Resources for Working With Children With Asperger's and HFA: A Guide

By Stephanie Torreno

Children with Asperger’s syndrome and other high-functioning forms of autism (HFA) are intelligent, but may lack social understanding. These students require specialized instruction to achieve social and academic success. Use these resources to help teaching children with Asperger's and HFA.

Children with Asperger’s syndrome and other forms of HFA experience deficits in social skills and have difficulties using nonverbal behaviors, developing peer relationships, sharing spontaneous enjoyment with others, and displaying social and emotional reciprocity. Individuals with this disorder typically display repetitive behaviors and develop an intense interest in a particular topic. The constant sharing of this knowledge often deters forming relationships with others. Changes in routine usually cause children with the disorder to become upset or completely withdrawn. These impairments can make teaching children with Asperger’s and HFAA quite challenging.

The diagnosis of Asperger’s or another form of HFA is made through assessments comparing an individual’s skills and behaviors with those of the appropriate developmental age. Since more boys than girls receive a diagnosis, parents and teachers should have awareness of the less aggressive symptoms females with this disorder display. Once a diagnosis is made, children should immediately receive intervention services such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and behavior modification.

Identifying the Disorder and Improving Skills in Young Children

While a diagnosis is more challenging to make in younger children, Asperger’s may be seen in toddlers with limited eye contact, lack of reaction to facial expressions, and poor social interaction with others. Gross motor skills are affected, too. These skills, as well as more precise fine motor coordination involving the hands, can be improved with activities, games, and everyday play. When a child turns three and becomes eligible for public school services, specific goals in all developmental areas should be included in the Individualized Education Plan.

Instructional Strategies

Having a student with Asperger’s syndrome requires specific strategies to assist with classroom functioning. Educators should try to maintain a routine each school day and prepare the student for changes, even if they seem minor. Teachers may need to sit the student in the front of the classroom and use cues to sustain attention and help with transitions. Socialization should be encouraged with a peer who can assist with activities.

When teaching subjects such as reading and another language, teachers need to use practical, real-life examples and role-play to illustrate abstract concepts. Pictures also help students with HFA learn new vocabulary. Outside the classroom, physical, occupational, and speech therapists can strengthen language and communication skills, in addition to balance and coordination, with horse therapy.

Improving Social Skills

Social skills present some of the most difficult challenges since students with Asperger’s do not learn through observation. Instruction in socialization should be explicit with lots of practice and role-playing. Peer mentors can also facilitate typical relationships between classmates. In choosing extracurricular activities, a student’s abilities and interests should be considered to further develop social skills and to avoid frustration and stress.

Social stories describe practical situations by identifying expected behavior, accurate information, and appropriate communication skills. Stories should be in present tense and include who and what is involved in the situation, what is happening, and why the situation has happened. Educators should identify the thoughts and feelings of the people involved, and the reactions of the student, too.

Information to Help Teens

Teens with Asperger’s face particular challenges. High school students may be more aware of their difficulties, but they need instruction and practice developing self-determination skills. These skills include making choices and developmentally appropriate decisions in school and at home.

Since these teens will continue to struggle with communication and social skills, parents and teachers should find peer mentors in the school or community to foster personal relationships. Parents should offer specific guidance on dating etiquette and sex education.

Teaching children with Asperger’s and HFA can be a challenge, but also offers significant rewards. Students benefit from caring adults who push them academically and socially, yet work with them and their peers to ease stress and anxiety.