Working with very able pupils presents a challenge to any teacher, but when learners also have special educational needs, there are complex issues to address. Julian Whybra shares his experiences of children and young people with Asperger syndrome

Asperger syndrome might be defined as a mild form of autism in conjunction with normal or high intelligence. It was first described in the 1940s and has long been used in Europe as a diagnostic label.  However, only in recent years has it attracted much attention in the UK, where the average age of diagnosis is 16! There is no national Asperger register, but the largest and most comprehensive survey suggested that 36 in 10,000 people are affected, with a ratio of 10 males to 1 female.

Before diagnosis, children may be thought of as antisocial, just plain stupid, or as socially inept little professors (and thus targets for bullies). It can also be difficult to differentiate Asperger syndrome from other developmental disorders such as autism, Kanner syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): as the word ‘syndrome’ suggests, Asperger’s is a collection of symptoms, not all of which occur in every affected individual and only a few of which are used by psychologists as diagnostic criteria.

Over the years I have got to know many Asperger children attending GIFT curriculum extension summer schools and other courses, and have had the opportunity of close observation of their characteristics.

Physical characteristics can include:

  • clumsiness
  • a face rather too young for his or her age
  • a strained, croaky, slow, uninflected or monotonous voice
  • a stilted gait and awkward movements
  • a stammer or lisp
  • arms held rigid by the sides when walking
  • poor or absent eye contact.

Differences in educational development can include:

  • dyslexia – unusual difficulty in learning to read
  • hyperlexia – unusually high reading ability and motivation to read (often on a limited subject)
  • preference for fact over fiction in reading matter
  • difficulty in telling left from right
  • good mathematical ability
  • unusually large vocabulary, often inappropriately used
  • lack of motivation in schoolwork
  • one or more private, often trivial or bizarre subjects of personal study on which the child holds forth (eg different makes of vacuum cleaner/ hub caps, the life cycle of butterflies)
  • inability to learn from his or her mistakes.

Psychological/physical symptoms can include:

  • social isolation
  • lack of imaginative play
  • lack of expression – in voice, face and body language
  • difficulty in interpreting social cues (ie unable to read other people’s body language)
  • shyness, anxiety and unhappiness
  • severe depression in adolescence and early adulthood (commonly experienced)
  • being plagued by irrational fears and anxieties
  • excessive timidity
  • difficulty in relating to other people – they cannot understand how relationships work, although they are often desperately anxious to make friends. Nuances of relationships, behaviour and language are a mystery to them so that as children, jokes and role play leave them cold.

Behaviours can include:

  • attachment to routine
  • oversensitivity to noise
  • dislike of physical contact
  • apparent deafness
  • not knowing their own strength (sometimes expressed as apparently overt, but actually unintentional, aggression).

An Asperger child, while seeming difficult or intractable, may in fact be in considerable distress and in need of diagnosis and appropriate help. No Asperger sufferer can be expected to understand and control their life without some understanding of the condition, nor to enjoy life without the understanding of others. The great distress caused to sufferers and to their families can be alleviated, however, by an early diagnosis and sympathetic teaching, both of which are ultimately essential.

How can teachers help?

Each child with Asperger syndrome is an individual and it’s important, therefore, to get to know them and their particular traits. Older pupils often have an understanding of their particular difficulties and can discuss with teachers and support assistants, strategies that support them. Information and advice from parents should also be sought. An important issue with young people who appear ‘odd’ is one of acceptance and inclusion among their peers: helping pupils to understand Asperger syndrome and how to respond to a classmate’s ‘quirkiness’ can achieve a lot in terms of avoiding bullying and embracing ‘difference’ within a school community. (Always refer to Asperger syndrome correctly: it is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ as in ‘hamburger’.)

  • Establish routines in the classroom/school which create a feeling of security for the child.
  • Be consistent in all matters.
  • Prepare the child for any changes in routine or personnel well in advance. Where this isn’t possible, accept that s/he may get upset – have a contingency plan.
  • Use visual back up for spoken language where possible, including visual timetables, making use of images and symbols.
  • Remember that a student with Asperger syndrome is likely to take what you say literally (‘pull your socks up’): explain metaphors and idioms.
  • Have high expectations of achievement; use his/her ability to learn by rote to increase self-esteem.
  • Always refer to the child by name: s/he may not realise that ‘everyone’ or ‘red group’ means her/him.
  • Be precise with instructions: ‘We are going to pack away now’, not ‘Shall we pack away now?’
  • Acknowledge the need for personal space: allow the child to sit at the end of a row; create a quiet, ‘time out’ work space.
  • Make good use of computers – they are not emotionally demanding.
  • Use stories to teach appropriate behaviour in different settings; meanings behind facial expressions; how to interact with others.
  • Liaise with the child’s teaching assistant.
  • Establish a ‘circle of friends’ or ‘buddy’ system to support the child. Talk to the child as often as possible (normally – as a fellow human being) and be seen talking to him/her. You have no idea how important this is for the child.
  • Be flexible – and try not to take personally any comments from the child which are  unintentionally abrupt or rude.
  • If necessary, Asperger children can be made to understand and respond to a direct command (‘Chris! Put that chair down!’ ‘David! Stop now!’). Provided this is explained in advance as your means of indicating acceptable behaviour, s/he will understand that you mean what you say. This can be a life saver.

Julian Whybra has worked in the field of gifted education since 1978 and is co-founder of GIFT Ltd. He has written widely on gifted education including Enrichment Activities for Gifted Children published by Optimus Education.

Information and advice

The Office of Autism and Asperger Syndrome Support and Information Services (OAASIS) produces teaching packs, publications, and an outreach service for professionals. Its website has a complete list of other UK organisations dealing with Asperger syndrome.

Managing Asperger Syndrome at College and University by Juliet Jamieson and Claire Jamieson (David Fulton Publishers) is an excellent resource for teachers, tutors and parents of young adults, as well as for  young people who have Asperger syndrome.