What is Asperger’s?

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Today the topic of my article is one that is very close to home. What is Asperger’s and how can it impact on learning?

I am writing this not only from an educator’s perspective, but also as the mother of a son with Asperger’s. In a way Asperger’s and autism have become my specialist subject. I have not only read widely on the condition, but I have experienced at first hand, the challenges and the rewards of living with someone with Asperger’s.

I have decided to write this article, as recently a minor celebrity appeared on the ‘This Morning’ television programme with her child, whom she suspected of having Asperger’s syndrome. During the conversation and in front of her child, she referred to him as ‘odd’. I found this horrifying. As challenging as Asperger’s can be, I have never seen it as something negative. I am writing this therefore, to educate more people about the condition. If Asperger’s individuals are taught in the correct educational environment, then they can become very happy and successful.

The National Autistic Society is a fantastic charity which provides a great deal of support to the families of children and adults with Asperger’s. They are the first port of call for anyone who may think that their child is showing signs of Asperger’s. Autism is a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. According to the charity, Asperger’s is fundamentally,

a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

Individuals with Asperger’s see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. They have difficulty communicating. It is important here to explain that there is a significant difference between speaking and communicating. For example; if you were to meet my son, then you would think that he speaks very well and you would be very surprised to learn that he has communication difficulties. However, frequently individuals with Asperger’s, speak in clichés. They have learned what to say to make people think that they can communicate. However, in truth they struggle to express their needs and wishes and social situations cause a great deal of anxiety for them. The role of the speech therapist is crucial to anyone with Asperger’s. Speech therapists are incredibly good at being able to highlight the communication difficulties and to suggest ways to enable the Asperger’s individual to express their needs.

Individuals with Asperger’s may experience different sensory experiences to others. They can find large rooms incredibly intimidating. They might struggle with certain smells and textures, as they experience these differently. Sounds can also cause a great deal of stress to the individual.  This explains how many individuals with Asperger’s have trouble within the school environment. Schools are noisy and frequently have large rooms. There are smells such as disinfectant that can trouble the Asperger’s individual.

One of the most obvious indicators of Asperger’s lies in their obsessions. These can take the form of an obsession with something or even show themselves in the form of obsessions over people.  Asperger’s individuals may develop an obsession over a topic and be able to recite every single fact about that subject. They may find that whenever they feel anxious, they resort to talking about their obsession. For example: From an early age, my son loved every single Thomas the Tank engine. He felt safe when he spoke of Thomas. Whenever he had to face something new that caused him anxiety, he would seek security from a laminate showing all the Thomas engines. This then led to an obsession over Dr Who and history. As much as one might consider that these obsessions are a hindrance, I always saw them as the perfect way to educate my son. He learnt to read through the Dr Who magazine. Dr Who opened an interest in history. We could introduce science to him through the Doctor. He now writes scripts about Dr Who and this has been part of his introduction to GCSE English and creative writing. He even recently won a script writing competition.

For a person with Asperger’s syndrome, just living in the day-to-day world can be incredibly taxing. They depend on predictability in a world that is often random. They are constantly surrounded by other people whose social and emotional reality they don’t truly understand. It is no wonder some of them are prone to meltdowns. In the case of children, tantrums or rage attacks often take place either just at school, where stresses are greatest, or just at home, where the child can let it all out.  The best way to deal with these meltdowns is to try to identify stress triggers and avoid them if possible in advance.

Most individuals with Asperger’s can be educated within state schools. However, it is vital that the school is aware of how to meet their unique needs. In these cases, a diagnosis can be beneficial. Obtaining a diagnosis can take a very long time and it can be frustrating. To start the process first seek advice from your GP.

Asperger’s is not necessarily a hindrance to learning but schools need to be aware of an individual’s unique needs to ensure that the individual is happy within the school environment and able to make progress.  Some of the difficulties an Asperger’s individual will experience at school include:

Sensory issues

Organisational difficulties – such as understanding a new timetable, moving around

Communication issues

Peer group relationship difficulties

Motor skill difficulties – handwriting

Anger management issues

Issues with additional special educational needs such as OCD and ADHD

With the right support and appropriate guidance, individuals can do well in main stream settings. I know of many schools who have ‘nurture’ groups. These are where students with additional needs are eased gently into the demands of a secondary school with a great deal of additional support.

There are some cases when a main stream environment might not be able to meet the needs of an individual and in this case a specialist school might be a better alternative. In these cases, schools or parents should consider requesting an EHCNA from the local education authority. This assessment involves a process of gathering information from the relevant people or agencies, including the views, interests and aspirations of the parents and child or young person. Introduced in September 2014 the Education, Health & Care Plan or EHCP is a document which sets out the education, health and social care needs your child or young person has and the support that is necessary to cater for those needs. Obtaining an EHCP can be incredibly difficult and frustrating. However, there are many support groups and legal advisory services such as IPSEA who offer support and guidance during this lengthy process.

There is nowadays a greater understanding of Asperger’s. Many well-known people have spoken about the condition and how it affects their family dynamic. Kathy Lette is an author who has a son, Jules, with Asperger’s. Jules is now an actor on television and Kathy Lette regularly writes about the challenges an individual with Asperger’s will face as they move into adulthood.

Chris Packham, the great naturalist, presented a programme on his own Asperger’s. http://www.chrispackham.co.uk/news/aspergers-and-me This programme focused on how he experiences the world in a very different way, ‘with heightened senses that at times are overwhelming, and a mind that is constant bouncing from one subject to the next.’

If you require any further information do look at The National Autistic Society’s website http://www.autism.org.uk/

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I also do voluntary work helping parents through the EHC process. Please contact me if you need any help or advice.

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