Social Skills for Children and Teens with Asperger's Syndrome: How Schools and Families Can Help
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Interview with Dr. Angela Ver Ploeg, Nationally Certified School Psychologist
By Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
Angela Ver Ploeg, came to work as a school psychologist in Alaska in 2000, after years of similar work in Ohio and Tennessee. She has a Master's Degree, and an additional Educational Specialist degree. Van Ploeg has immersed herself in the world of children and teens with Asperger's Syndrome, and in learning about their daily lives at school and at home. Her intensive study of Asperger's has made her both an expert and an innovator in the treatment programs she recommends to parents and teachers. Her insights about the unusual traits of Asperger's are complex and often profound, but her suggestions for families have an encouraging simplicity and practicality.
When asked about the students she sees with Asperger's, Ver Ploeg says that often they experience many problems. For example, a very bright student was brought to her who was being expelled for the last six weeks of school - and it was the third year in a row in which he had incurred expulsion. For these students, frustration often mounts because they do not cope well with stress. Many of the stresses they face involve their inability to read social cues as well as other students do; and consequently, they make social mistakes and are often bullied. But instead of seeing students with Asperger's as indifferent to their social ineptitude, Ver Ploeg says that children with Asperger's as young as eight years old suffer an agony of loneliness. One eight year old told her, "I can't make friends. I don't have friends." It is only later, as these children grow older, that she sees them make an adjustment, and adapt to the lack of a more complete social life. She is certain that at every age they care very strongly for others, even though they often have great difficulty expressing their feelings.
The School Environment
Schools can exacerbate these problems, or they can help alleviate some of the difficulties that children and teens with Asperger's Syndrome face. Ver Ploeg tells the story of a young boy who was one of 800 students in a gym - being supervised by one teacher. A large group of boys started bullying the boy with Asperger's, teasing him about why he was hiding in the corner. Finally he picked up a chunk of broken concrete and threw it at them. He was punished, and sent to her office for counseling. But no one sent the bullies to her office. Clearly, that particular school was unhelpful, and probably should have dealt with the incident very differently. Ver Ploeg says that a simple hall pass, allowing the child with Asperger's to remove himself from what must have seemed a threatening and confusing situation, could have solved the problem on that day. Hall passes provided as an outlet for times of social stress, offer a simple, practical solution.
Some smaller schools, such as some of the small rural schools Ver Ploeg works with in Alaska, have fewer problems because they practice an ethic of inclusion. Because all the students and teachers know each other (and perhaps in part because of local cultures emphasizing community), there is more acceptance. Students get used to someone behaving differently, and use expressions such as, "That is just him" (or her). In these kinds of schools with inclusion settings, bullying is addressed by the whole group. Children may even explain the situation to each other. The inclusion provides the acceptance that fosters healthier relationships.
Diagnosing students with Asperger's and then designing a program to meet their needs can challenge the creativity of teachers and specialists. Asperger's diagnoses are far from clear-cut; there are quite a few wrong diagnoses, and sometimes even correct diagnoses are a matter of degree rather than absolute certainty. Ver Ploeg looks for a combination of factors, including physical awkwardness, such as walking without swinging the arms or an unnatural walk, poor handwriting, lack of eye contact, nonverbal learning disabilities, and the presence of more social problems than most children have. Often other members of the near or extended family have Asperger's or related symptoms or behavior patterns. The label, "Autism Spectrum Disorder", can be upsetting for a family, but can help a child get much needed services. She has seen a rise in Asperger's diagnoses in the past few years, as the condition has gained recognition, and perhaps due to other factors.
In a new book, Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker argues that his research shows that rather than an autism epidemic, there has simply been a dramatic shift in the effectiveness of diagnoses for autism spectrum disorders, including an increase in diagnoses for milder conditions such as Asperger's Syndrome. But Ver Ploeg points out that the research that locates Asperger's on the autism spectrum is itself shaky. While some Asperger's Syndrome symptoms seem similar to symptoms of classic autism, Ver Ploeg notes that there is no final conclusion that Asperger's is actually part of the spectrum. In fact, she argues, Asperger's students often show true emotional connectedness, including an ability to empathize that is less characteristic of autism; the difficulties that students with Asperger's Syndrome face are tied to perceptual problems with nonverbal communication, and problems with their ability to draw social inferences, more than to any underlying emotional disconnection. But regardless of whether there is a rising epidemic of Asperger's Syndrome, or simply a greater number of correct diagnoses, schools must provide adequate programming that enables these children to learn and thrive. While Ver Ploeg reserves judgment on whether Asperger's Syndrome is truly a form of autism, she recognizes that the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis helps ensure that adequate services reach these children.
School Programs for Asperger's Syndrome
The best school programs honor all students' needs, including the students with Asperger's, and that may mean, for the Asperger's students, bypassing much of the regular curriculum and focusing on areas that are interesting to them, and intellectually stimulating. If school is fun and challenging for these students, and they have opportunities to share their special interests, they will do better both academically and socially. Because many students with Asperger's are also very bright, the school may have to make extra efforts to meet their needs academically. Ver Ploeg took one student to a high school algebra class every day for an hour when the child was still in elementary school. Social skills training can be even more of a challenge for the regular school, but several approaches can work well, including teaching problem-solving methods, weekly social skills training sessions, and video-taping students and letting them see themselves, so that they can gradually make adjustments to their social behavior. Sensory integration issues may also be important for many children and teens with Asperger's; for them to adjust fully to the classroom, it often helps to allow these students to move away from a bright window, or to wear headphones, or dark glasses. Parents should be fully involved in learning about their children's needs in school, and should meet with school personnel during the IEP and as part of any counseling programs offered to Asperger's children and their families.
The Home Environment
The home environment can also help or hinder the child or teen with Asperger's. Ver Ploeg says she has seen some wonderful homes, where children find both unconditional love, and firm boundaries that provide a necessary structure to their lives. She illustrates her point with a story about a family she knows. When she talks to the father, he says of his son, "Oh, we think he is wonderful - sure he's different from other kids, but he's our boy." This family is very structured, sticks to a schedule with their son's activities, and warns him if changes are coming up. They drive him to regular after school classes for physical activities such as swimming. The family members pour a lot of energy and love into this child, but at the same time, provide him with lots of structure. It can be a challenge for families to be so supportive, but the effort pays off. Some home environments are so well adjusted for the child that the Asperger's Syndrome is not noticed.
One of the most important ways that the parents can be supportive - and bridge the distance between school and home - is to organize play dates when the parent can be present to help facilitate social interactions when needed. Visits from friends seem to work best for children with Asperger's when a parent is involved and provides highly structured activities that all the children will enjoy. For example, volunteering to be a scout leader is one way to ensure a regular flow of such activities in a structured social environment.
If parents, teachers, and school personnel can find ways to honor and respect the special needs and the special abilities of children with Asperger's, these children will have a good chance of finding their way in the adult world as well. In the schools, honoring and respecting must take the form of ensuring acceptance for the Asperger's student's differences, as well as supportive programming for those different needs and abilities. In the case of the parents, Ver Ploeg stresses the importance of unconditional love for the unique child they have, and providing a structured, consistent environment. The crucial early interventions must help these young students to love education, and to think about their future. While many go through a rough period during adolescence, with support they can often emerge into a future with a shining array of possibilities.