Supporting Students with Asperger Syndrome
“Everyday of my life coping with everyday things, causes me as much stress as the day you took your final exams to qualify for your future career” (person with AS)
As soon as we meet a person we make judgements about them. From their facial expression, tone of voice and body language we can usually tell whether they are happy, angry or sad and respond accordingly.
People with Asperger syndrome can find it harder to read the signals that most of us take for granted. This means they find it more difficult tocommunicate and interactwith others which can lead to high levels of anxiety and confusion.
We are constantly assessing by observing non verbal responses when talking with others checking out if what we are saying or doing is making sense to whom we are with. Students with Asperger syndrome may be extremely interested or bored or confused by what they are hearing or seeing but what we are observing may not give us any clear indication which it is.
About Asperger syndrome
Asperger syndrome is a form ofautism, which is a lifelong disability that affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to other people. Autism is often described as a 'spectrum disorder' because the condition affects people in many different ways and to varying degrees.
Asperger syndrome is often described as a 'hidden disability'. This means that you can't tell that someone has the condition from their outward appearance. People with the condition have difficulties in three main areas. They are:
- social communication
- social interaction
- social imagination
They are often referred to as 'the triad of impairments'
While there are similarities with autism, people with Asperger syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and are of average, or above average, intelligence. They do not usually have the accompanyinglearningdisabilitiesassociated with autism, but they may have specific learning difficulties. These may includedyslexiaanddyspraxiaor other conditions such asattention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD) andepilepsy. Adults with Asperger syndrome can and do go on to develop depression and anxiety as a result of their differences and their difficulties coping with everyday life.
With the right support and encouragement, people with Asperger syndrome can lead full and independent lives and succeed in university.
Three main areas of difficulty
The characteristics of Asperger syndrome vary from one person to another but are generally divided into three main groups.
Difficulty with social communication
If you have Asperger syndrome, understanding conversation is like trying to understand a foreign language.
People with Asperger syndrome sometimes find it difficult to express themselves emotionally andsocially. For example, they may:
- Have difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice
- Have difficulty knowing when to start or end a conversation and choosing topics to talk about
- Usecomplex words and phrasesbut may not fully understand what they mean
- Are very literal in what they say and can have difficulty understanding jokes, metaphor and sarcasm. For example, a person with Asperger syndrome may be confused by the phrase 'That's cool' when people use it to say something is good.
In order to help a person with Asperger syndrome understand you, keep your sentences short -be clear and concise. Don’t expect the student to follow what you are saying by the way you are saying it; they pay attention to the words not the delivery. Talking loudly often denotes a sense of urgency or importance but this may not be interpreted as such by the student with Asperger syndrome
Difficulty with social interaction
Many with Aspergers syndrome have difficulty picking up social cues, and difficulty in knowing what to do when things go wrong.
Many people with Asperger syndrome want to be sociable but have difficulty with initiating and sustaining social relationships, which can make them very anxious. People with the condition may:
- Struggle to make and maintain friendships
- May not understand the unwritten 'social rules' that most of us pick up without thinking. For example, they may stand too close to another person, or start an inappropriate topic of conversation
- Often find other people unpredictable and confusing
- Often become withdrawn and seem uninterested in other people, appearing almost aloof
- May behave in what may seem an inappropriate manner.
Difficulty with social imagination
“We have trouble working out what other people know. We have more difficulty guessing what other people are thinking”. (Person with AS)
People with Asperger syndrome can be imaginative in the conventional use of the word. For example, many are accomplished writers, artists and musicians. But people with Asperger syndrome can have difficulty with social imagination. This can include:
- Imagining alternative outcomes to situations and finding it hard to predict what will happen next
- Understanding or interpreting other people's thoughts, feelings or actions. The subtle messages that are put across by facial expression and body language are often missed
- Often having alimited range of imaginative activities, which can be pursued rigidly and repetitively, e.g. lining up objects or collecting and organising things related to their interest.
Some students with Asperger syndrome may find it difficult to engage in leisure activities that require imagination preferring subjects rooted in logic and systems, such as mathematics.
Characteristics of Asperger syndrome
The characteristics of Asperger syndromevary from one person to another but as well as thethree main areas of difficulty, people with the conditionmay have:
- The need for routines
- Special or focused interests
- Sensory difficulties.
The need for routines
“If I get anxious I get in a tizz. I have a timetable; it helps me to see what I have to do next, otherwise I get confused”. (Person with AS)
To try and make the world less confusing, people with Asperger syndrome may haverules and rituals(ways of doing things) which they insist upon. Students, for example, may insist on always walking the same way to lectures. In lectures, they may get upset or anxious if there is a sudden change to the planned lecture. People with Asperger syndrome often prefer to order their day to a set pattern. For example, if they work set hours, an unexpected delay to their journey to or from work can make them anxious or upset.
“I remember Samuel reciting the distances of all the planets from the sun to a baffled classmate in the playground when he was five. Since then he has had many obsessions, which he loves to talk about at length!” (Parent)
People with Asperger syndrome may develop anintense, sometimes obsessive, interestin a hobby or collecting. Sometimes these interests are lifelong; in other cases, one interest is replaced by an unconnected interest. For example, a person with Asperger syndrome may focus on learning all there is to know about trains or computers. Some are exceptionally knowledgeable in their chosen field of interest. With encouragement, interests and skills can be developed so that people with Asperger syndrome can study or work in their favourite subjects.
“Robert only has problems with touch when he doesn't know what's coming - like jostling in queues and people accidentally brushing into him. Light touch seems to be worse for him than a firm touch”.
People with Asperger syndrome may havesensory difficulties. These can occur in one or all of the senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste). The degree of difficulty varies from one individual to another. Most commonly, an individual's senses are either intensified (over-sensitive) or underdeveloped (under-sensitive). For example, bright lights, loud noises, overpowering smells, particular food textures and the feeling of certain materials can be a cause of anxiety and pain for people with Asperger syndrome.
People with sensory sensitivity may also find it harder to use their body awareness system. This system tells us where our bodies are, so for those with reduced body awareness, it can be harder to navigate rooms avoiding obstructions, stand at an appropriate distance from other people and carry out 'fine motor' tasks such as tying shoelaces. Some people with Asperger syndrome may rock or spin to help with balance and posture or to help them deal with stress.
Who is affected by Asperger syndrome?
There areover half a million people in the UK with an autism spectrum disorder- that's around 1 in 100. People with Asperger syndrome come from all nationalities, cultures, social backgrounds and religions. However, the condition appears to be more common in males than females; the reason for this is unknown.
Causes and cures
What causes Asperger syndrome?
The exactcauseof Asperger syndrome is still being investigated. However, research suggests that a combination of factors - genetic and environmental - may account for changes in brain development. Once triggered these differences in brain development and lifelongand pervasive, resulting in a characteristic pattern of strengthsand difficulties.
Asperger syndrome is not caused by a person's upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual with the condition.
Is there a cure?
There is currently no'cure' and no specific treatment for Asperger syndrome. Children with Asperger syndrome become adults with Asperger syndrome. However, as our understanding of the condition improves and services continue to develop, people with Asperger syndrome have more opportunity than ever of reaching their full potential.
How can you support students with Asperger Syndrome
Each individual with the label of Asperger syndrome will experience the condition differently, necessitating individually tailored support. There will be students who do not like or accept their diagnosis and do not seek help or support. There will be other students who although do not have a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition from their presentation they obviously need the same support and consideration as a student with a diagnosis. Some students may have other conditions which they may be more likely to disclose, due to the perception of stigma sometimes associated with Asperger syndrome. It is therefore important not to make assumptions and to respect a student´s wish to disclose or otherwise.
Non-academic learning may cause greater issues than the academic side of university life; for example, not understanding the social rules and difficulties in managing the practicalities of being at university may lead to a student becoming vulnerable to social isolation. Students with Asperger syndrome are not necessarily unsocial but may not have the social skills for establishing and maintaining relationships or do not see the need to mix with their fellow students in non- structured settings.
What difficulties might experience in University and how could they be supported?
Below are some specific examples of barriers to learning which may be encountered by a student with Asperger syndrome, alongside some potential adjustments which could be made to overcome them. These are solely intended to provide an overview of the nature and scope of requirements which staff may encounter, and to demonstrate some of the ways that a disadvantage incurred by a disability could be alleviated or removed. Above all else, it is important to note that staff being receptive and sympathetic to a student´s requirements is paramount, and where appropriate an ongoing dialogue should be maintained with him or her regarding these as the support needs may change over the course of the programme.
- Learning Environment
- Delivery of teaching and learning
- Assessments and coursework
Advance warning of changes
Students with Asperger syndrome may rely more heavily on routines than other students and anxiety maybe caused by an unpredictable or confusing environment, therefore it is important to give advance notice of any changes to the location, arrangement or timings of taught sessions and ensuring that this information is clarified e .g. when a room change is made, having a post it note on the original room door which directs students to the new location, is a simple but effective strategy that would help everyone.
Students with Asperger syndrome may have heightened sensory sensitivities and experience sensory overload. This may make some areas within university unbearable. Students with AS may be less likely to filter out background noise or may hear it at a greater intensity than others. You may need to consider carefully arrangements outside of the standard teaching environment. Light fittings that make a slight buzzing sound which most of us hardly notice may be so distracting to some students with Asperger syndrome that they are not able to focus on the lecture. Likewise the florescent light that is beginning to very slightly flicker which most of us pay no attention to some students with Asperger syndrome it may feel like a spot light flashing in their face.
Need for sameness
Respect any need for routine e.g. the student may need to sit in the same seat at every lecture and arrange their books and other belongings around them in a set way before they can start paying attention and participating in the lecture.
Delivery of teaching and learning
For some students with Asperger syndrome knowing what happens when, for how long and in what order will create predictability as predictability can greatly reduce anxiety. It is helpful to clearly outline sessions and let students know in advance if there are going to be any changes to the module content or lecture order.
Handouts in advance
Students with Asperger syndrome are likely to have information processing differences. There may be delayed processing of verbal information and so providing handouts in advance of taught sessions may be beneficial to allow time for preparation and therefore more engagement with the information given.
Students may also be recommended note taking support or the use of a digital voice recorder to record lectures due to difficulty with listening and note taking simultaneously. When presenting information (both written and verbally) ensure your language is clear and unambiguous to avoid misunderstanding of the information - be aware of the possibility for literal interpretations. Do not rely on non-verbal information (such as body language) to communicate intentions as this may lead to misinformation, a lack of clarity and to confusion. Be careful to try not to use ‘implied statements’, these can be very confusing e.g. It would be helpful for you to read “Matrices and linear equations in McGregor’s Fundamentals in University Mathematics”. Although most students would know it was important to read the chapter mentioned, the student with Asperger syndrome because they were not told directly to read the chapter may not. The student would not pick up the inference within the statement.
Asking questions, when and how?
Provide clear guidance to the whole group about when and how to ask questions during a session. It may also be necessary to provide time at the end of a taught session to clarify information.
Some students with Asperger syndrome may need additional support for group work. Prior to organising groups have a discussion with the student about who they would feel most comfortable to work with. Working with a small group of students is likely to be more successful in helping a student to engage with the work. Assigning clear roles within the group will make expectations more concrete. If group work becomes a barrier to learning it may be necessary to consider the need to devise an alternative method of working to group work. The student with Asperger syndrome may find it hard taking on the ideas of others if these ideas do not complement their own. At such times the student may appear very egocentric and rude often rubbishing the ideas of others.
Ensure clear guidance is given regarding the appropriate member of staff to approach for various aspects of the course. Keeping the same personal tutor throughout the course is helpful in ensuring consistency and familiarity. When informing the student of the tutor’s availability, be clear with times. If the student is told “Drop in to see me any time” then the student may just walk into the office while the tutor is in a meeting or is seeing another student and expect to be seen.
Assessments and coursework
The cognitive abilities of organising, planning and managing time are likely to be affected making coursework, examinations and personal study more of a challenge. Students with Asperger syndrome may find it hard to know when and what to study and for how long. They may be unable to accurately estimate how long a task will take and so not leave enough time to complete work. A student may be supported with their organisation and planning by being recommended a Support and Guidance Mentor. The Mentor may work with the student to develop a timetable to help the student to plan their time more effectively.