Asperger’s syndrome: difference, not disorder

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Asperger’s syndrome is still widely misunderstood in our classrooms

My experience of Asperger’s syndrome (AS) comes, primarily, from being a parent of a child who has AS. However, I am also a class teacher working with children who have autism and special needs. I have specialised in this area for six years and taught children ranging from five to sixteen years old. In addition, I now consult for Birmingham schools, advising on strategies and raising awareness of AS. Finally, I am an adult with AS, diagnosed when I was 30 years old.

I feel it is important, at the outset, to consider the terminology used around AS. Words like disorder, impairment and mental illness are widely used, yet hardly ever questioned. However, I believe that AS is a difference, not a disorder. There is nothing disabling about AS, apart from how we think differently. There is nothing impaired about AS, apart from what society deems as being an impairment. AS is better understood as a “difficulty” not an impairment.

AS is also not a mental illness. There are common secondary conditions that can occur in AS, such as depression and anxiety. However, these may be triggered as a result of thinking differently in a world that is confusing for a person with AS. It is hard to fit in when you don’t like social situations, can’t keep your thoughts to yourself, or speak honestly when someone really wants you to tell them what they want to hear; the list goes on!

Many children I work with are sometimes deemed to be, troublesome, selfish, wanting their own way, disruptive and naughty. A common complaint is that they do not change, while the school wants them to. Many educators will say things such as “I know he has AS, but he needs to change”, “He just cannot act the way he does in our school” or “He must conform like the other children”. One key point I try to get across is that a child with AS will always be a child with AS. They will not change their core behaviours. Yes, we can teach them to learn to react differently to situations, but this takes time and effort and, sadly, it seems that many schools are not convinced of the merits of doing this. They expect the child with AS to take responsibility for their actions. Here is a question for you: Would you expect a blind child to read, a wheelchair user to walk, or a child with one leg to play football?

What about children who have AS? They have social difficulties, cannot understand other peoples actions and find it hard to contain emotions and thoughts. It is their human right to have an education and their right to help and support in these areas. Our role as educators is to help remove barriers to their learning which prevent them from reaching their full potential.

The Autism Education Trust (AET) was asked, in 2008, to review current practice, issues and challenges impacting on the education of children and young people on the autistic spectrum in England. They concluded that the role of education for children with autism was to teach “…the additional skills, knowledge and understanding that other children acquire naturally and intuitively, without explicit instruction…education for children on the autism spectrum needs to help pupils compensate for the difficulties that come from their ASD and find ways of reducing those problems”.

Let us not let these children down.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 43: November/December 2009.

 

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