Children with Asperger's syndrome need a special learning environment. They're usually curious, bright and eager to learn, and often have highly developed vocabularies and skills. On the other hand, they're often lacking in one or more academic areas, and have communication and social deficits. A program geared for nonverbal children with autism isn't appropriate, but a mainstream classroom often doesn't work either. Understanding what your child does need can help you become a better advocate in the schools.
Class Size and Environment
Many children with Asperger's syndrome are bothered by noises and crowds. In a large classroom setting, they can't distinguish the teacher's instructions from children talking and they often have trouble focusing. A small school with 10 to 20 children per class is ideal for a child with Asperger's syndrome, but it's hard to find. A classroom with only eight to 10 children is even better, according to Michael D. Powers, co-author of "Asperger Syndrome & Your Child: A Parent's Guide." In this setting, kids with Asperger's are less likely to become overstimulated. They can focus and learn, and teachers have the resources to offer some one-on-one support. Children often become overstimulated in brightly colored rooms crowded with books and equipment. A better setting is one that is organized, tidy and soothing, with a neutral decorating scheme.
Most kids with Asperger's have some intense interests, and repetitive behaviors. A wise teacher harnesses these special interests to inform learning, suggests Sally Ozonoff, co-author of "A Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome & High-Functioning Autism." For example, many kids with Asperger's struggle with writing. A teacher can assign writing assignments on dinosaurs, reptiles, chess or whatever sparks the child. Stimming, which refers to repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping, sometimes occur when a child is becoming overstimulated. Experienced classroom teachers acknowledge these behaviors as communication, and allow kids some time during the day alone to decompress or focus on special interests.
Many schools today value collaborative learning and projects over rote learning. These methods teach cooperation and creative thinking and work well for many children. Unfortunately, kids with Asperger's usually do better with a structured approach. Group projects take so much effort for a child with Asperger's to navigate socially that any academic learning is often lost. An open, fluid schedule often causes anxiety and hyperactivity. Every child's different, but for many children, the ideal setting is one that offers a predictable schedule that includes small group instruction, individual work and technology-driven learning, according to Powers. Teachers should use visual schedules and give notice before transitions and break learning down into short steps.
Making the Choice
One of the most challenging aspects of raising a child with Asperger's is finding a satisfactory school environment. Depending on where you live, your school might have a program specifically for children with autism, but it might not meet the needs of a bright, high-functioning child. Private schools for children with Asperger's are usually excellent, but the tuition can be expensive. Whether you live in an area with a well-funded school district or a small school district with a tight budget, the bottom line is the people involved. A small school with few resources can work wonders for your child if the teachers and administrators are caring and interested in helping. Start by meeting with the administrators and teachers. Find out how much they're willing to do and whether they're willing to work collaboratively with you.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, children on an individual education program are entitled to a "free and appropriate education." Unfortunately, the word "appropriate" is open to interpretation and might not mean "ideal" or "optimal." If you've searched unsuccessfully for a school for your child, it might be time to consider homeschooling. Homeschooling often works well for children with Asperger's because it provides a quiet setting, individual instruction and the opportunity to explore interests in-depth, advises Lisa Pyles, author of "Homeschooling the Child with Asperger Syndrome." Depending on where you live, you'll find more support than you might expect, ranging from online or weekly classes offered by your school district to support groups for you and social groups for your child. Many school districts even offer free curriculum to homeschooling parents.