Greg Lowenthal, student with AS, needs the help of another student with his motor skills. Says Snitzel, "The only real modification he requires is extended timelines for project completion."

Asperger's syndrome: the invisible disability

"You could teach a child the theory of relativity once and he'd get it. But you'd have to tell him the rules for lining up for recess 500 times."

By Leanne Miller

"Kids with Asperger's syndrome have the invisible disability," says Diane Campbell, a special education teacher with the Peel District School Board. "They look like they should be able to function but often they are unable to. Teachers are more familiar with children who cannot comprehend language or have difficulty reading. Often, these are gifted children and the capability to function in an academic sense is not the main issue. Their disability looks like bad behaviour and distinguishing between the two is often difficult."

In fact, children with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) often have high IQs, some even in the gifted range, and most possess strong language skills although they are often unable to express their thoughts and feelings well. Similar to autism, but also quite different, Asperger's Syndrome is one of the most challenging disorders that teachers are seeing in their classrooms in increasing numbers.

According to Margot Nelles, founder and chair of the two-year-old Asperger's Society of Ontario, children with this condition have severe and sustained impairment in social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and activities. These characteristics result in significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. In contrast to autism, there are no significant delays in language or cognition, in self-help skills or in adaptive behaviour, other than social interaction.

Challenges for Teachers
Nelles calls AS "the mother of all neurological disorders, because it may encompass tics, anxieties, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, defiance, attention deficit, major sensory issues, mood swings and even rages." She explains how frustrating it is for educators: "You could teach a child the theory of relativity only once and he'd get it. But you'd have to tell him the rules for lining up for recess 500 times and then you'd have to tell him again." Albert Einstein was thought to have had Asperger's Syndrome, as was Glenn Gould.

A parent of two AS children, Nelles outlines some of the challenges for teachers: "These kids are the easiest not to support. They do not display any outward signs of disability; they often have high intelligence, they are able to mask their deficits with big words or impressive displays of knowledge. They love repetition, language and learning and can easily memorize large quantities of information, but they cannot cope with sensory disturbances or interruptions to set routines, and such distractions will lead them to melt down and act out."

Peel's Transition Program

According to Richard Hales, head of the Peel District School Board's innovative Asperger's program, there has been a 400 to 500 per cent increase in the identification of children with AS in North America in the past five years. The Peel Board's Transition Program blends integration and the contained classroom to help ensure that "as many doors are kept open for these kids-doors to higher education, doors to employment, doors to independent living and doors to inclusion in various social settings."

AS students have been attending Streetsville Secondary School's Regional Secondary Transition Program for three years. This program provides them with a home-base classroom where they begin and end their day, go for lunch, and have contained class time with their special education teacher Joel Pearson and teaching assistants. It's also where they go to escape a stressful situation in a classroom or hallway.

Greg Lowenthal, pictured here with teacher Daavid Sintzel and fellow students from a Grade 10 auto class at Streetsville Secondary School in Mississauga, has AS.

Because AS students learn and process information in a manner generally incompatible with the way it's usually presented in class, they need a reduced course load. AS students tend to lack general high-level thinking and problem-solving skills and have difficulty with recall related to problem solving.

The reduced load lets them spend time in the integrated classroom to interact with other students and learn the regular curriculum, often at the academic level. It also lets them return to the home-base class to get extra help through re-teaching, breaking down assignments into manageable pieces, having deadlines extended and having access to computers or scribes.

Wherever possible, efforts are made to match AS students with teachers who have a teaching style and personality that supports their learning style. Another benefit of a reduced course load is that the maturity level of these students is about two-thirds of their chronological age, so it makes little sense to rush them through high school.

Homework is often a major problem. School is already stressful, and if they take the stress from school home with them as homework, their family life can become even more difficult. AS students need time during the day to do homework.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the Peel program is that these kids are succeeding and even enjoying school, many for the first time, and they are doing so in a traditionally inflexible learning environment-the local high school. According to Hales, the key to their success is ensuring the "maximum flexibility for students who tend to be rigidly inflexible. For many teachers, this has required a significant paradigm shift, but this is the foundation of the program and it's working."

Classroom Spaces

The Middle School Transition Program at David Leeder Middle School in Mississauga follows the same approach as the secondary school program and focuses on preparing the AS students academically and socially for the transition from elementary to secondary school.

The contained class of eight students, taught by Diane Campbell with two teaching assistants, works on priming the children for the work, routine and stresses of the regular classroom. Students spend about 35 per cent of their time here each day, preparing for what they will learn in their classes, which helps reduce their anxiety. They also learn social skills, like sharing, dealing with obstacles and interacting with other children, both in the classroom and on the playground. They are excused from gym classes, as open spaces cause tremendous anxiety.

A teaching assistant (TA) has a vital role in the program. Campbell says, "The best TAs are worth their weight in gold. They either work with or observe these kids all day long and their input and suggestions on modifications and accommodations are invaluable. Their hands-on work, combined with the teacher's academic programming, creates success for these children."

According to Hales, putting the AS students in one location has allowed a peer group to develop. The students in the Peel program, who were socially marginalized in their previous schools, have also gradually developed friendships with mainstream students. For some AS students, it's the first time in a long time they have been invited to parties (the invitations tend to stop coming early in the elementary years). These friendships also reinforce their academic success, as the students are more eager to attend school so they can have fun with their friends. Hales says, "The increased enjoyment of the overall school experience has resulted in reduced levels of stress and anxiety, fewer meltdowns and a more relaxed approach to academic tasks."

Hales views students with AS from several perspectives. He has a 13-year-old son with Asperger's in another board, and as the pervasive development disorder (PDD)/autism itinerant in Peel, he can compare the progress of students in the Peel Region transition programs with that of AS students in various other settings. He says, "I can say with confidence that the approach taken in the Peel program is the best. It balances mainstream integration with intensive smaller group support, and this has allowed students to achieve academic success while reducing stress and anxiety."

Campbell comments: "I think the biggest obstacle for these kids is to marry the AS characteristics with the conditions of the school environment. There has to be a balance between giving these children the concrete predictable world they need and getting them ready for a world that is anything but. The real world of the classroom is built on abstract and unpredictable events. Children have different ideas in a discussion, the fire bell rings, there's an announcement about bus line-ups. And all these can make for a stress-filled day for these students. Do you take away such things as impromptu teachable moments, like when the history teacher postpones the lesson to talk about the current role of Canada in international events? The AS child will remind you that today the class is supposed to be reading pages 17-23 of the textbook."

In the School Community
Special education teacher Diane Campbell sees it as her role to work with her AS students so that they become comfortable enough to handle the changes and unpredictability that happen at school. She says, "Social interaction can be difficult. The understanding of all the school community, including the teachers, teaching assistants, children, custodians and secretaries, is necessary for these children to be successful."

Parent Margot Nelles offers this advice for teachers: "Understanding the condition is critical to helping these children get a good education. Misbehaviour is not defiance. It's just that these children can't always articulate the problem and cannot control their unusual reactions to seemingly commonplace activities. So when my son refuses to participate in a cutting and pasting exercise, it's not because he is belligerent, it's because he can't tolerate the feeling of sticky glue on his skin, and he is unable to tell the teacher this. Similarly, if he refuses to eat in the cafeteria with the other children, it may be because he cannot stand the smells and noise and anxieties surrounding where to sit, what to eat and how to cope with so many people."

Nelles believes "educating the educators is the key. Most teachers simply aren't equipped with the knowledge and strategies they need to understand this condition and effectively accommodate children with AS."

Campbell would agree. Her advice for all teachers who may have AS children in their regular class: "Get your Special Education qualifications because every teacher needs them, whether you're teaching exceptional kids or not."

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