Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Special Education: Asperger's Syndrome

Recently (January 30th) one of my readers posted a question. It’s taken me a few days, but here is my response. I’m putting this in the blog area because I think this information may have a wider interest group.

Tammy writes:

“I came here after Heather informed me of your blog. She had mentioned you were a Special Ed Teacher. I have a blog on mental illnesses asking for information on Asperger’s as to how to help children with this disorder. Do you have any information or sites I can visit to aide in how to work with children with this type of disorder? We just found out that our 8-year-old grand son has this, and he's been a handful. Any information you may have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and God Bless.”

Dear Tammy and friends,

Yes, I am a Special Ed teacher. About 14 years ago I left the data processing field. I was a Systems Engineer for Cal Fed Bank. I was on Rapid Application Development team that built computer applications for various business groups in the Cal Fed organization.

After I was widowed, I took a severance package to become a Mr. Mom for about two years. Then I met a widow. By then I had learned to live on less money, and I had seen many single parent families that lacked a positive male role model.

I explored the elementary education field and chose the area of Special Education instead of Regular Education. My main reason for choosing this field, and the sub-field of Mild to Moderate Disabilities, was that I like helping the underdog. (My senior project in college was “Paradigm Shift: From Systems Engineer to Special Educator.”)

My personal optimism is contagious and many students with disabilities need a self-image makeover as much as they need remediation, compensation, and grade-level content. My optimism is mixed with an engineer’s pragmatism and planning.

There are about ten ways a person can qualify for Special Education including blindness, deafness, Specific Learning Disabilities, and autism. Asperger’s is on the high end of the autism spectrum.

Autism has various degrees of severity ranging from a child that is totally self-involved, to the child with Asperger’s who is comparatively more mildly delayed.

There are many sites, books, parent groups and such that you can find. What I want to give you is a distillation of 11 years in Special Education where I’ve had about a half a dozen students “on the spectrum.” (I also had a friend in his late 20’s who I identified as Asperger’s. He and I had several conversations where I validated my ideas with him.)

Although individuals with Asperger’s vary greatly, they seem to have a few things in common: they are usually socially delayed developmentally, they have difficulty with seeing the big picture, they have very narrow interests, and they have difficulty with viewing things chronologically or even sequentially.

I like to major in the majors, so out of this list I find one item that contains much of the value in helping the individual with Asperger’s and that is the social aspect. One view is that as infants, toddlers, and youngster’s these individuals miss one key tenet: the one that recognizes that there are other beings of worth co-inhabiting the world with me.

If you don’t figure this reality out until you are 10 or 12 years old, (or as my friend did at 16), you end up with some out-of-the-ordinary behaviors, interests, interactions, and relationships.

Think of your 8-year-old grandson as being 6 or 7 years socially delayed. That puts an infant’s social skills and outlook in an 8-year-old body. Yikes!

Now my job was to help 12 and 13-year-old students with this disability learn to read, write, do math, and interact appropriately with the world. As you can guess, that’s a challenge.

(Cats are socially aloof and no one gets too upset, because you expect that behavior from a cat. From a person, it’s hard to imagine that they don’t get “it,” but in reality, socially, they don’t. They’re off-putting behaviors are not necessarily intended to be personal affronts to others, but they sure can feel that way.)

Here are some tips: 1) Meet them on the ground of their interest’s not your own. (I’ve learned lots about cats, elephants, Animorphs, and Transformers.) 2) Do your best to get behind their eyes. Try to see the world from their point of view, and then try to reach in to their world and escort them into yours.

I’ve seen some very sweet and agreeable students with Asperger’s, and I’ve met some very rude ones. (But then I met the parents. Kids, all kids, learn to see the world how they are taught to see the world. Some are slower to learn, but they do.)

A movie that has helped me in my work is called House of Cards. It is the story of a mother who goes to incredible lengths to see the world from the point-of-view of her selectively mute daughter.

This is the type of approach I’ve sought to use with my students, regardless of their disability.

One final note: All too often we look at what’s not there to the exclusion of what is there. Individuals “on the spectrum” have a great eye for detail, they become almost encyclopedic in their area of interest, they can be funny, they can be generous, and some can even play sports quite well.

In living and helping with an individual “on the spectrum” remember that little by little improvements come. Love finds a way. Love persists in the face of apparent ingratitude. Love never fails: but it can get pretty tired by the end of the day. ;-)

Hope this long post helps. (I’ve only touched the surface, but hopefully this view from 36,000 feet is helpful.)



  1. Thank you Don for taking the time to offer this information. I so appreciate it.

    He is a very loving boy that loves to touch and hang on you, and is always complimenting to people. Recently though, he's become very detached. I believe it has to do with the way he's received at school (his teacher doesn't like him :(), and the way his parents and one brother treat him.

    I have to admit, our patients run dry but we try. He has great potential, and I really want to see him do well. I have a love for children, and hate seeing them suffer. Too often, these children are just let go and pushed through the systems.

    Those kids you educate are very lucky to have someone like you. I'm hoping to have a chance to work one on one with him this summer. Right now it's pretty hard. Thankfully his step sisters love him to death and hurt when they see him treated the way he gets treated.

    Anyway, sorry for turning this into something so long. I've been pushing his dad to get him tested and find out what's wrong. Thankfully his mom finally did. I'm very appreciative to you for your help. God Bless You!

  2. Don, I love the way The Lord intertwines our lives, don't you?

    When Tammy began her site and findings of Asperger's, I shared with her that I recently began picking up an 8th grade student on my bus route. They started with having an aid ride with her, changed to not having her on the bus to letting her ride alone. She's been fine and has been riding with me now for over a week. Her character, to me, seems similar to Autism but she is much more social than most. After talking with someone, they said that she was not diagnosed with Autism but something else that they couldn't recall. I wonder if it is Asperger's. Anyway...

    After reading your profile a little while back and saw that you were a Special Ed. Teacher, a lightbulb went on when Tammy began seeking for answers. I thought...hmmm, it couldn't hurt to send her your way.

    Now, here I am reading this post and tears filled my eyes when I read that you've worked with these children. Honestly, no one could say that all of this is "coincidence"...not even the severe pessimist (right?).

    I am an optimist...very much and I really appreciate my fellow optimists and siblings in The Lord ;o).

    I am so encouraged and blessed by this!


  3. A brilliant novel about Asperger's is Clare MORRALL – “The Language of Others”
    Publ: 2008 Sceptre

  4. I think Asperger's is fascinating, and this one line - "the one that recognizes that there are other beings of worth co-inhabiting the world with me" - helped all that I've heard or read or experienced fall into place for me.

    The new girl in my school-agers' class has Asperger's, I'm almost certain. Among other things (like asking every day when she can do art), she doesn't grasp the subtle gestures one can give when they appreciate someone - so she just tells me she loves me. This started her third day. It's really fascinating.

  5. Hi Don,

    A beautifully constructed post. At my last school in London we had a school within the school that specialsed in kids with autism from the borough. Wherever possible the kids were integrated into the main school and students from the main school would often buddy those who needed assistance. It was a great way for both sides to learn about tolerance the importance of diversity.

    Personally, I love having Asperger's kids come to my media classes and clubs. They have a very different view of the world which I appreciate. At my training school I was at a parents' evening and a boy with Asperger's sat down with his folks. 'So,' he explained to them, 'This is the fat guy who talks a lot. I like laughing at him.' It made me smile...

    Have you read the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night? It's a novel all about a boy with Asperger's solving a murder. It's brilliant.

    Anyway, carry on the excellent work. We're lucky to be working in the best profession around!