So What Does Asperger’s Look Like?

On at least two occasions lately, I have been in conversations at church with people who think they may know someone with Asperger’s Disorder.  If that term isn’t familiar to you, Asperger’s is one of the five areas that make up Pervasive Developmental Disorders or PDD.  The five areas within PDD are: Asperger’s, Rhett’s, Autism, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

For the purpose of this post, I will try to be brief and concise in giving you the criteria.  Keep in mind that ONLY qualified professionals can make a diagnosis of any condition that a child has.  We as teachers in church or school, have NO business telling a parent that we think their child may have Asperger’s or anything else.  If we really believe that a child has some type of disability, rather than diagnosing, we may gently suggest that we have concerns about whatever the specific behavior is and that perhaps they would want to check it out with a professional.

Here are some general characteristics of the child with Asperger’s:

  • Social difficulties with the inability to interact well with peers, poor understanding of social cues, and inappropriate social or emotional response.  He may have difficulty empathizing with others or understanding “feelings”.
  • Limited interests and preoccupation with a topic.
  • Repetitive routines or rituals imposed on self or on others
  • Peculiarities in speech and language with possible delayed early development.  The child may be extremely verbal, having an odd or peculiar voice (for example the child may sound robotic sound or have an odd rhythm or quality about their voice).
  • Non-verbally, there are communication problems in a limited use of gestures, clumsy body language, inappropriate facial expression, and difficulty with personal space.
  • Children with Asperger’s usually have normal to above normal intelligence.  Sometimes there is a fascination with letters and numbers at an early age.  They may be early readers and read well orally, yet have difficulty with comprehension and processing what they read.  As a young child, they may be seen as “little professors”, but be diagnosed around age 8 or 9 when social differences become more pronounced.

So what does this mean if I have a child in my Bible class that is diagnosed with Asperger’s or if not diagnosed, has some of these behaviors?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Work to build social relationships with students in your class.  Often the child with Asperger’s knows they don’t quite fit in, but doesn’t know what to do about it.  They are often lonely.   In older children, depression and low self-esteem are common.
  • Keep your classroom environment low key.  Many kids with Asperger’s or with autism experience sensory issues.  Lights that are too bright, classrooms that are too “busy” with things hanging from the walls or ceiling, strange smells, loud noises, and such may be an overload to the senses and uncomfortable for the child.
  • The child maybe highly anxious and if routines are changed,  may have melt downs.  Keep classroom routines predictable.  Visual schedules may be useful.
  • If meltdowns occur, the teacher should remain calm, talk softly, and never be afraid to ask for help!
  • If the child has a “special interest” that he loves to learn about and talk about, use it to your advantage.  I knew a child who could tell you every detail about dinosaurs.  Use that interest to discuss things about Christian evidences or the dinosaur-like animals in the book of Job.  One little girl was totally into “Disney princesses”.  You could use this to teach about good and bad queens like Esther or Jezebel.
  • Understand that the child may have difficulty understanding social rules.  They are not necessarily trying to break rules, but they may not understand how a rule applies to them in a specific way.  Be patient and very clear in expectations.  Be very specific about your classroom rules and be consistent.
  • The child will need direct teaching to learn social skills and moral lessons.  Feelings and empathy are hard for them to understand, so we must be very specific.  For example, if you are teaching about the good Samaritan and how he was a good neighbor, you would need to be very clear on what makes someone a good neighbor or a friend.  Give lots of concrete examples.

The most important thing you can do for any child in your Bible class is to let them know that they are important and that they are loved.  Always remember that each child is different and what works for one may not work at all for another.  I heard a phrase once that I loved in regard to the children that I taught in school.  It said, “Being fair isn’t about giving everyone the same thing.  It is about giving everyone what they need”.  Don’t be guilty of always doing and giving exactly the same thing to every child in your class, but rather look and appreciate the individual differences and teach to their needs.

We don’t all see the world through the same eyes. Knowing a kid with Asperger’s can show you that. After all, it is believed that Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, and Beethovan all shared this condition!  A child with Asperger’s may be THE most interesting person you have ever known!