Autism and Aspergers Syndrome in the Classroom
Both Aspergers and Autism are increasingly referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as a range of disorders exist affecting verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction and imaginative or creative play. Aspergers is at the milder end of the range and symptoms usually appear in the first three years of a child's life. Children on the autism spectrum have trouble in the classroom communicating their needs or understanding instructions. Inappropriate social behavior leads to the child being bullied or isolated and their inability to decipher the world around makes it difficult for their teachers to meet their needs.
Teachers need resources to cope, ideally with specific training in autism education, so an appropriate school with a teacher's aide for one-on-one instruction is the ideal. However, teaching strategies exist to help the autistic child integrate into mainstream classroom activities, similar to those in place for children with general learning disabilities. Structure and routine, visual lesson plans that allow the child to predict the day's routine thus reducing their anxiety and stress and working in pairs with a buddy system has proved successful. Teaching social and emotional concepts and behavioral strategies help the child and teacher cope with inappropriate or aggressive behaviors.
Before they can learn study skills, students with ASD can be taught to "self-talk" or monitor their own behavior to curb impulses and think through a situation. Social skills such as negotiation for what you want, accepting criticism, how to handle disappointment, frustration and fear, how to get someone's attention and how to ignore someone who is bothering you - these have to be modeled and taught to the autistic child with constant reinforcement and praise for appropriate behavior. Teachers need to decide what is most important and what is within the control of the child before devising lesson plans with academic content.
Children with more individualized needs because of a more serious autistic condition may be transitioned gradually into the school system from a special education program. They will need specialized curriculum content, classroom support and a coordinated team approach involving the parents and professionals until the child can be fully integrated. A teacher will have to become familiar with the child to understand his or her disorder as each child is different and responds to different approaches and challenges. Educators need to capitalize on the abilities of these children, discovering their strengths and interests in order to develop their talents.
Because children with Asperger's Disorder may be only mildly affected, they may not be diagnosed immediately and academically these children frequently do quite well at first. Their ability to memorize information, do calculations and focus intensively serves them well. But as they move through the school system, difficulties with social skills, language and obsessive behaviors become more problematic and may leave them vulnerable to teasing from classmates. Though there is no single known cause or cure, ASD is treatable. Children do not "outgrow" autism, but studies show that early diagnosis and intervention can lead to significantly improved outcomes leading to full, healthy and meaningful lives.