Asperger’s in Schools
The Bureaucratic Maze
Before the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, school districts frequently did not allow handicapped children to enroll. Today legislation such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, amended in 2004 to become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, protects the right of handicapped children to a free and appropriate education in public schools.
The “spirit” of laws that apply to handicapped children is that each child should be educated as an individual. This is a good thing for children with Asperger Syndrome in particular. They need individual treatment because they can range from highly gifted students who excel in academics to children with a variety of learning disabilities and comorbidities like Oppositional Defiant Disorder. The majority are usually between the two extremes.
From birth to age three, federal laws require that handicapped children receive early intervention services. These may be speech and language therapy, nutritional counseling, vision and medical services, parental counseling and so forth. Usually a teacher comes to the child’s home and works with her one-on-one, although some children receive services in public school classrooms or clinical settings. However, children with Asperger Syndrome often do not receive a diagnosis until after they enter school so they tend to miss Early Intervention programs.
Once a child enters school, parents can require a free evaluation and assessment by a multidisciplinary team. If the team determines the child does not require special education, parents have the right to appeal the decision and get another free evaluation. The most common problem is that Aspies often appear too bright and verbal to need services. Their solitary lifestyle can mask their social deficiencies. For this reason, many parents end up hiring lawyers to receive public school accommodations for their children.
If the school determines that the child needs special education, parents should find out what is available at that school and in that district. Services can be speech and language therapy, occupational and physical therapy, counseling, vocational education, and assistive technology like special computer software. Parents have to consider if the child should be in a self-contained classroom or mainstreamed or in a combination of both. Moving the child to a different school or even school district with better facilities might be beneficial. Often it’s a good idea to hire or have the school provide an expert in Asperger Syndrome to help staff and parents decide what’s best for the child.
A handicapped child can receive services under the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) or under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 is about getting access and removing barriers to education. For example, a child in a wheelchair may need a special door opener, but once she receives access to the classroom, she is treated like other students. Schools tend to encourage parents to go for 504 accommodations rather than services under IDEA because it is less work for them. One of the few advantages in using 504 accommodations is that the child receives no “label.” However, many more services become available under IDEA.
Under IDEA, parents and school staff meet together at the beginning of the school year and come up with an “Individualized Education Plan (IEP).” The plan must be written, and include an assessment of the child’s current strengths and weaknesses. The IEP must contain measurable goals for the year and list specific special education aids and services. Parents and staff meet periodically to make sure the goals are attained. There should be an IEP case manager who checks the child’s work every day and develops new strategies. Most IEPs for Aspies have contingencies such as allowing extra time for work, giving out shorter or alternate work assignments, providing the child with copies of other students’ notes, allowing the child to take tests over or have extra time for them, or allowing the child to take oral instead of written tests.
Some Aspies need those special contingencies. However, for the majority, the most important need is getting help with social interactions and reciprocity. Aspies can excel academically and fail in life because they do not have social skills. One author wrote of a “cycle” in which Aspies earn advanced degrees but cannot land jobs because they do not interview well. Then they take a lower level job that requires hand-eye coordination, fail at that, go back and get another advanced degree and so the cycle goes on.
For this reason, many parents opt out of the public system and find a private school that is designed for children with Asperger Syndrome. Sometimes administrators at their public schools even recommend such a placement. In that case, the school district may pay for tuition at the private school. If a doctor recommends such a school, the tuition costs can be tax-deductible or covered by medical insurance. Many Aspies benefit from even a year or so at a residential school that provides intense, twenty-four hour training in social skills.
Services that Children with Asperger Syndrome Need Most. Many children with Asperger Syndrome are very bright, and may even excel academically in one or more subjects. However, they often need protection from other students who bully or take advantage of them. Aspies do not know which students to avoid. For example, if an Aspie makes a friend, that “friend” may make him do assignments for him, break rules, take the blame and otherwise put the Aspie in jeopardy.
Aspies usually do not understand the “hidden rules” of school but take all rules at face value. They may memorize the rule “Don’t swear in middle school.” Yet they don’t know that some students do swear, but you don’t swear in front of adults, and you don’t swear in front of a certain teacher in particular. Aspies also do not understand “hidden social agendas.” If an Aspie participates on a high school debate team that meets in a coffee house, she comes prepared like a little professor to talk about the subject at hand. She does not understand that the other students are there to socialize as well as practice for the team.
For this reason, Aspies require individualized training in social and emotional competency. There are many promising new teaching techniques for children with Asperger Syndrome. On the elementary school level, some teachers are using “social stories” with special cartoons illustrated with “emo faces” to help Aspies recognize facial expressions. Acting classes also might help an Aspie better understand emotional reactions.
Self-contained or mainstream classroom? Self-contained classrooms usually have a small number of children with a variety of special needs. The teacher may have extra training in special education and receive help from one or more aides. Therefore, the big advantage of a self-contained classroom is extra individual attention.
However, there are several disadvantages to self-contained classrooms. Children with Asperger Syndrome often gain more knowledge about social interactions and how the “normal” world operates in a mainstream classroom. Academics may be “watered down” in a self-contained classroom. Children with Asperger Syndrome do not do well with emotionally disturbed children who are often streetwise and aggressive. If these two groups are together in a self-contained classroom, you often produce a combination of the perfect victim and perfect victimizer.
Sometimes a child may start out in a self-contained classroom and gradually transition to a mainstream one. This usually has to be done slowly, and takes an average of two months to two years. It may begin with just a half-hour at a time in the regular classroom for elementary school students, and perhaps an hour at a time in the student’s strongest subject on the high school level. Some experts recommend seating the Aspie next to a successful student who can help him with organization and provide class notes, if necessary.
In general, Aspies do better in classrooms that are predictable and structured with as few transitions as possible. Teaching with an emphasis on visual presentation plays to the Aspie’s strength of visual acuity. Teachers should structure lessons in clear patterns that are easy to follow.
During “unstructured” periods such as lunch, physical education, recess and passing between classes, an Aspie may need special accommodations.
Finding the ideal teacher for a child with Asperger Syndrome. The teacher should have some understanding of Asperger Syndrome. A good teacher should not be “fake” because that will just confuse the Aspie even more. He may develop a special “cue” such as tapping the child’s shoulder to help the child pay attention when his mind is wandering. He should be strong in language skills, and use drama to help the child understand other people’s emotions. The teacher should be a calm person in control of his classroom: this will decrease the Aspie’s anxiety. Changes and surprises will upset an Aspie. Therefore, the teacher should help with transitions and let the child know in advance when he will have to recite in front of the class.
Some authors describe the importance of having a teacher who can deal with “meltdowns” and “rages.” In their book, Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments, authors Brenda Myles and Jack Southwick describe the three phases of “rages” as “rumbling,” “the rage itself,” and “recovery.” It is best to intervene in the “rumbling” stage. During the actual rage, an Aspie may scream, bite, hit, kick and destroy property. For this reason, the authors recommend that a teacher wear comfortable clothes and keep expensive or sentimental items out of reach. During “recovery,” the child may be exhausted, contrite, or deny the tantrum happened. It is important that the teacher is a sensitive person so that if an Aspie rages at school, the he does not experience complete humiliation in front of his peers.
For more tips, see “Achieving Success in School Settings” by Dr. Cathrine Knott also on this website.
Bashe, Patricia and Barbara Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.
“Individualized Education Program,” the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education, posted at http://www.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html
Infant Toddler Early Intervention Program, Individuals with Disability Act, see http://idea.ed.gov/
Kennedy, Diane. ADHD Autism Connection. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2002.
Klin, Ami; Volkmar, Red; and Sparrow, Sara. Asperger Syndrome. New York: Guilford Press, 2000.
Myles, Brenda and Jack Southwick. Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing, 1999.
Powers, Michael. Children with Autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2000.
Sohn, Alan and Cathy Grayson. Parenting Your Asperger Child. New York: Perigee Books, 2005.
Watkins, Carole E (MD). “Asperger’s Disorder,” posted at http://www.baltimorepsych.com/aspergers.htm
“Wright’s Law,” a website of legal information for parents of children with disabilities, posted at http://www.wrightslaw.com/