The information on this page has been designed to give a few basic ideas for dealing constructively with pupils who have Asperger syndrome.

Basic traits of Asperger syndrome

Things to bear in mind about people with Asperger syndrome

They may have:

  • difficulty in communicating
  • difficulty in social relationships
  • a lack of imagination and creative play


They may also be extremely:

  • clever at something (such as Maths)
  • knowledgeable about something (such as tarantulas or dinosaurs)
  • well-mannered, well-meaning and with a good sense of humour 

Things to ask yourself

  • How am I speaking to this person?
  • Would I say this in the same way to someone without Asperger syndrome?
  • Does this person know why I am asking them to do/not to do something?
  • Do I need to give them more information?
  • Am I being clear without being patronising? 

Socialising with others

Sometimes people with Asperger syndrome may say or ask things which others in the school may judge to be inappropriate, too personal, odd or even bizarre. It is very important to understand that this is not done on purpose to annoy or upset other people but merely based on a lack of understanding about 'accepted rules of conversation'.

It may be necessary to be positive by providing the person with Asperger syndrome with a list of inappropriate topics of conversation, alongside a list of appropriate topics. As well as the suggestions below, teachers might consider providing a list of some key 'opening' phrases which can be used to start a conversation.

Inappropriate topics of conversation Appropriate topics of conversation
1. Age. Asking people how old they are 1. Asking people if they had a good weekend or holiday
2. Money. Asking how much people earn, or how much their house or car cost 2. Music, films, theatre, books, TV programmes
3. Personal appearance. Commenting on others 3. Shared interests and hobbies
4. Asking about people's marriages or relationships 4. School. Asking others about their favourite lessons, sports, other activities such as music or drama etc.
5. Personal hygiene issues 5. The weather

A need for structure and routine

Pupils with Asperger syndrome usually like structure and routine and may find breaks and lunchtimes more difficult to manage because these are usually unstructured, 'social' times. Teachers might like to suggest ideas for introducing 'structure' such as:

  • Bringing in a book or magazine to read
  • Going for a short walk each day after lunch
  • Doing a crossword or puzzle book
  • Being allowed to sit in the library or other quiet room during lunchbreaks
  • Perhaps even listening to a personal stereo

Obsessions and rituals

Many people with Asperger syndrome have obsessions and/or rituals, which are part of their everyday life. Sometimes the obsession or ritual affects their work, upsets or irritates their fellow pupils. If this happens then some constructive strategies may have to be introduced by teachers to overcome any problems. An example of this behaviour is pacing up and down the classroom without any apparent purpose. In this case, the pupil with the syndrome could be encouraged to take a note to the teacher, even thought the note itself is actually just a blank piece of paper. If the behaviour appears to have a point, it can be rendered less disruptive to others in the classroom.

Understanding social expectations

This is an area that people with Asperger syndrome may have difficulties in initially grasping. Many things we take for granted are 'unwritten rules'. For instance, a group of friends may take it in turns to collect homework assignments for everybody. This is an 'unwritten rule' but for somebody with Asperger syndrome, they may not take their turn and this could cause class mates to see them as deliberately awkward or unsociable. Take time, either as a teacher or a fellow pupil, to explain these 'unwritten rules': give somebody with Asperger syndrome the chance of integrating more easily with classmates.

Involvement in group projects and team work

Giving and receiving instructions

When giving instructions and/or explanations, either as a teacher or when you are involved in class group work, it is imperative to make sure you are clear and concise. You may have to reinforce what you have explained over a period of time until you are satisfied that they have understood the instructions fully. Any ambiguity can be a cause of great anxiety for a person with Asperger syndrome.
In short:

  • Take time
  • Be clear and concise
  • Don't assume they know what you want them to do
  • Don't shout instructions across the room
  • Be aware that verbal instructions alone may not always be adequate and are best backed up with some form of written guidelines
  • State exactly what you want the person to do
  • It may also be beneficial to get the person with Asperger syndrome to repeat back what they have just been shown
  • Try not to give instructions when someone is busy or concentrating: wait until they have finished or say that you would like to interrupt them and then explain what you would like them to do
  • Make sure everyone giving instructions is consistent: don't confuse a person with Asperger syndrome with variations on the original instructions


Remembering those instructions

Some people with Asperger syndrome are prone to asking numerous questions relating to tasks that may already have been explained. This is their way of checking that they are doing their job properly and whilst it can be both distracting and time consuming, a useful strategy is get the person to write down the answer in their file or workbook as you give it. If the question is asked again you can then redirect them to the file. This is useful for cutting interruptions down and can also promote confidence in the individual. Over a period of time the person will begin to become familiar with the information in the file and also will refer to the file first before asking questions.

Organising

Many people with Asperger syndrome have difficulties in organising themselves effectively in the classroom. Again, written guidelines can be very helpful. It may not be apparent to somebody that they do not need three staplers and that one would be sufficient. Also, helping somebody to organise his or her desk space can help to reduce stress and lead to more efficient working.

Planning work

Some people with Asperger syndrome find it difficult to plan out their day and cannot see how they can 'fit' all the work tasks they have been assigned to do into a time frame If, for example, you are involved in group work, it is helpful to draw up a visual timetable of tasks and deadlines.

Feedback

Teachers need to be prepared to give feedback which is honest, consistent and constructive. As they are not as proficient at reading social cues and picking up the 'unwritten rules' of the classroom or school yard, they have to assume that their performance is acceptable unless explicitly told otherwise.

  • If you ask someone not to do something, you also need to tell them what they should be doing instead. Commands such as "stop that" or "don't do that" give no useful indication as to how they might change their behaviour.
  • Terms such as "naughty" or "silly" are unsuitable.
  • It is important to have inappropriate behaviour pointed out.
  • Tell the person in a clear and calm manner - as soon after the event as possible - what is inappropriate and suggest constructive alternative behaviour(s).
  • Getting to know the person with Asperger syndrome will help you to gauge the effectiveness of your feedback.
  • People with Asperger syndrome can really benefit if you are able to be open about any social slip-ups they have made.

Conclusion

People with Asperger syndrome are highly individual, the same as everybody else, and therefore what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. Remember, people with Asperger syndrome:

  • want to get on with their classmates and they may need help in doing this
  • want to do things well
  • want to fit in
  • are no more likely to deliberately wind you up than your other classmates
  • while someone with Asperger syndrome may appear different, s/he has feelings just like you and will always appreciate your help, support and friendship.


This page was prepared with help from Justin Penney and is based on the article 'Practical strategies in the workplace: employment support workers at Prospects' from the Autism Handbook by Gill Spence and Justin Penney, Prospects Employment Support Workers.