asperger's and social learningFor students with Asperger’s and NLD, coaching in social understanding and skills must be embedded throughout their day in real time, and not relegated to a social skills group and a weekly meeting with a counselor. Professionals and parents have to recognize social misunderstandings when they occur, and teach rather than correct or blame.

Students with Asperger’s and NLD tend to be very detail oriented and concrete, which impacts learning social skills. A girl in 2nd grade was told she wasn’t to say anything “disrespectful in class.” She could repeat this rule when asked. The next day, she told a girl “Shut up” and was confronted by her teacher, reminding her of the rule.

The girl responded, “You never said don’t say shut up.” It’s impossible to think of every possible disrespectful statement (although it might be an interesting exercise), but real time coaching would involve explaining why “shut up” was disrespectful.

Detail-orientation also means that learning doesn’t generalize across situations. The same girl might say “Shut up” in gym because it wasn’t in class. She needs help to learn that this rule applies everywhere in the school, in different looking situations and circumstances.

A confusing challenge for the NLD/Asperger student is that other students don’t always follow the rules; also, they understand that that context makes a difference in word meaning. She may hear classmates saying “Shut up” to each other in the hallway or cafeteria, or even in class. “Shut up” might mean, “Be quiet” and it might also mean “no way.” For someone who misses the nonverbal cues as to whether something is said in a humorous way, this makes no sense. Again, real time coaching is necessary.

Poor processing of nonverbal cues means that kidding around, friendly “dissing” and physical contact can be perceived as insulting, threatening or humiliating. Misunderstandings often lead to inappropriate responses, which can get students in trouble. If a student with this profile reacts “inappropriately,” getting in trouble isn’t a teaching tool.

An example is of an NLD middle school boy who imitated other boys saying “off limit” things in the hallway. Unlike the others, he did this within earshot of a teacher. He was frequently getting detentions with the comment, “Don’t do it again.” He had no idea what he’d done wrong, and came to the conclusion that his teachers hated him. Without help processing the situation, he wasn’t learning anything.

How to do this teaching? The best answer to have an integrated classroom and to have social pragmatic and understanding skills woven into the curriculum for all. Group projects can involve help learning how to work as a team.

High functioning students don’t want an aide, and it’s understandable that teachers don’t have the time to interrupt class and do coaching constantly. At times an aide is assigned who “floats” among students. If the aide doesn’t catch the teachable moments or isn’t trained to teach social understanding, this doesn’t help. In the case of bullying, too often it occurs out of sight of teachers.

In a traditional classroom, it might be the best available alternative for the student to have frequent check-ins with a counselor who is kept informed by teachers, with whom the student can share his confusion or his perception of what’s been happening. They should examine events step by step to identify all the issues involved and take action when needed (as in the case of bullying). Too often these kids are simply told they’re wrong.

Serious problems can occur. I’ve seen students mercilessly teased by peers; I’ve heard of teachers who find NLD or Asperger’s students unsympathetic because of their inappropriateness, or their failure to respond positively to normal social overtures. I know of NLD teenagers at risk because they want friends and are vulnerable to inappropriate overtures. Unprotected from bullying and without guidance to the impact of behavior, these students can react with words or actions resulting in severe consequences.

Asperger’s and NLD students need to have social understanding and basic skills to navigate the world safely and successfully. The interventions have to be meaningful and have real impact or these students are at risk. Too often learning is something directed at the student instead of done with him. My experience is that teaching can be very successful, especially if done in a way that the student finds genuinely helpful.

Teacher and student photo available from Shutterstock