Between the age of 6-18 children spend a third of each day at school, so it’s important to ensure they’re in the best environment for their needs. This is particularly true for children with Asperger’s Syndrome.
So what should parents/carers look for when choosing a school for their Asperger’s Syndrome child, or consider in their monitoring of the school environment?
Children with Asperger’s Syndrome cope best in schools with small class sizes. This option is less a reality these days, when Education systems worldwide are struggling to survive with less funding and increased consumer demand. However, there are many other procedures and practices you can monitor to make certain your child with Asperger’s Syndrome is being educated in an optimal setting.
You should ensure your Asperger Syndrome child’s school has an extensive, in-depth knowledge of Asperger’s Syndrome; from the Principal to the Classroom teacher, Administration staff and Ancillary staff. This guarantees that whoever has contact with your Asperger Syndrome child in the course of their school day is aware of your son/daughter’s needs and understands that Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder – not a behavioural issue. So ask what specific Asperger Syndrome training the staff at your child’s school has completed and check that this is updated regularly. This is particularly relevant for your son/daughter’s Classroom teacher. If no specific Asperger Syndrome training has been undertaken at your child’s school, insist that this is rectified promptly.
Check the anti-bullying policy of your child’s school. This must be a whole-school policy that has a proven and consistent grievance address policy, with successful follow-up procedures. The policy should tackle the needs of victims and actions of perpetrators alike. Zero tolerance for bullying.
Your child’s classroom should be aesthetically AS friendly, as well as having the curriculum structured and delivered in a manner that meets the needs of your child with Asperger’s Syndrome. This will include using visual aids and maintaining a low sensory “volume” in the classroom – minimising noise, light, smell and extremes in temperature. The Classroom teacher should be mindful of the fact that all social interaction will have a cumulative effect on your AS child – this will affect the successful outcome of group activities, seating arrangements and ‘buddy’ systems.
Your child’s school should have a strong Social Skills program in place, that your son/daughter with Asperger’s Syndrome participates in at least once a week for a minimum of 1 ½ hours. This program must incorporate:
* physical activity
* decoding language and facial expressions
* problem solving case-specific scenarios
* developing friendship skills
* group/team work
Ideally the Social Skills program should include Asperger’s Syndrome children’s non-disabled peers. With consistency and perseverance this skills-specific program will effect positive change in your child’s social behavior.
The physical activity component will assist the Asperger Syndrome child’s co-ordination, fine and gross motor skills, spatial awareness, vestibular systems imbalance and physical fitness levels.
The language component should aim to assist the Asperger Syndrome child to recognise and decode literal or conflicting statements in our language e.g. idioms and oxymorons. It also assists your son/daughter in identifying the meanings of facial expressions and body language/gestures. This will help your child with Asperger’s Syndrome to develop the use of more appropriate facial expressions and body language in their interactions with their peers.
Problem solving specific scenarios that have occurred in the lives of children with Asperger’s Syndrome helps them to develop a “bank” of appropriate responses/reactions and strategies to use in real life situations. E.g. Your teacher tells you to hand in your project books after lunch so she can mark them, and you’ve left yours at home. What would you do? It helps to hear everyone’s answer, as this provides a non-judgmental forum for the Asperger Syndrome child; helping them to recognise their “first response” in stressful situations. Hearing that other children with Asperger’s Syndrome may react the same way helps your son/daughter feel less like “one of a kind”. Then, asking “What might be a better way to handle the situation?” develops a number of problem-solving options for your child to implement.
Discussions about what makes a good friend; what good friends do in various situations; how friends act; what friends say to each other; how friends share; how friends play together; how friends include each other in games etc, form the basis of teaching friendship skills. Again, using real-life scenarios of incidents that happen in the playground at school/home help Asperger Syndrome children to transfer their knowledge to their interactions with their peers. Specific skills need to be directly taught about appropriate ways to join a game; co-operating with others; turn taking and also subtle nuances like “bending” the rules of a game. Self recognition by the Asperger Syndrome child of their need for rigidness and rule following, and highlighting that not all children think this way helps to explain the often-confusing nature of the playground to your son/daughter. They may never be fully comfortable with games like this, but the knowledge gives them control over their choices.
Developing group work skills enables Asperger Syndrome children to participate more successfully in activities in class and at home. The “mechanics” of group work need to be explained to AS children in a step-by-step process for greatest understanding.
Regular access to an all-encompassing Social Skills program such as this, in a group comprising Asperger Syndrome children and their neurotypical peers provides your child with the building blocks of social dexterity for life. It also fosters tolerance and understanding in their neurotypical peers.
Your Asperger Syndrome child’s school should recognize the need for continuous, open communication between home and school. This can be achieved by a daily phone call between Special Education staff and parents/carers each day, with relevant information being relayed to your child’s Classroom teacher. Most parents/carers and professionals of Asperger Syndrome children understand that sometimes seemingly benign incidents in an AS child’s day (either before, during or after school) can have a huge impact on their behaviour. Knowing that all behaviour is a form of communication, we can’t possibly hope to understand the message the Asperger Syndrome child is trying to convey unless we have all the facts. Continual communication gives those caring for the Asperger child at school and home the “big picture”.
Schools should provide support for children with Asperger’s Syndrome as required, and deliver that support in an equitable manner. Remember though, your AS child may need that support provided in an alternative format e.g. instead of in-class teacher aide support, your child may function better with organisational support e.g. keeping track of when work is due in; helping them collect/collate research information etc. It’s imperative that you negotiate with the Asperger Syndrome child themselves to establish the most successful way to provide support.
Your child’s school should have a “safe space” your Asperger child can go to when they are stressed, anxious, angry or agitated. This “space” needs to be sensorily “quiet” with soft furnishings – a muted, calm environment. Accessing this “safe space” should never be used as a form of punishment; rather the AS child should be encouraged to remove him/her self from an escalating situation before overload and meltdown occur, and rewarded for using this strategy. The AS child shouldn’t be “rushed” or “hurried” to return to the classroom or activity – this will only increase their agitation. Patience is the key in the “safe space” strategy being successful. All children (Asperger Syndrome children included) strive to be the same as their peers, and this “internal driving force” ensures the AS child will rejoin his/her class as soon as they are
physically/emotionally able to.
Just as neurotypical children differ from each other, so too no Asperger Syndrome children are exactly alike. Most of them however, experience periods of high/excess energy and will benefit from regular energy “burns” throughout the day. This could be in the form of a brisk walk; a short run/jog or a set of star jumps or other calisthenic exercise (skipping, hopping on alternate feet etc). The need to burn excess energy usually occurs about halfway through each classroom session (morning, middle and afternoon) and also just after each break-time (morning tea and lunch/recess). Your Asperger Syndrome child’s successful behavior in the classroom can be greatly enhanced by implementing regular energy “burns” into their day. If a Teacher Aide/Assistant isn’t available to supervise this, an alternative is having the AS child run errands/messages for the Classroom teacher. However, it’s vital the child with Asperger’s Syndrome comes to recognise these periods of high/excess energy, and experiences the benefits of implementing regular energy burns into his/her day.
This list of school strategies is by no means comprehensive, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it’s meant to list the minimum accommodations every school should make for children with Asperger’s Syndrome. It is a foundation to build on in partnering with your child’s school to create an individual Education program for your AS child that allows him/her to achieve their fullest potential.
Nelle Frances is the mother of a 15 year old with Asperger’s Syndrome, a Special Needs Educator and Author of the Ben and His Helmet series of books for Asperger children. For more information and Support Strategies visit http://www.aspergerchild.com
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