How Educators Can Help Students with Asperger Syndrome Relieve Anxieties at School (and Avoid Meltdowns at Home!)
Often, a child with Asperger Syndrome (AS) will seem to be coping at school because they are academically able, but when the child returns home they let their anxieties out in an often aggressive and disruptive way.
Having spent a lot of time talking with parents over the last year, and having worked in mainstream and specialist provisions for children with AS, I understand from both sides how difficult this problem can be to rectify – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be rectified because it most certainly can, and at no monetary expense to the school.
I firmly believe it can be alleviated by home and school working together. School staff should be listening to parents concerns about this problem and finding a way to help the child with AS at school, giving them a chance to talk to someone about how their anxieties affect them at school, not only in class but at transition times and break and lunchtimes too. The sensory factors that can affect a child with AS are often not recognised but these things can impact greatly on a child if they are not addressed with simple strategies. Imagine if you had to cope with the following all day, every day that you were at work as a teacher or TA and think about how you would feel when you got home:
* None of your peers wants to talk to you even though you’d like them to be friends.
* Some of your peers seem nice but as you don’t understand body language and facial expressions you’re not sure. Previous experience of bullying has made you cautious.
* Some people call you names discreetly in the corridor but if you tell someone in authority they think you’re over-reacting.
* People are touching you when you walk down the corridor when lessons change; sometimes it hurts and you don’t know if they are doing that deliberately or whether it’s because so many people are ion the same place at once. The same happens in assembly when you sit in the middle of a row of children. It confuses you.
* The lights in class seem very bright and give you a headache which makes it hard for you to concentrate.
* The noise in class is very loud and you can’t filter out the talking you should be listening to and the talking that you shouldn’t be listening to. This makes it difficult to understand what you have to do.
* People do a lot of talking and explaining of things but you have a problem with language and only ever hear the first part so are never quite sure if you’ve understood.
* In lessons you want to ask for help as you are not sure you’ve understood, but everyone else seems to understand and you don’t want to look stupid so you muddle through, hoping you’ll get it right.
* At breaks and lunchtimes you are on your own while everyone else seems to be having fun and chatting with friends – you want to join in but don’t know how because you know you are a bit different from everyone else and don’t understand how to interact or play the games they play. Previous experience has taught you that others think you are too rough or rude. You come to really loathe these unstructured and lonely times and you feel like you are useless.
* Everyone around you is talking about a party someone is having at the weekend which they all seem to be invited to. You haven’t been invited, again, and wonder what you ever did to be left out of everything all the time.
* At lunchtime you can’t bear the smells of certain foods and it makes you feel physically sick, but you’re made to sit there, even though people know you don’t like the noise, lighting, smells and have nobody to talk to.
If I had to endure that, day in day out, every time I went to work it would start to wear down my self esteem, and I think I would probably be fit to explode and rant at someone as soon as I got home each day. I wouldn’t want to explode at work – others might see that as a weakness so I would probably wait until I got home, where people accept me for who I am and where I feel safe.
School staff can help children with AS by understanding how the above affects not just the child but the whole family and by doing little things to help that child in school. Things like allowing a child time each day to offload their concerns to a staff member (this costs the school nothing); discreetly checking they have understood the work; giving them more visual cues (other children will also benefit from these so doing it for the whole class does not single the student with AS out); in assembly sitting the child with AS at the end of a row giving them more room and the chance to leave discreetly if required; limiting the class chatter whilst work is being done, and allowing those children who want to work quietly to perhaps work together at the same table; teaching friendship skills in citizenship or circle time and also discussing bullying and the impact it can have on someone’s life long term; allowing the child to take time-out if they become anxious (perhaps they need to just run around the playground for a few minutes to lower their anxieties before returning to class); but most importantly seeing the child as a child first, and as a child with AS second.
And finally, ask yourself this question; if this was your child, would you be happy with their anxieties building up each day to such an extent that they had to explode each time they got home? If your answer is yes, then you’re in the wrong job!
Gill D. Ansell has over 14 years’ experience of ASDs, and previously worked as a teaching assistant, both at schools for children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and in a mainstream primary school.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.