British Council teacher Peter Moran shares his son's story with advice for teachers to help recognise and assist children with autism.
If you are a parent, then you will well remember the complex and overwhelming feelings you experienced before your child came into the world: a heady mix of fear and worry, hope and joy, laid over with overwhelming responsibility. You worry about whether everything will be as it should, you rejoice in thinking about how you will guide and nurture the child, and you try not to panic at the thought of what is expected of you.
By the time my son was born, I had run through in my mind scenes of what I imagined was an ideal father-son story: camping together, playing football together, sharing, teaching, bringing up a son to be proud of, perfect in every way. I was determined to be the perfect father, and my son was, of course, going to be the best son there ever could be.
Around the age of six, during his first year of primary school, Ben was diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder on the autism spectrum. There had, of course, been signals before but these were easily attributed to other things: late speech to being brought up in a bilingual environment; a preference for playing by himself to individualism; clumsiness to, well, genes from my side and so on.
Ben’s condition became clear over the next year or two. He repeated school years, was moved to different schools and received multiple diagnoses including hearing problems, issues with motor skills, obsessive-compulsive behaviour and more. My perfect son was, I could see, a long way from perfect. And that was my thinking for several years until, with time, as I grew a little older and a little wiser, a little less quick to judge and a lot more ready to look and to see (which, of course, are by no means the same things), I came to understand that my son was as perfect as anyone could be.
He was different, of course. There were, and are, many things he could not do. But there were things he could see that I could not and things he could teach me that I could otherwise never learn, and I learn those things every day still.
You may be wondering at this point why I have chosen to start an article aimed at teachers with such a personal tale. The reason is that this is a perspective to which teachers rarely have access. The experience of teaching a child who is on the spectrum is one which is not uncommon, but the experience of being a parent of such a child is altogether different.
As teachers, we are often on the front line of initial diagnosis, in pre-school or early school, and it is often teachers who first broach the subject with parents and suggest formal diagnosis. It is a difficult thing to tell a parent that their child has a developmental disorder, but it is an incomparably harder thing to hear, and I hope that the words above can give you some insight into the thoughts and feelings of a parent in that position, and help you, should you be the one first raising the question, to do so with sensitivity and understanding.
Asperger’s syndrome: understanding and misunderstanding in society
Asperger’s syndrome is a form of high-functioning autism. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder, one of five disorders on the autism spectrum (ASDs). It is generally estimated to affect 48 children in 10,000 – roughly one in 200, though severity varies greatly.
It affects both sexes, though boys much more frequently: approximately four boys have Asperger’s for every girl. These numbers have increased in recent years but it is likely that this is more a reflection of greater awareness and improved diagnosis than an increase in frequency.
No specific cause has been identified for Asperger’s syndrome. The best evidence strongly suggests that all ASDs have a genetic basis, though no single gene is responsible. It also appears that certain factors can increase risk, including complications during pregnancy and some environmental factors such as air pollution during pregnancy.
Unfortunately, there is a large amount of misinformation on the subject, which can lead parents to false hope and expensive ‘treatments’ which lack any scientific basis. In spite of what can be read on the web, Asperger’s is not caused by any of the following: diet, vaccinations, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), fluoride in the water, antibiotics or ‘bad parenting’.
Recognising Asperger’s syndrome
There is no fixed set of behaviours which are common to all people with Asperger’s. However, there are certain signals that we see repeatedly in children with Asperger’s.
Delayed speech – both in terms of when the child begins to speak and how limited their speech is.
No or little eye contact and problems with turn-taking – a very common feature and a good indicator; this is a tell-tale signal.
Sound sensitivity and other sensory problems – many children with Asperger’s react very strongly to certain sounds, even to the point of feeling physical pain; other issues include oversensitivity of smell, touch and taste, physical issues such as balance, motor skills, muscle strength and coordination.
‘Tape recorder’ speech – staccato and monotone delivery, and speech which does not seem to be directed to a listener; the use of prepared texts rather than spontaneous speech.
Bottom-up thinking – a tendency to focus on individual elements rather than the whole; difficulties in synthesising, summarising, selecting and prioritising, including difficulty in accepting inexactitude and/or imperfection.
An inability to predict behaviour – problems in grasping patterns of cause and effect, motivation and emotional response in human behaviour.
A panic response to surprises – children with Asperger’s use known scenarios to determine their behaviour, and situations which do not match past experience, even in a small way, can confuse and disturb. This is related to the tendency towards and reliance on routines and, in many cases, towards obsessive-compulsive behaviour which is characteristic of many children with Asperger’s.
A sometimes painful honesty – often interpreted incorrectly as rudeness. Questions are answered directly and with perfect honesty, and any resulting irritation or dissatisfaction is met with bemusement.
An inability to understand metaphor and allusion – including jokes, sarcasm, irony, inference and unspoken suggestions.
Difficulty in verbalising feelings, emotions and needs – resulting in sudden and, to the outsider, unexplained reactions such as walking out of a room without warning or explanation, standing, shouting aloud, waving hands and so on.
A lack of need for social contact and interaction – interactions such as asking how someone feels, inquiring about their day, asking an opinion about how something looks (clothes) or if something is liked have little sense.
A narrow range of interest, obsessively followed – the stereotype is of the mathematics savant but many children with Asperger’s have a fascination for other areas such as history, cartography or zoology, or focus intensely on collecting items.
Other common traits include physical co-ordination and fine-motor problems (problems with buttons and shoelaces, pencils and rulers), a wonderful memory for information, a rich vocabulary ahead of the norm for their age, problems with concentration, above-average intelligence, loud unmodulated voices and narrow fixed rules of behaviour. As you can see, the range of traits is wide and this is one of the reasons why diagnosis is far from simple.
Helping children with Asperger’s in class
Helping begins and ends with understanding. The most important thing that any teacher can do is therefore to learn about the disorder, so that behaviour in class and problems during learning will be understood and not misinterpreted. Just as the blunt honesty typical of Asperger’s can be misinterpreted as rudeness, so the unusual actions of a child with Asperger’s can be mistaken for disruptive behaviour.
We all know the kinds of behaviour we can find from time to time in any classroom which we consider disruptive, difficult or simply rude and unacceptable. If a child in your class throws something across the room, your normal reaction, quite rightly, will be to tell the child that such actions are not acceptable. If a child strikes another child, you will react with shock. If a child repeatedly shouts out, then you have every right to be irritated. However, it is crucial to understand the cause of such behaviour.
Remember that a child with Asperger’s is not as able to vocalise their needs as a typical child, so the teacher must help them to identify the underlying problem. This could be a disturbing noise or smell (including one we cannot sense), a word or phrase which has negative associations, frustration that something does not work properly, a certain type of clothing which irritates, a colour which disturbs and so forth.
Behavioural problems can come in many forms, including temper tantrums, walking or running about the room, jumping, shouting, self-injurious activities, covering the face, eyes, mouth or ears, hugging (themselves), throwing things to the floor or across the room, talking to themselves, putting on or taking off items of clothing, making repetitive movements and more. Patiently assessing the situation and seeking to eliminate the cause is the key, and keeping a record of instances of problematic behaviour is very helpful as it can enable you to identify triggers (time of day, type of activity, location and so on).
Understanding the issue will help the teacher modify their own behaviour to avoid potential problems. For example, being aware that children with Asperger’s often have a literal understanding of instructions is important. Imagine the difficulties that can arise from a literal understanding and a rigid following of these instructions:
'Cut it into eight equal pieces.'
'Paint it the same colour as the walls.'
'Don’t move until I come back.'
Accepting approximation allows most people to move on and get things done. For a child with Asperger’s, however, these instructions can lead to frustration: the pieces may never be exactly equal; the paint available may not match the walls exactly; it may be impossible to stand still without moving for long enough. The result can be frustration, anger and disruption not from ill-will, but from an honest attempt to follow an impossible demand.
The six-step plan
The above represents the first step in a six-step plan for teachers of children with Asperger’s. I have devoted a separate section to it because educating yourself is the key without which nothing else is possible. The full six steps are as follows:
1. Educate yourself on the subject of Asperger’s (see above).
2. Reach out to the parents: start before the school year, if possible; build trust (the parents may have had negative experiences); learn from the parents, who know the child better than you ever can; make contact regular and structured; learn where diagnosis takes place and where parents can find support – there are many organisations that can provide this.
3. Prepare the classroom: be aware of what may be distracting or disruptive; remember also that routines are crucial for helping the child feel comfortable, so create routines, make them clear and be consistent.
4. Educate peers and promote social goals: the other children need to understand that their colleague is different but valued; if the parents agree, consider dealing with the subject explicitly and openly; be aware of the potential for bullying.
5. Collaborate on the child’s Individual Educational Programme (IEP): all children with special educational needs should have IEPs in their schools; familiarise yourself with this, if possible.
6. Manage behavioural challenges (see above)
You can find more information on this, and on Asperger’s at the website of the Organization for Autism Research, where you can find guides for educators, parents and more, all downloadable in PDF form for your own use.
Children with Asperger’s can be a joy. Their honesty and particular way of seeing the world can teach us many lessons – certainly, I have learned many from Ben, who is now eighteen and in high school. Teaching such children is a challenge, but one with enormous rewards if we have the sensitivity, patience and humility required to rise to that challenge.
Peter Moran is a teacher and trainer at the British Council in Poland, where he runs the CELTA online course.
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