When a middle school teacher learns that a student with Asperger’s Syndrome will be joining her class, she embraces this opportunity to learn more about how she can model support for this student and help his classmates learn important lessons about acceptance and understanding of differences.
Stacey Gardner recalls a student from her first years of teaching who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of his peers. She reflects that he was a highly intelligent kid who was always talking about the solar system or whatever his interest was at the time. It seemed he wasn’t aware of social cues and he often got on the nerves of other kids, especially when he talked incessantly about something he was studying. Stacey was a new, young teacher at the time, and she does not remember her school providing her with much information about Mark. And so, she tried to accommodate his “quirks,” but admits that he was a student that she begrudgingly felt she needed to manage. Albeit quietly, she often shared the frustration of her other students, and now wonders how much these feelings may have unwittingly contributed to setting a tone of intolerance and lack of acceptance in the classroom? It is only when Stacey reads the pamphlet on Asperger’s Syndrome that the Special Education department shares with her now that she begins to make the connection between Mark and a new student with AS who will be joining her classroom of seventh graders. Now ten years into her teacher career, Stacey feels more equipped and committed to figuring out how to support her students with different needs. With support from the Special Ed teacher and her middle school team, Stacey learns as much as she can about successfully including kids with AS in the classroom. She reads articles* and discusses strategies with her colleagues.
By the time Stacey meets Benjamin in September, she feels she has some tools to help with his transition to seventh grade and some ideas about how she can highlight his strengths to both enhance the learning of his peers and help him become a valued member of the classroom collective. Based on her fumbling experience with Mark, Stacey realizes that the tone and expectations that she sets around respecting Benjamin from the start, will influence how the students respond to him throughout the year. She already knows that Benjamin is placed in her classroom because she is known for establishing clear expectations and routines with her students, but when she learns that kids with AS respond well to visuals and graphics, Stacey makes certain to include some in each lesson. She realizes that these details will benefit many of her students. Stacey also shifts one of the early assignments to a “choice project,” hoping that this will give Benjamin a chance to focus on something of interest, and therefore, be given an opportunity to shine early on. She also sets limits with him (and all of her students) about when it is appropriate to talk about certain interests, and the duration of “talking time” that is considered acceptable in a class of 26 students. Coming up with a “pause” sign for the whole class helps to protect Benjamin from possible scorn of his peers, and also becomes a helpful tool in learning social dynamics for many of the kids.
Benjamin proves to have a better memory than Stacey, and she highlights this strength from the first week of class – calling on him to bring up supporting facts that the class needs to move forward with their study of Egypt. Benjamin seems pleased by the positive attention and is thriving under Stacey’s clear expectations and opportunities to pursue special interests. Her warmth and acceptance of Benjamin is largely contagious, and bolstered by the clear boundaries set, seems a winning combination for setting the expectation among the other students that Benjamin belongs. While group work does not always go smoothly, Stacey offers specific guidance and support to help all of her students through the challenges of working together. When she notices some of her less patient students growing frustrated with Benjamin, she is quick to remind them that “we are all working on something.” By consistently reinforcing this mantra of awareness and acceptance, Stacey is hopeful that all of her students will feel affirmed in their individual challenges and open to supporting others who are different from them.
- Created for OASIS (Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support Center), “Understanding the Student with Asperger’s: Guidelines for Teachers,” provides descriptions of seven defining characteristics of AS and offers suggestions and strategies for addressing these challenges/strengths in the classroom.
- Making real progress – A sixth grade teacher recalls the challenge and success she had embracing a student with Asperger’s Syndrome in her classroom.
- Teaching Kids with Asperger Syndrome for the First Time – This article provides a helpful frame for how to consider your first experience with a student with Asperger’s Syndrome in your classroom. With a philosophy that supports teachers and students, the article offers helpful strategies for positive inclusion and how to avoid specific pitfalls.