What is Asperger Syndrome?
Asperger Syndrome is a type of autism spectrum disorder, a lifelong disability which has an impact on the way in which someone interprets their environment. Examples of typical difficulties that may be faced by someone with Asperger Syndrome include:
- Understanding non-verbal communication, such as body language or tone
- Interpreting the feelings, thoughts or motives of others
- Relating to non-literal uses of language, such as idioms, jokes or irony
- Following social conventions such as respecting another person’s physical space
- Depending on familiar routines and feeling anxious if these are not adhered to
- Experiencing sensory difficulties, for example being overpowered by visual, auditory or tactile stimuli
- Having limited body awareness, for example walking round obstacles or carrying out fine motor tasks.
As a result of difficulties such as these, the actions and speech of others can sometimes be confusing for an adult with Asperger Syndrome. They may therefore withdraw from communication with others. This can be an issue if you wish to use group work in your sessions.
Unlike other types of autism spectrum disorder, Asperger Syndrome is not usually associated with general learning difficulties. However, some people with Asperger Syndrome may also have a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia or dyspraxia.
However, it is important to remember that individuals with Asperger Syndrome each have their own strengths and abilities. Some people with the condition develop particular interests and become very knowledgeable about their chosen area. Linking curriculum topics with your learner’s own specialist subject can therefore be a motivating experience for them.
Implications for learning maths and English
Maths can be an attractive subject for someone with Asperger Syndrome, as it involves standard procedures and rules and can be predictable and ‘safe’.
Where a learner may experience difficulty is in relating to a ‘deep’ understanding of mathematical concepts and relations, preferring instead to stick to rote learning and repetition - though this may be at a relatively high level. Similarly, you may find that introducing new topics or using ‘problem-solving’ tasks presents further challenges. Moving away from the familiar can be seen as threatening. A range of ways of presenting information may help here, such as visual, tactile or peer-led, depending on what suits your learner the best. Preparing your learner for what is to come is another strategy that might lessen anxiety.
Overall, as with other learners, you might find that you need to go at the pace of your learner and allow them to opt out of activities or tasks that make them anxious, perhaps introducing them gradually at a later stage if appropriate.
People with Asperger Syndrome can have difficulty in interpreting anything other than the most literal language. This can extend to the written word, where you may have to make specific genres and registers very clear to the learner, such as the conventions used when writing for different audiences.
If a learner with Asperger Syndrome finds it hard to understand other people’s behaviour and motives, this can make the interpretation of text difficult. Having an awareness of this as a tutor and discussing such aspects explicitly may help the learner to make sense of what they are reading.
Speaking and listening activities can also present issues, not only in terms of encouraging an individual with Asperger Syndrome to interact with their peers, but also with respect to following social conventions such as turn-taking in conversation or choosing an appropriate topic. Again, you may need to make these conventions explicit.
You may find some or all of the following approaches useful when working with a learner who has Asperger Syndrome:
- Communicate with other professionals associated with the learner, for example, those involved in their care, colleagues or your institution’s Special Educational Needs department. Arrange for your learner to have a named person to talk to about any problems or worries they may have
- Create clear structures and routines within your lessons, and inform your learners about what these are. If there are going to be any changes, provide plenty of warning
- Use clear, simple, literal language and check understanding
- Make all aspects of learning explicit to the learner
- Find out what kind of environment your learner prefers to work in. If necessary, find your learner a place to sit away from distracting wall displays and sources of noise
- Where appropriate, inform other learners about any specific needs that your learner with Asperger Syndrome has - with their permission. For example if they prefer to sit in a particular place each session
- Allow your learner to avoid group activities if this is their preference
- Some learners with Asperger Syndrome respond well to using ICT (for example, BBC Skillswise)
- Observe your learner’s behaviour. If it is inappropriate, this may be in response to something that is making them distressed, in which case try to find out what it is
Learners with Asperger Syndrome may differ enormously in their individual characteristics and needs. As a tutor of someone with the condition you would need to get to know their specific types of difficulty - as well as their strengths and areas of interest - in order to support them effectively.
The National Autistic Society has some clear information, including a section on Asperger Syndrome.
The National Autistic Society Surrey Branch website has a helpful article on classroom strategies by Mike Connor.
Access for All is a guidance manual based on the core curricula for adult literacy and numeracy. It has a useful section on autism spectrum disorder. It can be downloaded from:
Opening PDF files
For more information on how to open PDF files, read the BBC Webwise guide to Adobe Reader.