Most students with Aspergers Syndrome (AS) and Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) are bright. They often do well in school, especially on tasks involving facts and logic. However, many AS/NLD students experience learning challenges relative to their intellectual potential, often in language skills. Pragmatic language, the skills of everyday social language (including body language), are often taught in social groups or in Speech and Language sessions. Other key skills can fly under the radar. Both AS and NLD students can have difficulty with higher-level language skills such as figurative, ambiguous and inferential language. Figurative and inferential language become a key element of reading comprehension when ideas aren’t stated directly and themes must be inferred. Poetry and fiction can be particularly challenging.
In addition, problems with social understanding can play a role in reading comprehension. It’s assumed that students will be able to infer the feelings and goals of characters in fiction; that’s not likely if this is a challenge in daily social interactions.
Because AS and NLD students are detail oriented, often many can get lost in details and have difficulty organizing and prioritizing ideas. Even extremely brilliant and articulate students can have trouble “getting to the point” of what they’re saying. They may seem to circle an idea with details and have trouble getting to its essence.
Many students experience challenges in writing, since writing involves the same skills. I’ve found AS and NLD students who are very articulate in speech, but who struggle to write a paragraph (younger students) or a paper (older students).
This problem with identifying main ideas interferes with test taking as well. A student may miss the point of an open-ended question. I’ve seen “D’s” on essay questions when students in fact knew everything about the subject, just not what to include in that particular answer.
These difficulties can be misinterpreted, particularly in students whose behavior is viewed as difficult. Refusal to write, minimally elaborated papers and avoidance of reading fiction and poetry are chalked up to oppositionalism or to a lack of motivation. Variable performances on tests are seen as proving “they can do it when they try” rather than as suggesting that it is important to examine the nature of the test.
Standardized testing often misses subtleties of language skills and reading comprehension skills, especially at higher grade levels. There’s nothing that compares to reading chapter books and writing longer papers. For AS and NLD students, there has to be an exploration of actual grade level skills using classroom materials.
Specific remediation of skills and helping students discover their own strategies for these language challenges can unlock untapped capabilities. I’ve found students intimidated by expository writing who are gifted creative writer.
One especially articulate and brilliant girl I evaluated had talked her way out of every paper through high school, and got into colleges only to drop out when the first paper was assigned. Tutors who said, “just make an outline,” were totally useless. She was on her fourth college when I met her.
Once her challenge was understood and she got useful help, she had a wonderful, successful college career. Writing papers wasn’t her favorite activity, but she got through them and was able to pursue the arts that were her true gift.