“Look Me in the Eye” Teaching Children with Asperger’s
“Look Me in the Eye”
Teaching Children with Asperger’s
My oldest children are twins; a girl and a boy. My daughter pushed my son to do everything just to keep up with her. To crawl, to walk, to talk, to read, etc.
When they were young, it was not uncommon for us to invite a sweet little girl over for a playdate for my daughter to quickly discover my son was doing the interacting. While my daughter was by herself poking sticks in a mud puddle.
Our dear daughter seemed odd but in a normal sort of way. She regularly fell off of her chair during dinner. She spent more time organizing and lining up toys than playing. And heaven help us if her shoes and socks did not feel just right. But she was a happy and intellectually engaged child, so we didn’t worry about it.
Then she entered high school. Suddenly, things changed. I got regular phone calls from the school nurse about her being so dizzy she could not walk. And opinion-based school assignments had her lying next to the computer, tucked in the fetal position, rocking back and forth, completely non-verbal.
Defining Asperger’s & ADS
Thanks to intervening and insistent teachers, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s. In 2013, professionals reclassified Asperger’s syndrome as a subtype of the autism spectrum disorder (ADS). But there are some distinct differences.
On the spectrum, ADS kids, teens, and adults display a wide range of social, interactive, intellectual, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. However, those more closely aligned with Asperger’s characteristics are highly functional with above-average intelligence.
Asperian students often lurk undetected in standard classrooms. However, the way they view and operate in the world makes them a target for misunderstandings that shape their futures.
John Elder Robinson
In his book, “Look me in the Eye,” Robinson gives a firsthand account of growing up with Asperger’s in the sixties. As a young boy, he learned he was considered bad, or shifty, because he could not look people in the eye when they were talking to him.
Robinson explains he concentrated better on what people said when he shut down visual sensory input. Hence, he looked at their shoes or the floor when someone talked to him.
He also relates his brain did not pick up on facial or body language social cues. For example, when he overheard a conversation about the death of a child, his face broke into a gigantic grin. He did not realize that was not socially acceptable. He grinned because everyone he loved was alive and well, not because he was happy the child died.
Robison did well by concentrating on machines, especially audio output and high-end cars. In his teen years (before being introduced to trigonometry and calculus), Robinson could physically see the math in his head to create sound equipment.
His intense focus on generating better sound led him to work with KISS on tour in the late seventies. At age twenty-one, Robinson designed the smoking guitar played by Ace Frehley.
Despite his intellectual prowess, Robinson’s Asperian lack of social understanding left him struggling to find a social niche; a place and people where he felt accepted and valued.
Functioning in Society
Asperian brains do not mirror or intuitively comprehend social situations. For example, Robinson’s experiences informed him he made friends with dogs by petting them. He concluded to make friends with other children he should pet them, too. That did not go well.
Robinson relays the brain’s plasticity may shift focus based on the types of social interaction Asperians receive. Those who only receive negative or ‘bad’ responses can turn totally inward to become savant (exceptionally skilled in a limited field) but non-communicative.
Dr. Richard Eisenmajer and Dr. Mark Stokes suggest that many undiagnosed Asperians have already diagnosed themselves as psycho by age 10. Why have they done so? Because they have embraced the societal message that they are ‘bad’ due to their lack of understanding of how to socially function.
Robinson concludes those who experience enough satisfactory social interactions are more adaptable and better able to function. And as Asperians become educated about their brain differences, they learn to mimic and reciprocate normal social behavior.
Black and White. NO GRAY.
Most of life is lived in the gray between the two extremes of black and white. Dr. Eisenmajer says Asperian’s way of thinking has very little gray area. Their thoughts tend towards black or white. Good or bad. The best or the worst. But, no in-between.
Mental health issues naturally arise from such thought processes. It is not okay to be average in their mind because average does not exist. This creates severe anxiety and sometimes debilitating depression. Part of my daughter’s breakdowns over opinion-based assignments was because there was no right or wrong answer. She was expected to operate in the gray.
For those diagnosed in their teens, overwhelming anxiety is the leading reason to seek a diagnosis. Dr. Stokes says Asperians keep trying to be like everyone else, which seriously affects their self-esteem and confidence, resulting in meltdowns.
What to Do as a Teacher
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in forty-four children is identified to be on the ASD spectrum. As a teacher, the probability of having an undiagnosed Asperian in your classroom in your career is high.
Educating yourself is the first step to helping these students succeed in life. The CDC lists early signs to watch for including, social communication and interaction skills, restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests, delayed skills, anxiety, etc.
The second step is to stand up for the student. Seek help from other teachers, school administration and staff, and the child’s parents. Sometimes raising a red flag is the best course of action.
I am ashamed to admit it took three high school teachers, the school nurse, and a church youth leader to contact me repeatedly before we sought a diagnosis for my daughter.
In fairness, Asperian children can be extremely frustrating because they are highly intelligent. Their lack of social grace can leave you thinking they are disrespectful and uncaring about the feelings of others. In some instances, you may be seriously contemplating how to deal with them.
In reality, high intelligence with social cluelessness are early cues they might be on the spectrum and need help.
Because a younger child’s brain adapts more readily, recognizing and perusing help at the youngest possible age provides the best outcomes for overall functioning in adulthood.
Late diagnosis means the brain is less malleable. In addition, hormones come into play. However, a later diagnosis also increases a student’s ability to accept and own their path to improve overall functioning and well-being.
Once my daughter was diagnosed in her junior year of high school, she devoured every book on autism and Asperger’s that she could get her hands on. She spent time understanding what aspects she dealt with. She learned to talk through social situations with me to understand what other people were thinking and what their body language was saying.
We got her a 504 plan that followed her into college, providing the necessary accommodations to earn her bachelor's degree. When she had a teacher who discussed things in the gray, she sat next to someone who could help her decipher the teacher’s real meaning. (If your brain functions in black and white, imagine the frustration of a teacher discussing a question given on page one of the textbook without a physical question mark on the page.)
Today, my daughter is a highly functional adult. She lives independently, has a small but supportive friend group, and works full time. When she told me her supervisors were so impressed with her work productivity they wanted to observe her, I laughed.
They were looking for ways to help other employees increase productivity. They soon discovered some things you cannot teach, including the laser focus of an Asperian.
Teacher Power is grateful for your compassionate, caring voice. Thank you for standing up for students and for empowering the next generation.
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By: Jae O. Haroldsen
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Stokes, Mark and Eisenmajer, Richard. “Video: Autism Later Diagnosis.” Raising Children.net. 2021. https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/learning-about-autism/assessment-diagnosis/late-autism-diagnosis
“Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html
“Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
“Early Intervention for Autism.” National Institute of Health. 2021. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/treatments/early-intervention
Bettino, Kate. “What Causes Asperger’s Syndrome?” PsychCentral. 2021. https://psychcentral.com/autism/what-causes-aspergers-syndrome
Hayashi, Mika et al. “Superior Fluid Intelligence in Children with Asperger’s Syndrome.” Science Direct. 2008. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278262607001492