Autism - Special Focus on Asperger's Syndrome

General Information

Asperger’s syndrome is a disorder at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) range of neurobiological disorders. Children identified with Asperger’s present with the same deficit areas as ASD (i.e., communication and social skills and a pattern of restrictive or repetitive behaviour) but show strength in receptive and expressive language. Communication issues are related to comprehension, context, and social understanding. Children with Asperger’s present with highly individual strengths and needs, and most require individualized program plans to meet their learning needs.

Asperger’s syndrome is a genetic disorder, but its early presentation is subtle and often missed. It is common for children to be diagnosed late because help is generally sought after problems have already developed behaviourally or academically. Families with a concern request a referral from their family doctor to a developmental pediatrician, child psychiatrist, or psychologist for assessment and diagnosis.

General Characteristics To Look For

Communication: Children may have an advanced vocabulary but limited comprehension, and this may be most pronounced when it comes to abstract concepts or social nuance.

Socialization: Children often want to be included socially, but because they struggle to read and respond to social cues, and often have preoccupying interests, they can find this hard to achieve.

Behaviour: Rigidity, stress, anxiety, and self-esteem issues sometimes provoke explosive behaviour; generalization of “rules” to practice is often very difficult.

  • Many children with Asperger’s have difficulty understanding social interactions, including non-verbal gestures.
  • They may fail to develop age-appropriate peer relationships or be unable to share interests or show empathy.
  • When confronted by changes in routine, they may show visible anxiety, withdraw into silence, or become reactive.
  • Although children with Asperger’s may often appear to have a large vocabulary, sometimes sounding like “little professors”, they can be very literal-minded and have great difficulty using language in an abstract or social context.
  • They may like school but wish the other children were not there.

Impact On Student Success

A student with Asperger’s may struggle with higher-level learning concepts that require abstract reasoning. Frustration and anxiety is common. As students move into their teen years, they can feel distress because of their social difficulties. Without supports, they are prone to feel isolated and defeated by school life.

  • Use a direct and repetitive format to teach acceptable social behaviours. Focus on how to “use the moment” for learning how to read and respond to the social cues of others.
  • Prepare children for change and transition in advance.
  • Use experience and knowledge to build a positive support system.
  • Provide opportunities for students with Asperger’s to use their strengths by sharing knowledge with peers via special projects.
  • Consider how a peer helper or mentor can help students participate with others and develop social skills.
  • Cultivate a compassionate classroom, respectful of differences among students. Provide information for classmates to help promote understanding and facilitate positive relationships.
  • Use positive supports within the classroom designed to support the student with learning and regulation.
  • Ensure solid transition planning between grades and provide opportunities for teachers, families, and community partners to share knowledge/information about what works for the child.
  • Build and maintain protocols to help students transition, particularly from elementary to high school.
  • Ensure that teachers are well supported and have access to information about how to meet the learning needs of students with Asperger’s.
  • Support parents in providing expertise and information regarding the child’s individual profile.
  • Provide education support or in-service based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis as needed.
  • Share with school staff information regarding the child’s individual profile and what works to help him/her stay or get back on track.
  • Coach the child socially and help maintain consistent social rules in home and school life so that the child has opportunities to practise and maintain social skills.
  • Help the child learn self- regulation and stress-management techniques and practise their use with the child
  • Provide practical consultations to help families and school team members overcome hurdles and build an integrated approach to skills training and behavioural expectations across the home, school, and community settings.
  • Facilitate referrals for specialized assessments if diagnosis is uncertain or treatment recommendations are required.
  • Ensure that information regarding services available for children with Asperger’s or for their parents is available for school and community distribution.
  • Make services fit the family, not the other way around.
  • Increase communication to clarify roles, responsibilities, and limitations of each service’s mandate and resources.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.