From about the time he was eighteen months old, I noticed that my spunky and winsome son was a bit different than other children. He didn’t look different, but he was prone to severe temper tantrums and had an extremely high energy level. He was moody and irritable, and as time went on he had great difficulty interacting with other children his own age. By the time he was nine, he had a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, depression, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Things at home and at school had only gotten worse. My bright, inquisitive child was lonely, isolated from his peers, and combative and hostile toward family and classmates. He had a thirst for knowledge that I had never seen in such a young child. His ravenous appetite for reading grew and became almost an obsession. At all times, he had a book with him.
It was about this time that his therapist mentioned that he suspected my ten year old might have Asperger’s Syndrome. Later, a few teachers and a new family therapist confirmed these suspicions. Here I was a veteran teacher and somehow I missed this! How could I not know that my child had Asperger’s? I had co-taught special education classes and even attended a workshop on this syndrome. Well, for starters, for years I had been told that I was not an effective parent: I was too lenient, didn’t spank enough, and did not have appropriate consequences for my child’s “misbehavior”. Then, there were the OCD, depression and anxiety diagnoses that actually masked some of the Asperger’s symptoms.
School was a nightmare for my child and for me. Although he did very well academically, he was bored and unchallenged. He was not accepted by his peers, often was involved in conflicts, and by the time he was fourteen, had few to no friends. His self-esteem suffered. His teachers tried to work with me the best they could, but they were quite intolerant, critical of his behavior, and more willing to discipline him rather than try and help him. They didn’t know what to do with him, and to be honest, I did not either. But, I never stopped trying. By the time eighth grade was finished, I knew that he could not attend a public high school. He now had the Asperger’s diagnosis from a psychiatrist and several therapists. But what did that mean?
Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder that is part of the Autism Spectrum Disorders. Some refer to it as a form of high functioning Autism. Those with this disorder have difficulty communicating with others, are socially awkward, and they often present behaviors that appear to be similar to ADHD, ODD, and just plain old disrespect and defiance. In most cases, they are extremely bright and have a high I.Q. As teachers, you play a vital role in the treatment plan to support the student and the family. In some cases, you may observe behaviors and suspect an Asperger’s diagnosis before the parents do. I do not blame my son’s teachers, as they tried the best they could to support and accommodate him. In retrospect, I would have liked to have been more educated and aware of Asperger’s traits, appropriate behavior modifications, and to realize that a public school setting is not always the best placement for all students.
What do I wish I could have told my son’s teachers?
• will have difficulty maintaining eye contact with you when involved in conversation. Please do not ask him to make eye contact when speaking and do not assume that he is being impolite. It is his way of attempting to filter and process too much information.
• may have a rigid and monotonous prosody when reading and speaking. He will often have a flat affect with few facial expressions.
• will have a hard time working in cooperative group activities. My son prefers to work by himself and needs guidance when working with others. He needs to practice these social skills, for they don’t come naturally. When possible, allow him to work by himself.
• has rigid rules and a tendency to uphold and enforce rules. For example, if the rules to a game are changed, he will become very upset. He views the world in a very black and white perspective. There is no gray area.
• may seem to be bored. He needs more project-based learning opportunities and numerous independent projects throughout the year.
• desires to be accepted by his peers and by you, but his belligerent actions often contradict and compromise social interactions. He does not know how to interact appropriately with others or how to develop friendships.
• he will come off as being a “know-it-all” and appear to not be sensitive to others’ feelings. He doesn’t know when to stop talking and can’t read social cues that you are giving him.
• is misunderstood and so are his parents. From the outside looking in, it appears that this precocious child is spoiled and undisciplined.
My plea is not to offer excuses for my child’s behavior, but rather to explain why he acts the way he does; to help you understand that this child is in turmoil, is overwhelmed, and is desperately seeking approval and acceptance, even as he is pushing you away. In part two of this article, I will share more information and specific strategies that teachers can use to help the child with Asperger’s learn appropriate social skills.
This isn’t the end of my story, but rather just the beginning.