Addressing the Strengths of Pupils with Asperger’s Syndrome
By Carol Edwards © 2014
The key learning points in this article concentrate on using the youngster’s strengths, which make up for the limitations and drawbacks caused by social communication difficulties, social interaction complexities and a lack of social imagination. These traits, known as the triad of impairments, can be turned around when a person’s special ability is harnessed.
Stephen Wiltshire was about three years old when he was diagnosed as autistic. When he was about five, he was enrolled at Queensmill School in West London where the teaching staff first noticed his interest in drawing. This was cultivated throughout his childhood and he became a well-known child artist. Harnessing his strengths has helped him talk (he learned to speak fully at aged 9), interact, socialise and use social imagination to manage certain lifes events: http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk
How can we help harness strengths in the school environment?
Unravelling the puzzle for the student with Asperger’s Syndrome is important since this helps to bring out their strengths, build confidence and raise self-esteem. For example:
- If the child’s strength is visual, the teacher can help with memory by asking relevant questions about an event.
- Youngsters who ‘think in pictures’ need help to draw meaning from details; therefore categorising and labelling visual images can help enrich their recall.
- Applying strategies that encourage articulation is a way forward for youngsters with auditory rote memory since this stimulates cognitive flexibility. Using concrete methods to help the child verbalise how they can solve a problem is one example.
- Strategies that help the child know what to look out for when reading or watching a video have proved useful. This helps them gain a better grasp of the content within the class. For instance, for students with good vocabulary or spelling and advanced reading skills, a more coherent understanding is better achieved if, say, the teacher asks all students to highlight the main points in a piece of text with a coloured pen. In terms of inclusion, all students (unobtrusively) learn and benefit the same way.
- Noticing a savant skill and harnessing this strength is favourable, as in the case of Stephen Wiltshire. That said, where a student reveals a savant skill or has a high IQ, helping them become involved in other areas of interest can, unless persistence overrules, help tease out hidden strengths and create variety. Either way, persistence is a special strength and can lead to students pursuing great careers.
But how do we address barriers that get in the way of learning?
First, the potential barriers to learning include:
- Perfectionism – getting things right is okay, but this can cause a barrier to learning when ‘getting things right’ focuses on detail where precision begins to rule.
- Co-morbidity – ADHD and OCD, for example, can be a barrier to learning since these symptoms cause attention problems and high anxiety states.
- Depression – depression, as a result of living with Asperger’s Syndrome is a further barrier to learning because it can lead to persistent low mood or mood swings, both of which affect concentration.
- Executive dysfunction – most kids with Asperger’s Syndrome are bright but just don’t know where to start; or they lack planning and organising skills.
- A favourite interest – while an ability, this is often a problem because youngsters may refuse to take part in a certain activity or theme if this doesn’t fit with their favourite pursuit — the theme may be buses, but their favourite topic might be on trains.
- Fine and gross motor skills – these help with the physical skills necessary for writing, PE, dressing etc. The child with Asperger’s Syndrome may not have precise control of their fingers. The drawback means a lack of physical education, and falling behind on written work.
Second, research suggests that there is a gap between intellectual ability and social competence for youngsters living with Asperger’s Syndrome.
- Striving to fit in – this often results in the youngster putting on a persona. Keeping up appearances is emotionally exhausting and interferes with their learning abilities. They eventually become depressed and lose sight of their academic interests.
Finding ways to bridge this gap is proving to be the way forward in eliminating the social–academic barriers. For example, while the principle of teaching is kept the same, the tutor enhances these to manage the student’s drawbacks whilst encouraging confidence in their strengths, as in the examples mentioned earlier.
Third, it’s important to address the real issues – that is, recognising a neuro-developmental issue, and not a psychological problem.
- It would be unwise for the school Counsellor to try to elicit reasons for social shyness when the problem is a deficit in social imagination.
Modifications in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which supports the child or young person with Asperger’s, are becoming more favourable and can help bridge the social–academic gap. For example, in pastoral care, the astute therapist will be familiar with autism-related problems and will adapt and tweak CBT methods to suit the young person being counselled. The focus would be on visual and concrete strategies that help the student manage social, emotional and academic problems in the here and now rather than engage them in abstract discussion that tries to question the cause of their behaviours, such as exploring past events when the problem is neuro-developmental, not psychological (social imagination deficit, not social shyness).
How else can CBT work in bridging the social-academic gap?
Again, it would be helpful if the school Counsellor has knowledge of behaviours associated with Asperger’s, HFA and PDD-NOS. For example, the school Counsellor might encourage the isolated child to engage in interactive play, e.g. using figures that the child has an interest in to help with interaction and communication skills; role play if the young person likes drama to help with confidence issues; or story-telling for the youngster who needs help with listening skills. The Counsellor might introduce a discussion topic for the student who is usually only focused on talking about his special interest with peers, but who has a wish to communicate and share other students’ interests. Or they might suggest writing scripts with the visually talented student who has made a request to understand metaphors and jokes because she wants to feel less awkward around peers, or to help her join in better with classroom discussions. These strategies can help build self-esteem, harness strengths and inspire the young person to pursue his special interest.
How can pastoral care help with overlapping problems such as depression or ADHD?
First, let’s address social-emotional problems.
Ethically, the Counsellor would discuss and look at overlapping problems such as depression, ADHD, OCD, perfectionism, or something else with the parents involved. This also applies to the student in adult learning where their parent/carer advocates for and with them. In a confidential and private setting, however, the Counsellor would use a person-centred approach to help the youngster learn more about themselves, with self-acceptance being the key for overall well-being. In addition, they would use effective CBT strategies to help the child or young person manage social-emotional drawbacks rather than negatively focusing on them. Modifying the ‘situation sheet’, for example, is useful in that it helps the young person evaluate and alter his or her thoughts, feelings and behaviours for better outcomes.
Here is an example:
|What happened?||What did you think?||What did you do after you thought this?||What could you have thought instead (help generate ideas)?||What happened after role-play?|
|I wanted to join in a game but I daren’t ask.||That the other kids would laugh at me and not let me join in.||I decided not to ask.|
Did you feel sad, okay, annoyed, or something else?
Sad and lonely, I went to the library.
|Ask to join in, but I didn’t know how.|
If the kids laughed I would feel sad, but I felt sad anyway, even without asking.
Would it help if we did a little role-play to help you ask next time?
|I felt more confident and asked to join in another game and the kids were okay with me.|
Did you feel happy, better, or something else?
I felt strange, but good. I’m glad I asked.
Now let’s address issues relating to education and harnessing strengths.
The problems the child presents within the classroom should be dealt with carefully. First the child’s primary diagnosis should be distinguished from the overlap, e.g. ADHD, so that both behaviours can be addressed simultaneously. For example, for the child that thinks in pictures and who has an ADHD overlap, the teacher would sit him away from certain distractions, such as the window. In doing this, he or she will be at an advantage in engaging the child in categorising and labelling visual images to help enrich his recall rather than allowing him to stay by the window where he would inadvertently divert his attention to some outside activity. If this child’s special interest is similar to that of Temple Grandin, harnessing his strengths with care could mean he or she could go on to be the next inventor of the ‘squeeze machine’: http://www.grandin.com/inc/intro-squeeze.html
Asperger’s Syndrome appears to be a combination of weaknesses (social and language) and strengths (talents, high IQ, academia) but where these are a distance apart. In relating this concept to tutors and school/college Counsellors, strategies to help the youngster do well academically coupled with bridging the social-emotional gap is crucial because these are effective ways to achieve an overall balance. Raising awareness and advocating for youngsters with Asperger’s Syndrome seems to be on the increase. This is a start to helping the child or young person learn that they have rights in terms of academic inclusion, where their strengths are fully harnessed, and where their social and emotional needs are also addressed. For further information on the triad of impairments, see Baron-Cohen, 1985, for his thesis on a ‘theory of mind’.
Carol Edwards is a professional CBT therapist, specialising in Asperger’s Syndrome and OCD. She is a mother to three children, and after home-educating two of her children through secondary school, one diagnosed with Asperger’s and OCD, she began her role as Asperger’s adviser, giving her the opportunity to advocate for families whose children and adult dependants are in education.
Please visit Carol’s page (see link below) and click ‘thumbs up’ to help her raise more awareness.
www.facebook.com/advice.cbt4autism.asperger Carol also runs two online programmes for kids and adults living with obsessive compulsive disorder, with or without Asperger’s Syndrome: www.ocdonline.net and www.ocdkidsweb.com