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Teaching Strategies for Asperger Students

by Kelly May

Since the 1960's there have been numerous legislative acts intended to protect the rights of children with disabilities. One key piece of legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), provides that children be placed in the least restrictive environment possible for their education. Anderson, Chitwood, and Hayden (1997), state,

"before IDEA, our schools almost always segregated children with disabilities from children without disabilities. Now, however, our nation has legislation that requires all students to have equal access to education. As a result, increasing numbers of children with disabilities are being integrated into regular education classrooms. Under IDEA, students with disabilities are guaranteed services in the least restrictive environment." (p. XV).

One disability that is becoming more prevalent is Asperger's Syndrome. Asperger's Disorder or Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition (2000) as, "The essential features of Asperger's Disorder are severe and sustained impairment in social interaction and the development of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. This disturbance must cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. In contrast to Autistic Disorder, there are no clinically significant delays or deviance in language acquisition (e.g., single non-echoed words are communicatively by age 2 years, and spontaneous communicative phrases are used by age 3 years), although more subtle aspects of social communication (e.g., typical give-and-take in conversation) may be affected." (p. 80).

Although this legislation is necessary and does protect a child's rights to the best public education possible, it poses a challenge for educators. With classroom enrollment limits rising, teachers are spread thin. Inclusion laws require educators to instruct children at many different places developmentally. In addition to being in different places, the addition of children with learning disabilities such as Asperger's requires the instructor to use a variety of teaching strategies in order to reach each individual.

According to Cumine, Leach and Stevenson (1998), many teachers feel they have not received training to instruct children with these kinds of learning disabilities. Additionally, Strosnider, Lyon, & Gartland (1997) express the pressure regular education instructors feel to carry out educational plans. The authors address the issues of the scarcity of time to collaborate and the shortage of special education instructors. These difficulties magnify the fact regular education instructors are ultimately responsible for implementing strategies in the classroom. The review of the literature will explore strategies of instruction valuable for educators who are not familiar with AS students and their special needs.

Review of Related Literature

In reviewing the significant research related to AS it is necessary to clarify that, although AS differs from Autism in regards to language acquisition and early cognitive development, they do have similarities. These similarities in the areas of social impairment, impairment in reading social non-verbal language, inflexibility, and persistent preoccupation allow for some of the research involving teaching strategies for Autistic students to be applied to AS students as well.

Both qualitative and quantitative research has been conducted regarding AS. For the purpose of clarity, the literature review will be categorized. The categories will include the theories associated with AS, strategies for curriculum education, and strategies for social education.

Theories Associated With AS

There are several theories associated with AS. The predominant premise is the Behaviorist Theory. "By means of relatively few basic concepts, the behavioral perspective attempts to explain the acquisition, modification, and extinction of nearly all types of behavior. Maladaptive behavior is viewed as essentially the result of (1) a failure to learn necessary adaptive behaviors or competencies, such as how to establish satisfying personal relationships, and/or (2) the learning of ineffective or maladaptive responses." (Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2004, p. 82).

The first explanation for maladaptive behavior fits AS students particularly well. AS individuals are impaired socially and often do not detect social clues. It is common for them to be unaware that someone is irritated if the only clue is a frustrated facial expression. If they miss a social clue then they miss the lesson associated with the experience. They will likely repeat the irritating behavior because they are unaware of its effects.

The idea of reinforcement is useful with individuals with AS. Dr. Bryna Siegel (1996) states that, "Although autistic children have difficulty figuring out most principles of human interaction, they are usually pretty astute about cause-and-effect principles, especially in instrumental contexts." (p.232). This indicates that although a student with AS might be unaware of another individual's desires or emotions he or she is aware of his/hers. This can be useful in education if the instructor takes the time to ascertain what is pleasing to the child. Once this pleasure has been determined the teacher can request the desired behavior and reinforce the behavior with the object of desire.

A further teaching technique that finds its roots in behavioral conditioning is the implementation of applied behavior analysis and discrete trial training (ABA/DTT). Siegel, describes ABA/DTT as "a science that studies how principles of behavioral conditioning can be applied to learning. Discrete trial training is a method of training that is consistent with the principles of applied behavior analysis." (Siegel, 2003, p. 312). Siegel explains the design of DTT suggests learning can be broken down into small steps, building upon each other, and ultimately leading to the overall concept.

ABA/DTT is highly recommended for students with Autism. The principles of the strategy are affective for AS students as well. Shore's (2002) research explains the difficulties AS students have with sensory perception. It is problematical for these students to sort through the different stimulus occurring throughout the school day. Applying ABA/DTT allows the student to focus on smaller quantities of information and possibly the opportunity to complete an assignment rather than becoming overwhelmed. Understanding the theories associated with AS aids in the appropriate evaluation of the student but specific strategies are still necessary for instruction.

Teaching Strategies for Curriculum Education

Initially it is necessary to understand the nature of the AS student in regards to curriculum education. Safran (2002) indicates many of the characteristics of AS can be "masked" by "average to above average IQ scores." (p. 284). This can result in the AS being misunderstood by instructors. Safran (2002) explains that adults often presume the student is capable of more than is being produced. Lack of understanding of the AS student in this way can significantly impede the desire of the instructor to search for strategies useful in overcoming the hindrances caused by the disability.

Another misunderstanding is the relationship between curriculum and social education. For example, a child with AS might find a social setting overwhelming and distracting. If children are placed in a small group for project work this might predominantly become a social setting to an AS student. It is possible the student would be so over stimulated by the social aspect that it would be extremely challenging to focus on the curriculum aspect of the group.

Strosnider, et al,. (1997) recognize this overlap between curriculum and social education. The researchers suggest that when considering modifications the most important aspect is considering all the elements involved in public education and not just deciding which area to modify. These authors propose that three areas effect education. The areas in review are academic, physical and interpersonal. These are all areas of difficulty for the AS student. Strosnider, et al., (1997) compiled The Academic, Physical and Interpersonal Inclusion Plan (API Inclusion Plan). This plan assists the regular education instructor in brainstorming strategies for each of the three mentioned areas of education. This is particularly useful when considering the potential unavailability of a special education instructor for collaboration purposes.

The overlap between social and curriculum education is also expressed by Bashe and Kirby (2001). They report, "if asked to design an environment specifically geared to stress a person with AS, you would probably come up with something that looked a lot like a school. You would want an overwhelming number of peers; periods of tightly structured time alternating with periods lacking any structure; regular helpings of irritating noise from bells, schoolmates, band practice, alarms, and crowded, cavernous spaces; countless distractions; a dozen or so daily transitions with a few surprises thrown in now and then; and finally, the piece de resistance: regularly scheduled tours into what can only be described as socialization hell (a.k.a. recess, lunch, gym, and the bus ride to and from school). It's a wonder that so many children with AS manage to do so well." (p. 365).

All of these types of stressors must be taken into consideration when evaluating what types of strategies will be beneficial to the AS child. Kluth (2003) addresses the idea that the learning environment is itself a strategy.

In creating the right environment Kluth (2003) suggests one aspect to be considered is that of sounds. This researcher uses the familiar example of nails on a chalk board. Just imagining it can send a chill down the spine. Kluth (2003) explains that to a child with AS every day sounds can have a similar affect.

Kluth (2003) advocates the important of an instructor taking inventory to determine sounds difficult for the student to listen to. Also offered is the solution of allowing the student to listen to soft music with headsets during class times including excessive noise. Earplugs are another solution suggested.

Williams (2001) supports the proposal of Kluth. According to Williams (2001), minimizing the stress and worry AS students face is crucial to education. The researcher offers the notion of minimizing transitions and insuring the environment is predictable to the student. When there are changes in the routine, it is recommended the student be prepped ahead of time so excessive anxiety will not arise. In addition to alleviating stress, the researcher notes that frequent changes in routines make it difficult for the student to focus on the curriculum due to preoccupation concerning what will come next in the day.

Although all of these suggestions provide a better environment for the AS student, a public school is not a static environment. AS students, like all others, change teachers each year. Additionally, there is the requirement of moving from elementary, middle, and high school. These transitions are considered by Adreon and Stella (2001). These researchers recommend a "transition-planning meeting" be scheduled prior to such transitions taking place. (p. 271). This meeting allows the previous instructor to educate the incoming teacher on successful strategies as well as provide general education on the characteristics of AS. The student should be orientated as well. Allowing the student extra time to become familiar with a new environment will prevent unnecessary stress during transition.

Once the environment has been considered, other instructional strategies can be implemented. One approach to education widely used is the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children program. It is referred to as TEACCH. Ozonoff, Dawson, & McPartland (2002) describe this method as a way to build upon the AS child's memory strengths. Many students display these memory skills in their ability to remember large quantities of information on subjects they are interested in. A child may, for example, become fascinated with trains and be able to offer as much detail as an expert in the field.

Cumine et al., (1998) indicate that TEACCH has 4 main elements. These elements include the physical structure of the classroom, a visual schedule of the day's activities, an explanation of the type and length of the work expected, and instructions presented visually in addition to verbally. These strategies are considered by the researchers to provide "scaffolding" for the AS student. (p. 35).

Ozonoff, et al., (2002), elaborate on the suggestion of visual signs for the AS student. The research claims that visual instructions and schedules help the student to feel more secure and less stressed so the mind can direct its attention to learning.

Because these students have difficulty learning in a traditional manner, depression can ensue. The capability to acquire information is present but performance is hindered. A depressed student will undoubtedly have some kind of academic struggles. For these students, depression is just one more barrier to education.

Just as Ozonoff et al., (2002) suggest that the student's strengths be maximized, Shevitz, Weinfeld, Jeweler, and Barnes-Robinson (2003) suggest a program that accomplishes the idea of maximizing student's strengths as well as increasing self esteem by using the student's preoccupation with one individual topic.

Shevitz et al., (2003) describe a mentoring program called "Wings Mentor Program". The authors explain how current statistics show there is approximately one Gifted/Learning Disabled (G/LD) student in each classroom. This was the motivation to establish the Mentor Program. The program was piloted in 1989. The results indicate, "that the mentor program improves students' self-concept, positively changes others' perceptions of them, and promotes their overall motivation in the classroom." (Shevitz, et al., 2003, p. 42).

"These are the students who, also able to participate actively in a class discussion, are unable to write a complete sentence. They are the students who rarely have homework completed, or if done, cannot find it. They are light years ahead in math, but reading below grade level. These same students may not only be able to program the computer, but they may be able to take it apart completely and put it back together again. Ask them about the Civil War, DNA cloning, lasers, or ancient civilizations and you might be bombarded with information and unique insights. Ask them to write about the same topic and they may produce little or nothing." (Shevitz, et al., 2003, p. 37).

The program attempts to remedy this problem by coupling a mentor with a student. A topic is selected and for 8 weeks the mentor meets with the student for one hour each week. The students can choose to study an area that is a source of preoccupation. At the end of the 8 weeks the class or school hosts a show-off night where the students share their project. This could also replace the traditional research projects that are done at the elementary school level. Students are filled with pride in the ability to impress parents and peers with presentations.

This program is a very effective method of instruction for students with AS. It is effective because these children are usually bright but frustrated with traditional education environments. This program offers the opportunity to be excited about learning as well as the chance to learn about individual abilities and how these abilities can be applied to the classroom environment in which they learn.

Barnhill (2001) provided further encouragement for programs allowing students to exhibit knowledge. This research elucidates such opportunities give the AS student's peers a reason to appreciate and respect AS classmates. This argument is valuable from a social and educational perspective.

Similar to the mentor program, Safran (2002) recommends a one-to-one aide or shadow. The assistance of a shadow can keep the AS student on task as well as serving as an interpreter in social settings. It is noted in the report there is no real evidence to support the notion this type of aide is effective. Like most strategies, it works for some students and is less effective with others.

Strategies for Social Education

As previously mentioned, curriculum education is not the only education a AS student encounters in the public school system. Social behaviors are not only necessary for successful playground interaction, they are necessary for successful acquisition of educational curriculum. This was previously mentioned in the example of group projects being problematic for an AS students due to the social element involved. Myles and Simpson (2001) have entitled this aspect of education "The Hidden Curriculum". (p. 279).

The "Hidden Curriculum" suggests an aspect of learning that is not obvious to students with AS. This aspect of learning includes the basic how to's of living. These are things that other students seem to just know. The social know-how that tells most people what is inappropriate conversation material may be foreign to an AS student. The investigators (2001) put forward teachers instructing students struggling in this realm through the use of "scope and sequence, direct instruction, social stories, acting lessons, and self-esteem building." (p. 283). Social stories and acting lessons give examples of proper actions in given public settings.

Middle school and high school settings present new social challenges for the AS pupil. Gagnon and Robbins (2001) address the craziness these students encounter during classroom transitions. Passing periods are a desirable time of socializing for most students. For the AS student, passing periods are a social zoo. The researchers advocate allowing the student to leave 5 minutes early in order to avoid the overwhelming social interaction. Without such options, the AS student could possibly spend most of the next class trying to recover from the distressing sensory overload experience.

Often frustration can develop from a lack of understanding that these students are unable to generalize the skills that they learn. For example, a parent or instructor might work at teaching the student how to respectfully address a teacher. Typically this skill would then be generalized to any person in a position of authority. A student with AS is likely to only apply the skill to the person initially used as the target of respect in the learning process. He or she will probably not apply this behavior to a yard supervisor, principal, or law enforcement officer. Understanding this inability to generalize will elevate frustration on the part of instructors.

There are additional techniques that have used in assisting students to learn to generalize. Myles and Simpson (2001) suggest that modes of instruction such as "scope and sequence" (p. 283) can be useful in equipping students with the skills that assist in social and academic learning as well as generalization.

The authors (2001) define scope and sequence training as teaching the student about the basics prior to expecting the generalized rules to be learned. They give the example of teaching a student the tone of a person's voice sends a message prior to teaching the child they should use a tone that is respectful to others. Due to the difficulty these students have with generalization, failing to teach the basics will further enhance their inability to generalize.

The inability to generalize can also pose a problem in classroom assignments. According to Jackson (2002), a youth author with AS, giving the direction to open a math book to a certain page does not communicate to additionally begin solving the problems. The author instructs educators to verbally give all the steps necessary to complete an assignment rather than assuming AS students will know what comes next.

It is clear from the teaching strategies outlined in this project, that similar to students without AS, students with this pervasive developmental disorder are unique and require different techniques and approaches in their educational experience. Every student has unique abilities and struggles. This is true of AS students as well.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn from the research done in this project. First, it is of the utmost importance that the instructor understands what AS is and how it hinders students. Without a clear understanding of this disorder, the instructor will not understand the student. Actions that are clearly a part of the syndrome can be confused with behavioral issues and dealt with inappropriately.

Secondly, the instructor must educate his/herself on effective teaching strategies. An outstanding method of continuing education is collaboration among educators. In research conducted by Hunt, Soto, Maier, and Doering (2003), a Unified Plans of Support (UPS) team is studied. At risk students who had a UPS team meeting once a month to strategize and reevaluate existing plans intended to assist each student climbed in measured test scores.

The IDEA Act is clear in its declaration that students must be placed in the least restrictive environment possible in an effort to provide them with the best education possible. This can only be achieved by means of evaluation by instructors as to the effectiveness of their chosen teaching strategies and a willingness on the part of educators to continue to learn new techniques of instruction.

All of these strategies are helpful and potentially vital to the education of AS students. Inclusive classrooms give them the opportunity to have their intellectual capacity challenged and nurtured. With this opportunity comes the responsibility for educators to learn the strategies necessary for the success of these students. "Inclusion is more than a set of strategies or practices, it is an educational orientation that embraces differences and values the uniqueness that each learner brings to the classroom." (Kluth, 2003. p. 23-24). With the diversity existing in the classroom, knowledge of these strategies will better prepare the educator to meet the academic and social needs of all students.

The basic principles that prove effective with students outside the AS group work for those within. Every child needs to be evaluated, have a plan established addressing areas of weakness, and most importantly have an instructor that believes in the student and expects him/her to reach appropriate grade level requirements. Instructors who are willing to learn and implement new strategies will provide the best education for all students.


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About the author

Kelly May is a graduate student at Chapman University in Southern California. Her goal is to give every student that enters her classroom the optimum opportunity for learning.

Contact info:

©September 2005

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