve problems, and help the child succeed.
- Monthly face-to-face team meetings, and weekly communication by phone, e-mail, or notebook, promote excellent, essential communication among key adults in the child’s life.
Work closely with others whose services are part of a child’s educational plan: classroom aide, speech therapist, guidance counselor, school social worker or psychologist.
- Gym, art, and music teachers may also play an important role. Any adult who will encounter the student needs to learn something about Asperger Syndrome.
- It’s fine to seek additional help. Since AS is such a new diagnosis, and children may be quite complex, many schools or parents bring in an educational consultant with expertise in AS to observe the student and meet with the team of educators and parents.
Children with AS are often extremely sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, or textures. An hour in a noisy, visually stimulating classroom can overwhelm their ability to cope, leading them to shut down or melt down.
- Check in regularly to make sure sensory issues are not overwhelming your student with AS. They may need regularly scheduled sensory breaks, or a quiet spot they can go to, in order to restore their equilibrium and prevent meltdowns.
- Many children with AS prefer not to be touched at all.
- Strategies that prevent meltdowns are best, but when a child does melt down, don’t try to talk to him or her about what happened during the meltdown; give the child a safe time and space in which to ride out the inner tempest and pull him or herself back together. Avoid physical contact or restraint unless absolutely essential, as it is likely to escalate the meltdown.
Behavior and discipline: When children with AS behave in ways we do not like, it is usually not for the same reasons that motivate neurotypical children to misbehave.
- Punishing the child with AS is inappropriate and often counter-productive; school-wide discipline policies usually need to be adapted for children with AS—not applied in a rigid manner.
- Be a detective! Figure out what causes a behavior, and how better to lessen its recurrence.
- Teach and coach preferred behaviors—not just compliance, but self-awareness, self-advocacy, and negotiation skills.
Seek opportunities to learn about new issues affecting children. (AS is still a pretty new diagnosis, and children with AS may differ greatly from one another; there is always more to learn.)
Needless to say, meeting this goal is quite a challenge, especially in a traditional class of 15–25 children! Teachers need and deserve substantial support from their administrators and specialists. You should expect to invest substantial amounts of time and energy into learning about educational interventions that are effective for students with AS, and making these new practices a part of your teaching repertoire. However, the rewards and satisfaction gained by accommodating all learners are also substantial—and parents will remember you with gratitude forever.
This kind of success cannot be measured in our traditional ways. The traditional equation for success is:
Success = assignments completed, high test scores, and good grades
I suggest we re-define success, and propose this new model:
Success = happy, well-adjusted, cooperative students
This new model requires an environment that better understands the needs of ALL students and, through the talents and skills of the teacher, provides an environment for everyone to succeed.
Robin Lurie-Meyerkopf has worked as a teacher, environmental educator and consultant. She holds an Antioch University Graduate School Autism Spectrum Disorders Certificate, with specialized training in pragmatic group skills. She runs a parent support group, and is on the Leadership Board for the AANE NH Chapter. Contact AANE if you would like Robin to present a workshop for educators or parents in your area of New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine.