Autism Spectrum Disorder – Asperger’s Syndrome is now subsumed under the classification of Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, many of us who have worked with this population for many years realize that the brain organization with AS is much different from others who fall on the autism spectrum.
In helping a student with Asperger’s Syndrome, it is important to understand not only the challenges associated with it but the notable strengths involved. Students with Asperger’s Syndrome are often very creative, especially in music and drama. They are basically excellent “systematizers”, with a drive to create or impose systems on the world and to analyze these systems. This contributes to a “gift for detail” which can often be seen in areas of special interest – or a fascination with a particular system. The fundamental concept of a system is that it is predictable. Therefore, students with Asperger’s Syndrome prefer routines and generally respond well to them. This can become a problem when such students insist that certain routines must be completed and they cannot flexibly shift to another way of doing something.
Students with Asperger’s Syndrome often display an extensive vocabulary and collect factual information readily. They often can become extremely knowledgeable about topics of special interest to them, wanting to collect as much factual information as possible. This can sometimes become a problem when special interests dominate the person’s time and conversation and they do not pick up that others are not as interested in these topics. They tend to have excellent rote memory and long-term memory skills. Generally, these students are very honest with a strong moral code and sense of justice. They may display an interest in art with a fascination for perspective, detail, or architecture. Generally, language is a strength for students with Asperger’s Syndrome. They often speak like an adult from an early age; however, speech is often pedantic, with an odd prosody and unusual voice characteristics. As the student ages, speech can become overly formal and AS students are often overly precise.
Academically, they are usually strong in reading and spelling but as they get older tend to have more difficulty with aspects of reading comprehension and math concepts and sometimes the organization required in written expression. They may have more difficulty in later years with inferential thinking or in taking the perspective of others in literature. Pragmatic language can be more of a challenge and they may not pick up on nuances of speech or social situations.
AS students find it a challenge to deal with changes in routine or the way they expect things to be. They are often more rigid thinkers, are prone to take things literally and have more difficulty generalizing to other situations.
Difficulties in social and emotional areas are a hallmark of Asperger’s Syndrome. These students often avoid eye contact or make less eye contact, display “theory of mind” difficulties or problems in understanding the perspective of others and are especially less inclined to initiate interaction with peers. They tend to have high-stress levels, are particularly sensitive to failure or perceived criticism, are often perfectionistic and often display sensory issues. They often do not seem motivated to know how to interact with other students of their age so that they are “in tune” with a social activity. Often AS students do not see themselves as a member of a particular group and follow their own interests rather than that of peers. They are often not interested in competitive sports or team games. Many AS individuals do not seem to be aware of the unwritten rules of social conduct and will inadvertently do or say things that may offend or annoy other people. Students with Asperger’s Syndrome are often confused by the emotions of others and/or have difficulty expressing their own emotions. Typically, the AS student does not display the anticipated depth and range of facial expression. Such students do not pick up on non-verbal cues so that they may not recognize or respond to changes in another person’s facial expression or body language. AS students have difficulty in expressing and modulating their emotions or difficulty with regulation of emotions. They may seem to overreact to what appeared to be minor events or changes and have difficulty controlling their emotional responses. Social situations are not easily “systematized” so that AS students may want to avoid social situations, especially larger groups or in new or novel situations. It is difficult for them to pick up on all the nuances of social interaction including both non-verbal social cues and in understanding how others may react to their particular behavioral characteristics. AS students can be particularly prone to internalizing disorders including withdrawal, anxiety and depression.
These students often find it hard to remember the sequence of things that are spoken and have difficulty thinking or predicting ahead along with other executive functions. Many AS students often display some motor coordination problems, often with an odd gait or posture and some motor stereotypies. They are often considered to be more clumsy.
Students with Asperger’s Syndrome typically display both strengths and challenges with attentional functioning. They tend to be quite strong in controlled focused and sustained attention. They are also able to inhibit more automatic/impulsive responses. Where they tend to have a problem, however, is in regulating input attention. Input attention is involved in determining what information from the world is examined and “passed on” for further processing and which information is ignored. They are less likely to detect changes in their environment and are less likely to shift their attention or adjust the size of their attention spotlight when a change is detected. Due to this characteristic, a great deal of information can be simply missed. This is especially true in settings that involve quickly presented, peripheral information. This is also referred to as “divided attention”.
Students with Asperger’s Syndrome display some variability in working memory. They tend to have very little problem with “maintenance working memory” such as trying to remember a phone number in working memory. They are more likely to have some difficulty in “manipulation working memory” where they must actively do something with material as they are remembering it. AS students may reach a plateau in working memory so that it becomes more problematic in adolescence and later years.
Every student with Asperger’s Syndrome is different. While some display a majority of these characteristics some will display only a partial amount. It is important for AS individuals to find their “niche” and for teachers and parents to understand their particular neuropsychological makeup.