The kids at my school are generally pretty accepting and understanding about their classmates’ learning differences and disabilities. They offer to help when appropriate, and are good about including others. They know the names of all the kids with significant disabilities, greet them in the hall and their classrooms, and some even volunteer to work with them. We spend a lot of time talking about how everyone learns differently, that we all have things that make us different, and that none of us likes to be picked on or excluded. They are usually patient about disruptive behaviors, especially if the student’s disability is obvious and/or a paraprofessional works with the student.
The difficulty comes when a not-so-obvious disability is combined with repetitive, disruptive or annoying behaviors that do not respond to peers’ spoken or non-verbal requests to stop. The kids with social thinking challenges might have diagnoses of Asperger’s, autism, PDD-NOS, non-verbal learning disability, or they might have no diagnosis at all. But you know who they are.
I love working with kids with social thinking challenges! I enjoy getting the chance to see the world from perspectives different from my own and the challenge of figuring out how to help these kids be successful academically and socially. And where else are you going to get such unadulterated, gut-busting honesty?
Must insert these stories right now: In a previous school (his mom told us this story), one boy’s exasperated teacher asked the class: “Why is no one listening to me???!!!!” He helpfully replied, “Because you’re boring.” I’m sure she didn’t appreciate his candor very much in the moment, but this story cracks me up every time. I bet she was boring, and my quiet, fourth-grade, good-girl self would never have been brave enough to tell her. I wish I could have seen her face!
Once, when I was trying to talk a student whose brain was very stuck on not trying something new, into joining me in believing it would be okay, I said, “And I’m pretty wise, don’t you think?” I bet you know what’s coming, but it’s even funnier than what you’re thinking! Now, just to give you some background, this guy trusted me a lot, and I had been able to talk him into things before. It was not a completely nutso thing for me to say, given the circumstances. However . . . he responded, completely rationally: “No. You’re not old or staff-holding enough. And you don’t have a beard.” Luckily he loved it when I laughed, which is a good thing, because I was practically rolling on the floor. I had totally set myself up! Obviously, in his personal encyclopedia, wisdom was for wizards, not for nice counselors. Okay, now back to something actually useful, but let me just say that he ended up getting unstuck and did try as a result of all our hilarity. Apparently imagining me with a long gray beard inspires considerable courage.
But for classmates, a peer’s social thinking difficulties can be harder to handle, especially when unpleasant or annoying behaviors are frequent. Of course, some kids might get angry and act unkindly right away, but most use a number of tried and true strategies such as asking the person to stop, ignoring, trying to talk it out, or giving non-verbal cues. When these don’t work, kids tend to get frustrated. Hopefully, they ask an adult for help, but sometimes their last-ditch reaction to these behaviors is meanness or bullying.
This is a situation that needs to be addressed head-on, preferably before kids’ frustration levels become intolerable and before meanness or bullying erupts. However, even if things have already gotten out of hand, you can work with kids to help them build understanding, empathy, and skills to manage annoying behaviors. To really make a difference you will need several classroom sessions, but one is better than none.
1. Talk with the parent of the student with Aspergers. Explain that helping the other students understand their child’s behaviors will help him have more successful peer relationships, and can help to prevent bullying. Ascertain what the parent has told the child about the disability. Some kids will know their official diagnosis. Others will not. When the family is comfortable with using the diagnostic term, that’s what I use with the kids. When they are not comfortable with it, I use the term “social thinking challenges.” While I respect parents’ decisions, I do encourage them to think about helping their children understand and advocate for themselves by using the diagnostic term that applies to their child. I have found that kids feel better when they understand why some things are harder for them than they are for other kids. Moving ahead without the parent’s permission is challenging, because you often have to be so vague that kids don’t really make the connections that you’d like them to. In situations like this I’ve had the most success with teaching about several different disabilities, including Asperger’s and autism, as part of a diversity or bullying unit.
2. Read a book about Asperger’s to the class. My hands-down favorite is To Be Me: Understanding What It’s Like to Have Asperger’s Syndrome by Rebecca Etlinger. The book is narrated by David, a 10-year-old fourth grader with Asperger’s. He tells about his difficulties with making friends, having reciprocal conversation, rigid thinking, and gross and fine motor skills. He also explains about how his classmates learned about Asperger’s and gives tips to kids on how to help kids with social thinking challenges. My kids LOVE this book! Many often ask to borrow it after I have read it to the class. One time I had a student with Asperger’s call out, “He is just like me. This book is about me!” For once the other kids cut him some slack for blurting, all of a sudden seeing him in a new light.
Another great book is Can I Tell You About Asperger Syndrome? A Guide for Friends and Family by Jude Welton. Narrated by a boy named Adam, it has more text than To Be Me, with more detail and great captioned line drawings that clearly illustrate some of the challenges that people with Asperger’s face: difficulty reading facial expressions and tone of voice, joining in with other kids, sensory integration problems, the confusing nature of group dynamics, gross motor challenges, rigid thinking and difficulties with schedule changes. It also shows how much he loves his special interests and what a good advocate he is for himself.
I don’t read the whole book to the class, but I do show the pictures and read excerpts. I have had individual students ask to borrow this book to read it thoroughly. I have used both of these books as part of a book study activity in a unit on differences; they are always very popular choices. See my post Book Studies: They Learn, You Assess for more info.
3. Show a video about Asperger’s. I especially like How a Kid with Asperger’s Views the World, made by a mom of a 9-year-old with Asperger’s to help his teachers understand him. It has still photos and brief written statements (which I read aloud) and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for a soundtrack. It is beautifully done and moving. The kids really enjoy it.
4. If you’re concerned about meanness or bullying: Talk with the class about the behaviors that are bothering them and how they can work together to make the situation more manageable. Think carefully about whether the student with Asperger’s should be in the classroom while this discussion happens. This will depend on the individual student and the conversation that you have had with the parent. Most often I have this conversation with the class while the student is elsewhere.
a. Tell the class that you know there have been concerns about some unexpected behaviors. ( The term “unexpected” is used to describe behaviors that give others uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. “Expected” behaviors are those that give others comfortable or good feelings. The kids know these terms from our social thinking lessons in grades 1-5. See Michelle Garcia Winner’s socialthinking.com for more info. I will definitely be writing more about her amazing work!) Tell the class that you are all going to talk about this respectfully and kindly, without any putdowns.
b. Ask what unexpected behaviors they have noticed. Help them identify observable behaviors (I describe these as something you could draw a detailed picture of): instead of “rude” — “blurts out when others are talking;” instead of “annoying” — “taps pencil repeatedly.” Initially, you will probably get a collection of complaints. Tell them that you understand how hard it is to put up with these unexpected behaviors. Cue the class to think about what they’ve noticed about the student’s friendships, ability to work in groups, and ability to calm him/herself down. Ask about what they have noticed that the student is good at and what he/she needs help with. List all these items in separate columns on chart paper or the SmartBoard (if available) so that you can have them for a subsequent class.
c. If you have not previously read a book about Asperger’s to your students, share some information about it with them. I find that some of the captioned illustrations in Can I Tell You About Asperger Syndrome? A Guide for Friends and Family are great for this. Help make connections about how some situations are difficult for kids with social thinking challenges and how these difficulties can result in challenging behaviors. I find it helpful to have the kids think about other disabilities and if we “blame” kids who can’t do things because of these disabilities: Would they get mad if a deaf classmate didn’t answer the questions they were asking, or if a kid in a wheelchair couldn’t reach something from the top cubbies?
d. Show a video to help kids understand how damaging being mean and bullying is. Asperger’s and Bullying features a teenager with Asperger’s describing his experience with bullying. The news report, Student Bullied Into a Corner shows a video made by a classmate while an eighth grader with Asperger’s was being bullied by his classmates, and an interview with the student and his father. It is incredibly moving. I have used both of these videos with fifth grade and would also consider using them in fourth grade.
e. Help the class come up with strategies for how to respond to particular behaviors that you previously listed. I like to have the class re-sort the behaviors into “ignore,” “adult help,” and “use a strategy” lists. This can lead to some good discussions, in which kids share their own previously successful and unsuccessful strategies and do some group problem-solving. Pick a few of the most challenging behaviors and develop a script for responding to them. A good example will involve language that the student understands — hopefully you or someone else is working with him on this language and will follow up to make sure that he understands his classmates’ scripts. We tend to use, “That’s unexpected. I’m having uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about you.” “Please stop _____________ (explicit description). It is interrupting my learning.”
5. This is not a quick fix! You will need to keep supporting the classmates as they learn to replace unkind responses to frustrating behaviors with more empathetic ones. The student with Asperger’s will need continued instruction and practice to help them learn that their behavior impacts how others think, feel, and treat them. All the adults working with the class should be familiar with the scripts and be ready to cue and reward the students for using them. You may need to help the other adults recognize not only that they should respond to every mean or bullying incident, but also that they may need to help the class have some relief from annoying and disruptive behaviors.
6. Build on what the kids have learned. Are there some kids who could benefit from taking on a leadership role in helping other kids understand Asperger’s and other disabilities? This is a great theme for a group for kids. We call ours S.H.A.R.E. — Students Helping and Respecting Everyone. You can manage this group so that it meets the needs of the group members (self-esteem, practicing leadership or social skills, etc.) while working to help kids with disabilities.
Good luck! These situations are challenging, but it is so rewarding when the kids gain empathy, change unkind behaviors, and learn how to help themselves manage difficult situations.
Stay tuned! I’ll share resources for helping kids understand autism — and lots more about social thinking — in future posts.