Asperger's Syndrome: A Growing Demand for Unique Services
In 1994 Asperger's Syndrome was officially designated as an extension of the Autistic continuum. Since then, there have been thousands of children and adults diagnosed with this neurological condition. Clinicians and educators are struggling to meet the unique needs of the children diagnosed with Asperger's. While the disorder and associated symptoms are not new and have puzzled clinicians for years, the diagnosis is. A growing number of children and adults are being diagnosed using the criteria established in the DSM IV Psychiatric Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
The Asperger's students frequently find themselves inappropriately placed in the public school resource room. Unlike other resource room participants, they are often very different, having not acquired the ability to develop friendships and interact appropriately with others. Their speech patterns are distinctive, tending to be monotonous, formal and long-winded, with little use of common body language associated with normal speech. A central feature of this disorder is the inability to assimilate the norms that govern social behavior.
Being unable to interpret social cues, such as understanding the meaning of personal space, the necessity of good eye contact, and the comprehension of others' expressions, gestures, and non-literal statements, these students are often called odd, non-compliant, and very different. This lack of social appropriateness places the student with Asperger's into social situations that invite ridicule and harassment.
In addition to their social competence difficulties, the Asperger's student often exhibits intense interests in one or two subjects almost to the exclusion of all others and develops an extensive command of facts and information on these particular subjects. Often, they have a noteworthy set of verbal skills designed to demonstrate their extensive knowledge in these select subjects. Such a single-minded approach to impersonal communication frequently adds to the impression that they are eccentric and odd.
As is true with all children, they desperately want to "belong". Given their lack of social and personal communication skills, they often become depressed, angry, fearful and isolated. Therapeutic intervention designed to deal with these emotions is a critical component of a well-balanced program.
Given the unique nature and needs of the Asperger's student, it is important for school programs to be constructed to accommodate their uniqueness. Academic programs should endeavor to build upon the person's strengths and develop an individualized program of skill enhancement. Ideally the program should be located where the most important skill deficits can be effectively treated and where working on generalization skills can be an integral part of the program. Such programs should have as their central core the teaching of skills and concepts naturally occurring in normal school situations. Emphasis must be placed on social awareness and the interpretation of the non-verbal communication of others. Role-playing socially difficult situations with practiced responses is helpful.
An environment with consistent rules and supports is essential to the development of social and academic skills. Schools must have small classes with ample opportunity for individual attention and small work groups. Students should be taught how to identify specific situations and to resort to the pre-planned and practiced steps to be taken in order to respond appropriately. Spontaneity in social encounters is not a readily available skill that these students possess. Programs must be offered that add to their repertoire of appropriate responses.
The current DSM IV psychiatric classification does little to aid in the development and provision of effective treatment. An increasing number of psychiatrists, researchers, diagnosticians, and program providers question the efficacy of continuing to associate Asperger's Syndrome with autism.
This article on Asperger's Syndrome was provided by Ken Roulx Ph.D., at Devereux's Connecticut Center, the Glenholme School.