Asperger's in the Classroom
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Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurobiological disorder on the Autism spectrum, is one of the fastest growing disabilities, according to Brenda Smith Myles, Ph.D., Chief Program Officer for the Autism Society of America. “Right now, the prevalence is 1 in 150 children,” Smith Myles says. “There are several studies that are ongoing at this time; it appears to be genetic with environmental triggers, but we don’t know what the triggers are.”
What is more apparent are the challenges this disorder presents to an individual’s social maturity, social interaction, language communication, behavior regulation, and sensory perception. Children with Asperger’s often have difficulty developing appropriate peer relationships, they may have trouble with organization, and they often rely heavily on routine.
“The majority of our kids are diagnosed between the ages of 9 and 11,” Smith Myles says. “The trouble is that by middle school our kids are misidentified, for example, as having learning disabilities or behavior disorders.”
Smith Myles emphasizes the importance of evaluations for young children and youth who show the symptoms of Asperger’s. “If the child is of school age, he or she can be evaluated by the multidisciplinary school team,” Smith Myles says. “According to federal guidelines, children with Asperger’s can be identified by the school without a medical diagnosis, and they can receive services.”
When children are supported to understand their strengths and limitations at an early age, they operate from a strong foundation and are better prepared to advocate for themselves. Susan Golubock, an occupational therapist and founder of Making Sense of Autism, a private consulting service, says early intervention is key with Asperger’s Syndrome. “Children who are identified as having Asperger’s early on have an easier time adjusting because they don’t have to unlearn maladaptive behaviors or habits,” she says.
What are the signs to look for in young children? Smith Myles suggests the following:
- Look at your child in an unstructured play situation and see whether he’s able to play with other kids in the same way the other kids can play. Is your child more literal? How does he understand social interactions—facial expressions, gestures?
- Look at whether your child has sensory issues, whether sounds bother him. Loud noises that don’t bother most children or adults could be very problematic for a child with Asperger’s. Smith Myles gives the example that she knows a child who says he can hear the wings of a butterfly flap.
- Look at what your child does when the routine is changed. Is your child routine-bound? Smith Myles explains that children with Asperger’s can become overly upset over a small incident and can have a hard time calming down.
Sound like your kid? Not to worry. “All of us have some of these characteristics,” Smith Myles says. The important thing is to compare your child to other children of the same age—and to trust your instincts. If you feel your child may present more symptoms than his or her peers, visit with your pediatrician.
Golubock warns, though, that pediatricians are often reluctant to diagnose children with Asperger’s because they want to see if they’ll outgrow it. “Don’t necessarily stop with the doctor,” Golubock says. “Many states have early intervention screenings. I would encourage parents to use these screenings before they reach school age.”
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