Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome

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What is Asperger’s syndrome?

It is quite likely that there is at least one child in your school with Asperger’s and so all teachers need to develop an understanding of how the syndrome affects his/her perception of the world and the way in which someone is able to learn.

The 18th June is Autistic Pride Day. The autistic spectrum is broad and as teachers we will encounter many autistic learners including those children with Asperger’s syndrome.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

It gets its name from Hans Asperger, a Viennese paediatrician who in 1944 wrote about four boys who had unusual social, linguistic and thinking abilities. He regarded them as having a personality disorder which he referred to as ‘autistic psychopathy’.

The term Asperger’s syndrome was first used by Lorna Wing in 1981 and she described the main features as being:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Naïve, inappropriate, one-sided interaction
  • Little or no ability to form friendships
  • Pedantic, repetitive speech
  • Poor non-verbal communication
  • Intense absorption in certain subjects
  • Clumsy and ill-coordinated movements and odd postures

There are three key features of Asperger’s syndrome and most of the difficulties faced by children who have the syndrome can be categorised as

  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Difficulty with language
  • Difficulty with thinking

What causes Asperger’s syndrome?

No one is certain about what the causes are. What we do know is that Asperger’s is connected to the way the brain works and it could be linked to various different physical factors. It is a form of autism and children with Asperger’s are sometimes referred to as ‘able autistic’ and often display above average intelligence.

Recognising Asperger’s syndrome

A child with Asperger’s syndrome will experience many challenges including:

  • Communication (both listening and expressing themselves)
  • Pedantic, formal style of speaking often called “little professor” verbose
  • Extreme difficulty in developing age-appropriate peer relationships. (e.g. may be more comfortable with adults than with other children)
  • Understanding their emotions and even the most basic emotions of others. Being unable to empathise with another person, either in real life or in a story
  • Difficulty with “give and take” of conversation
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor mannerisms
  • Fascination with maps, globes, and routes
  • Superior rote memory
  • Preoccupation with a particular subject to the exclusion of all others. Amasses many related facts.
  • Responding to requests
  • Coping with noise, whether from people, machines or fire alarms
  • Making eye contact
  • Being close to other children, for example in a line or working at a table
  • Responding to praise
  • Coping with change in their routine or work area, including school trips and changes of staff
  • Focusing on work they do not see as relevant
  • Literal interpretation of language (not understanding idioms or expressions); difficulty comprehending implied meanings
  • Taking turns
  • Working as part of a team
  • Understanding the difference between fact and fiction, in stories and in reality
  • Extreme difficulty reading and/or interpreting social cues
  • Extensive vocabulary
  • Using advanced vocabulary but often without the understanding of the words or context
  • Having obsessions about particular things (cars, toys or characters from a book)
  • Hurting someone, often just to get a reaction, without understanding what this feels like for the other person
  • A dislike of physical contact
  • Difficulty judging personal space, motor clumsiness
  • A dislike of clutter, too much bright colour, a dislike of fluorescent lights
  • Sensitivity to the environment, clothing and food textures, and odours
  • Finds the change to secondary school stressful – they do not find it easy to cope with new teachers and pupils
  • Undiagnosed Colour Vision Deficiencies (colour blindness)

What you can do: 9 tips

Meeting the needs of a child with Asperger’s syndrome requires careful consideration. The following tips are practical suggestions to keep in mind:

1. Be clear

Make sure that your instructions are crystal clear and easily understood. Reinforce oral instructions with writing so that a child with Asperger’s can spend longer absorbing what it is that you want. Avoid metaphors and figures of speech but if you do use them then explicitly say ‘this is a phrase’ or something similar.

2. Limit distractions

Classrooms are noisy and active places full of distractions which can’t always be avoided. What you can do though is position yourself so that a child with Asperger’s can hear you clearly and avoid sitting near a noise source such as an open window.

3. Provide verbal clues

Devise a code so that children with Asperger’s know that you are speaking directly to them. This could be a simple word such as ‘listen’ or just by using their name but it is important to use a ‘cue’ to get their attention.

4. Explain changes

If there is any change to a routine then explain it. Routines get broken frequently in school but wherever possible explain beforehand that something is going to be different.

5. Build on strengths and weaknesses

Be alert and aware of the child’s specific strengths and make use of them. Use them as a class ‘expert’ on a particular topic.

6. Talk about feelings

Occasionally use opportunities to explain how people think and feel but take this slowly and discuss reasons. Gradually encourage role play.

7. Use other children

Other children can be used as role models so when you want a child to behave in a certain way, point out children who are already doing what is expected.

8. Games

Provide opportunities for cooperative games so that a child with Asperger’s will experience and develop skills of taking turns, contributing ideas and listening to the ideas of others. Avoid competition though.

9. Befriend

Encourage other children to act as befrienders or buddies so they can help. They can also act as guardians to stick up for someone with Asperger’s when others are less than sympathetic.

More help

By identifying children in your school with Asperger’s you are able to help them develop their social relationships, their language and their thinking.

Championing autism across the school is essential in establishing a positive and healthy culture so that children with autism can thrive socially, emotionally and educationally alongside their peers.

This is the thinking behind Joy Beaney’s new book  Creating Autism Champions.

There are also book resources that you can access which help to develop your own CPD such as:

Asperger’s Rules!: How To Make Sense of School and Friends by Blythe Grossberg

Asperger Syndrome Pocketbook by Ronnie Young 

The Asperger Children’s Toolkit by Francis Musgrave

Asperger Syndrome, Second Edition: What Teachers Need to Know by Matt Winner

Useful websites:

The National Autistic Society 

Autism Independent UK

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. I am the teacher without a tongue. www.johndabell.com

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