• Deborah Holmén

Are You Prepared for Neurodiversity in Your Classroom?

I became a better teacher when working with Asperger's and Autistic Spectrum students. I learned that they are brilliant children that see the world through different lenses, and can add so much to society.

Unfortunately, society hasn't been educated about children with Aspergers. However, there is a new movement bringing attention to their uniqueness through television and movies. I will share what I have learned about teaching children that behave differently to create a positive and effective classroom.

I remember during training on Asperger's Syndrome the surprising backlash it created amongst the teachers. Some teachers felt it wasn't up to them to accommodate these children, that these children simply need to comply with their rules. What the instructor neglected to share with us is that many of our most incredible innovations came from people on the Autistic Spectrum.

Famous persons with Asperger's are Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Edison, as well as Temple Grandin.

Having taught many children with Asperger's over the years, I knew we needed to learn as much as we could about neurodiversity. I also knew it wasn't about just training the teachers, it was also about creating a collaborative atmosphere for parents with Asperger/Autistic children.

What is Asperger's Syndrome?

It is defined as a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the ability to interact and communicate with people effectively. Asperger's are highly functioning people on the Autistic Spectrum. Whereas, children with Autism may be unable to communicate and/or have difficulty with gross-motor skills. Asperger's children typically have a non-inflectional tone in their speech and have awkward mobility.

Creating a Diverse Learning Classroom

Asperger's children typically demonstrate the following behaviors:

  • social interactions are awkward

  • Depressive moods

  • Inability to perceive gestures

  • Difficulty in recognizing others feelings

  • Aggressive behavior

  • Difficulty in understanding humor

  • Significant difficulty with non-verbal movement and behaviors, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, awkward or clumsy body postures and gestures

Facts About Asperger's Syndrome:

  • One in fifty nine children in the United States has autistic spectrum disorder.

  • Diagnosis doesn't require lab testing or imaging.

  • There are no known cure, or treatments available

  • Can last several years or be lifelong

  • (More information can be found in resources below)

Creating a Classroom Environment for These Students

A good example of the characteristics of Asperger's can be seen in the following television shows. The actor, Freddie Highmore, portrays a doctor with Autism and Savant Syndrome in ABC's, The Good Doctor, and Jim Parson's character, Dr. Sheldon Cooper in CBS's The Big Bang theory portrays a Theoretical Physicist with quirky behaviors.

1.) Begin With Their Peers

I had to teach my students why people with Asperger's and Autism do things differently than the typical population in school. This leads to a classroom that supports their peers rather than shun them. However, this must be done while the student is present, so they can share how they feel in certain situations, and they hear how their peers can help them adjust to noises, transitions and inappropriate behavior.

This class discussion can be about things we do that may make others feel uncomfortable, as an example. Some children can ignore loud noises, but for the Asperger's child, this same noise puts them off task. Having various students share how disruptions make them feel, being sure to include your Asperger's students, as well, the students then can consider alternative ways to handle noise or disruptions.

Jonathan*, one of my previous students, was a sweet child, but he didn't realize that he stood too close to his friends, and it bothered them. In order for the class to learn boundaries, we had open conversations about how to tell what we liked and what we needed.

Example; "Jonathan, I want to hear your story, but I need you to stand farther away from my face," this teaches everyone to respect each others' needs to make them feel comfortable. The "I want... but I need..." phrases can be used for most situations.

It also helped that I taught the students about the neurophysiology of the brain. Once they had the basics of how their minds worked under stress and how to calm their brains, they had more compassion for classmates with dif