Studying with Asperger syndrome is far harder than some teachers and educators realise. Although awareness of disability is increasing, we still have neurologically typical expectations when it comes to communication and body language. This means we often unfairly apply them to students with Asperger’s. Doing so inevitably makes their learning experience more difficult.
Asperger syndrome is part of the autistic spectrum. Students with Asperger’s have average or above average intelligence, while experiencing many of the characteristics of autism. These include overwhelming and painful sensory overload and difficulties with communication. It doesn’t help that the language we use about Asperger’s can also increase misunderstanding of it. Asperger syndrome is often called a “mild” form of autism. However, the problem with using “mild” or “high functioning” to describe the condition is that it creates an expectation that autism is linear; the idea that it has ‘levels’ of difficulty, rather than a spectrum where you might be brilliantly capable in some areas, but unable to function in others.
It is common for people with Asperger’s to have to consciously mimic social rules and ‘acceptable’ body language. This is an exhausting process, which does not come naturally. One student told me: “I lie awake at night, anticipating situations where people might talk to me, and planning what I’ll say and do. If someone talks to me or touches me unexpectedly, it gives me a jolt of physical panic, and I’m totally exhausted for the whole day.”
The assumption that because an Asperger’s student behaves ‘normally’ they must be able to endure any environment is badly misplaced. It resigns such students to a continuous struggle through painful learning conditions. Once more, this only serves to highlight how people do not always understand the severity of Asperger’s sufferers’ difficulties.
There are other potential problems in mainstream education. For example, schools police the body language of those with Asperger’s and other forms of autism by preventing them from exercising ‘stimming’ behaviours. These behaviours can constitute finger-flicking or drumming on tables, and serve to have a calming effect, but unfortunately in the classroom they can also result in a reprimand; what may appear irritating and disruptive to the teacher can actually be what is keeping an Asperger’s student comfortable. When “Look me in the eye!” and “Sit up straight!” can be common refrains of teachers, for those on the autistic spectrum, classes can be traumatic and painful.
Direct eye-contact is something else that can prove especially painful but often demanded. Another student has told me: “It’s very hard for me to drown out background noises and focus on what someone’s saying. If I then have to make eye-contact, I start focusing on every line and freckle on their face and all the shapes and textures. It’s way too much sensory information”.
If you see a student writing quietly in an exercise book, you might not realise that the tick of the classroom clock is a clawing pain in their head, the scratch of other students’ pens so loud they can’t concentrate and that they’re actually vandalising their book with frustrated doodles because the English comprehension they’ve been set is too vague. Students studying with Asperger syndrome often struggle to make the cognitive link between experiencing a problem and asking for help. It makes it even more important for schools and teachers to be attuned to the subtleties of the condition.
It is too easy for students studying with Asperger syndrome to slip through the net, underperforming but unnoticed. Fewer than one in four school-leavers with autism stays in further or higher education. Asperger’s students often have their conditions labelled as simply laziness or bad behaviour. As a result, many find it near-impossible to stay in mainstream education. Instead they turn to home-schooling programmes or distance learning courses, to better accommodate their needs.
Much of the information around Asperger’s syndrome focuses on teaching people to modify their behaviour so that they appear more ‘normal’, for the comfort of a non-autistic society. Yet, if we are to help students with Asperger’s reach their true academic potential, we must consider how to increase the comfort of their learning environments. This will help each student learn in a way which best benefits their brain.
For Further Information on Asperger Syndrome and Autism in education you could also visit the following websites;
Emily Beater is a freelance journalist and copywriter. She has written for the New Statesman, The Guardian, Times Higher Education and BBC News, and has produced content for a range of educational websites and publications. Emily has a genuine love of writing and a passion for using language to explore social and educational issues. She is completing her degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.