Introduction to Education For High School Students with Asperger Profiles
Some students with Asperger profiles find high school more manageable than middle school—since their typically developing peers may have matured a bit—but it still poses many challenges. Teen social life continues to be full of drama. High school academics pose greater demands for abstract thinking, sophisticated comprehension, and group work, plus more homework and more long-term assignments. New pressures arise as questions of college, employment, and adult independence loom closer. Students with Asperger profiles, however bright, will be less prepared than other students to handle these multiple challenges. To survive and thrive, most will continue to need a variety of special education services best delivered under an Individualized Education Program (IEP) created and monitored by an educational team, a partnership of parents and educators.
Communication and the Educational Team
Whereas typically developing students may be ready for a much greater level of independence in high school than they were in middle school, communication among parents and educators remains vitally important for the well-being of students with Asperger profiles. An Asperger/Autism expert needs to be on the team or at least available for consultation; this person may be an employee of the school district, a contractor, or an outside expert added to the team specifically for a particular student. The team should meet regularly to ensure that the IEP is being faithfully carried out, to monitor the student’s progress, to modify the IEP if necessary, and to plan ahead. The team might also want to establish channels for more frequent, brief communication between parents and a designated educator if needed.
Is the Educational Placement Appropriate?
When appropriate supports and accommodations are provided, some teens with Asperger profiles adjust well to high school—and there are many good reasons to try to make public high school work for a student. Some teens with Asperger profiles, however, just cannot handle the fast-paced environment of a large public high school. If educational recommendations from an experienced neuropsychologist indicate the need for an alternative placement, or if a student continues to struggle in the public high school despite educators’ best efforts, the team may need to discuss transferring the student to a more supportive and individualized program. If parents and educators on the team disagree about the necessity or choice of an alternative educational placement, parents may decide to hire an educational advocate to resolve differences and come to an agreement.
Some families choose to send teens to private religious schools or other independent schools; however, such placements are not always successful. Private schools are not obligated by law to provide specialized instruction or support to meet students’ special needs. Private school educators may not have the training or experience to work with students with Asperger profiles, and such service may not be a priority or even included in the school’s mission.
Transition Assessment and Planning
A high school education should do more than prepare students to complete academic and testing requirements for graduation. It should prepare each student for a successful transition to postsecondary education, employment, and independent adult living. To put it another way: education should prepare the teen to realize his or her vision for a meaningful, connected life after high school.
Ideally, then, every high school course and activity should be chosen because it relates, either directly or indirectly, to helping the student overcome challenges and progress toward realizing that vision. That means that students will need time beyond academics: opportunities to explore vocational and recreational interests, get work experience, learn independent living and self-advocacy skills, learn to use public transportation and/or get a license, learn to manage money and health, and learn social skills appropriate to adult life after high school
Most students with Asperger profiles will need formal transition assessments to identify areas of strength and challenge. This information helps the educational team develop appropriate, individualized transition goals and services for the student’s IEP. If the formal transition planning process was not started during final year of middle school (8th grade), the student’s educational team at the high school should schedule the assessments and a dedicated Transition Planning meeting early in student’s freshman year. Thereafter, transition meetings should be held, and transition goals and services included in the IEP, every year of high school, because the vision and needs change, and because students with Asperger profiles need to be taught life and social skills gradually and thoroughly over time.
Mental Health Comes First
A lot must be accomplished during the high school years—and yet students with Asperger profiles tend to need more downtime than other students in order to compensate for the extra energy and effort required to function in a neurotypical world. How, then, can the educational team make time in the student’s schedule for both academic courses and important transition experiences without the student getting overwhelmed?
One option to consider is distributing academic requirements and transition experiences over five or more years, or summer programming, rather than the standard four academic years. A student who graduates at ages 19, 20, 21, or 22 need not spend those additional years within the four walls of the high school. The student could, for example, be taking one or two community college courses, working in a job internship, and taking adaptive driving lessons—anything that helps overcome obstacles, build skills, and move the student closer to realizing his or her vision. High school educators or other personnel, provide support to ensure success.
Think Outside the Box to Meet Student Needs
Many high school students feel that traditional social skills groups are patronizing. High schools are filled with natural opportunities to connect with peers and adults.
- Direct instruction in social skills can come from specific classes like public speaking or drama.
- Schools with debate teams, moot court, or model U.N. offer opportunities to use social communication skills in a variety of settings and activities.
- School clubs or activities related to the student’s special interest also provide teens with Asperger profiles a chance to find other teens with similar interests.
- Make the student more part of the life of the school community by giving him/her a formal role (scorekeeper, theater-light-board operator, library or office assistant, computer technician/instructor).
- At each team meeting, brainstorm how else to make social opportunities or connections available to the student.
To provide students with the support they need in order to plan, organize, and understand the complex nature of abstract and long-term assignments, consider the following options:
- Direct instruction and support in a learning center or academic support block
- Assistive technology to help with organization, study skills and reminders
- Regular teacher check-ins and web-based assignment-tracking systems (e.g. https://www.schoology.com/).
Mental Health and Emotional Regulation
Consider the following to help high school students feel like they have a safe space to bring their worries and develop the calming and coping skills they need to build their resilience:
- Regularly scheduled meetings with mental health professional in building
- Small group of students who can support each other
- Teach and practice self-calming and coping strategies like deep breathing, meditation, walking, yoga, handcrafts, or music.
Many high school electives can teach skills for living independently. Look through the course catalog together and consider which skills can be taught at school and which will happen at home or out in the community. Some electives that might work include: cooking, business, budgeting and personal finance. Some students sign up for physical activities out in the community so that they develop healthy outlets for dealing with stress. It’s helpful to try shorter and longer overnight trips with support/mentoring so that teens learn how to live away from home if they plan on doing so after high school. Some families consider residential programs during the school year or summer.
In order for teens with Asperger profiles to learn about the world of work and gain valuable work experience while in high school, consider the following:
- Job-shadowing to consider possible careers
- Informational interviews
- Mock interviews
- Volunteer roles in school, then later in community
- Internships and paid jobs with a job coach
- Match the work experience to the student’s talents and interests
- Transitioning from High School to Employment or College
Play, Joy, Confidence, Self-Esteem, and Special Interests
Life can be hard, confusing, and frustrating for teens with Asperger profiles. Help your teen try a variety of activities in order to find something outside of academics the teen can enjoy, or where he or she can shine. Many teens feel more relaxed when they have time for what they love most, whether that includes animals, writing, drawing, playing music, photography, reading, or running. These interests or activities could also become lifelong healthful hobbies or recreation.