Children with Asperger's Syndrome: Characteristics/Learning Styles and Intervention Strategies

by Susan Stokes Autism Consultant

If you reprint or use this article, or parts of it, please include the following citation:"Written by Susan Stokes under a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "

Introduction

Asperger's Syndrome was named for a Viennese psychiatrist, Hans Asperger. In 1944 Asperger published a paper in German describing a consistent pattern of abilities and behaviors that occurred primarily in boys. In the early 1980s Asperger's paper was translated into English, which resulted in international recognition for his work in this area (6).

In the 1990s, specific diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Syndrome were included in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV, 1994) as well as the International Classification of Diseases, 10th edition (ICD10) (3) & (15). In general, DSM-IV and ICD10 base their diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Syndrome on the following:

Recent research establishes the prevalence of Asperger's Syndrome as approximately 1 in 300, affecting boys to girls with a ratio of 10:1 (6). Children with clinical (medical) diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome and who have been identified by schools as "children with disability" are typically found by the IEP Team conducting the evaluation to have an impairment in such areas as Autism, Speech/Language, or Other Health Impaired. Depending on the unique characteristics of the child, other impairment area listed under state law for special education may also be considered and used. This link will connect to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for additional information on these areas: http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dlsea/een/program.html.

The general features and characteristics exhibited by children diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome are similar to the general features and characteristics exhibited by children who have been clinically diagnosed with Autism and are described as having "high functioning autism". For educational purposes, the remainder of this paper focuses on the child with Asperger's Syndrome who has been identified by the IEP Team as being a child with a disability. Much of the following information is also relevant for consideration in working with children identified as having autism and who are described as having "high functioning autism".

Training

Each person who comes in contact with a child diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome (either school staff or peers) should receive training on the unique characteristics and educational needs of such children. Due to confidentiality issues this should always be discussed first with the parents of the child with Asperger's Syndrome. Their written consent should be obtained prior to providing peer training.

Educational Staff Training should include the following two components:

  • General training of the entire school staff: Prior to working with children with Asperger's Syndrome, it is critical to understand the unique features and characteristics associated with this developmental disability. Staff should be informed that children with Asperger's Syndrome have a developmental disability, which causes them to respond and behave in a way which is different from other students. Most importantly, the responses/behaviors exhibited by these children should not be misinterpreted as purposeful and manipulative behaviors (4).
  • Child specific training for educational staff who will be working directly with the child: Educational staff who will be working directly with a child with Asperger's Syndrome should understand his individual strengths and needs prior to actually working with the child. A team of persons familiar with the child and his disability should provide this training. The team may include previous teacher(s), speech/language pathologist, occupational therapist, teacher aide and most importantly, the child's parents.
Peer training:
The peers/classmates of the child with Asperger's Syndrome should be told about the unique learning and behavioral mannerisms associated with Asperger's Syndrome. It is important to note that parent permission must always be given prior to such peers' training. A successful protocol for training peers at the kindergarten to approximately second grade level was developed by Division TEACCH and is available at their web site http://www.unc.edu/depts/teacch/. Another peer training protocol designed for children between the ages of 8-18 is Carol Gray's "Sixth Sense" (10).

Characteristics and Learning Styles: General

The following characteristics and learning styles associated with Asperger's Syndrome are important to consider, particularly their impact on learning, and in planning an appropriate educational program for the child (7). Children with Asperger's Syndrome exhibit difficulty in appropriately processing in-coming information. Their brain's ability to take in, store, and use information is significantly different than neuro-typically developing children. This results in a somewhat unusual perspective of the world (7). Therefore teaching strategies for children with Asperger's Syndrome will be different than strategies used for neuro-typically developing children.

Children with Asperger's Syndrome typically exhibit strengths in their visual processing skills, with significant weaknesses in their ability to process information auditorilly. Therefore use of visual methods of teaching, as well as visual support strategies, should always be incorporated to help the child with Asperger's Syndrome better understand his environment.

The remainder of this article describes ten primary characteristics of children with Asperger's Syndrome and intervention strategies for each.

Social Relation Difficulties

Characteristics: Children with Asperger's Syndrome tend to exhibit a lack of effectiveness in social interactions rather than a lack of social interactions. They tend to have difficulty knowing how to 'make connections' socially (4). Social situations are easily misread by children with Asperger's Syndrome and as a result, their interactions and responses are often interpreted by others as being odd (4).

Children with Asperger's Syndrome can exhibit low self-esteem and possible depression, particularly when they reach adolescence, due to their painful awareness of the social differences that exist between them and their peers (12). They have a desire to "fit in" socially, yet have no idea how to do this. Children with Asperger's syndrome can be significantly impacted by the following characteristics of social relations:

Example: When experiencing great distress, a child with Asperger's Syndrome continually asks others for monitoring of his emotional states, "Am I under control yet?", He has limited awareness of when he is calm, versus extremely upset. Another example would be laughing, seemingly inappropriately, when others are hurt, embarrassed, etc. One child with Asperger's Syndrome physically manipulates his face when requested to exhibit various emotional states.

 


Social Relation--Intervention Strategies:

The child with Asperger's will need to be directly taught various social skills (recognition, comprehension and application) in one-to-one and/or small group settings. Social skills training will also be needed to generalize previously learned social skills from highly structured supportive contexts to less structured settings and, eventually, real-life situations. It is important to emphasize that children with Asperger's Syndrome will not learn social relations by watching other people, or by participating in various social situations. They tend to have great difficulty even recognizing the essential information of a social situation, let alone processing / interpreting it appropriately.


"Social Stories"
  • The use of Social Stories (9) and social scripts can provide the child with visual information and strategies that will improve his understanding of various social situations. (See the previous article on "Assistive Technology" for an explanation on social stories.) In addition, the Social Stories/scripts can teach the child appropriate behaviors to exhibit when he is engaged in varied social situations. The repetitious "reading" of the Social Story/script makes this strategy effective for the child with Asperger's Syndrome. A 3-ring binder of Social Stories/scripts kept both at home and school, for the child to read at his leisure, has proven very successful for many students with Asperger's Syndrome

Social Communication Difficulties

Characteristics: The child with Asperger's Syndrome typically exhibits highly articulate and verbose expressive language skills with large vocabularies, particularly regarding specific topics (high interest areas). However, his convincing language skills can easily be misinterpreted as advanced communication skills. In turn this can result in a mislabeling of the child's actions as purposeful or manipulative, rather than behavior that is due to the child's significant difficulty in understanding and using appropriate social communication skills. Children with Asperger's Syndrome often lack social communication skills to sustain even minimal social communicative interactions in any of the following areas:

Example: A child with Asperger's Syndrome was relating his weekend to the class. The child with Asperger's Syndrome related: "Back through time, uhm, uhm, at my Grandma's, uh, it was (pause) back through time. I was, I was, I (pause) I uh, a long time ago. I was at my Grandma's."

Social Communication - target skills and strategies for intervention:

The following social communication skills (pragmatic language skills) may be focused on for direct instruction, depending upon the child's individualized needs:

Tools for teaching social communication skills: All of the tools listed previously for teaching social skills can also be used to teach social communication skills, with the addition of the following: