Teaching students with Asperger's Syndrome can be challenging under any circumstances, but I wondered how, in an online course, you could accomodate the unique needs of a student with AS if you didn't know the the student had AS. So, I asked in one of our online discussions and got this great reponse from Coates that she said I could share with anyone I wanted.
Question:Bottom line: Every student has unique needs. Meet each student where he or she is, with whatever challenges that present themselves, and don't assume that what you might consider "bad behavior" is intended to personally harass you, the instructor.
In online higher education, our disabilities services folks will let the instructor know what accommodation must be made for a particular student (mostly extra time on tests). But the nature of the disability is never revealed. I'm curious... how would an online instructor even know if a student had Asperger's. Might they have a language idiosyncracy in an online course that would indicate that?
What an insightful question. It might have been in this course that I made the comment, "When you have met one student with Asperger's you have met one student with Asperger's." There is a very broad range of behaviors that one experiences in any human interaction. With AS, it is not different. What is important to understand is that there are certain behaviors that are common with AS that you might be aware of in an online course:
- Sophisticated use of language. Many with AS are use very sophisticated and formal speech. This is apparent in written communication as well as verbal communication. Often, the advanced vocabulary gives the impression that the student is very knowledgeable, when, in fact, there may be a big disconnect between the words used and understanding what they really mean. If you encounter a student who seems very articulate but who does not seem to grasp content, you may be dealing with and AS student. The literalness with which AS students interpret language may create problems with comprehension. This often shows up when students are asked to do analysis of information they have read.
In addition, any question dealing with affect may solicit a non-respnse or a confused response. Talking about emotions, feelings, etc. or being asked "How to you feel about X," or "How do you think Huck felt when he realized that Jim might be put to death for taking him on the raft?," can present an impossible situation for an AS student. Articulating how they feel or describing how they think someone else feels may be beyond their ability to express.
- Literal interpretation of information or instructions. Many with AS are very literal in their interpretation of language. My son, for example, was once disciplined by a teacher who asked students to turn in their notes. He ripped the notes out of his spiral bound notebook and turned them in. All the other students turned in their notebooks. My son was very upset because he had done exactly what was asked and could not understand why he was in trouble. Online you might find that a student answerers a question very literally or interprets an instruction very literally and thus fails to answer in the way you expected or fails to follow the instruction as you had intended.
- Confusion with simple instructions. Often, instructions that seem very straightforward or simple to most of us are absolutely baffling to those with AS. They may ask for clarification on things that you cannot imagine are confusing. Many students have encountered instructors who have misinterpreted this legitimate confusion with laziness or oppositional behavior, and are very reluctant to ask questions.
- Not meeting deadlines. Many AS student need extra time for tests or for processing information. They can become easily overwhelmed, and with this comes an increase in anxiety. This can cause them to fall behind. When this happens, many are reluctant to try to explain or ask for accommodation because their efforts in the past may not have been successful.
- Withdrawal form participation. Many with AS are very sensitive. That, in combination with their tendency to misinterpret language, can lead to withdrawal behavior. If you find a student who stops participating, efforts to encourge him or her might be helpful to get them back on track.
- Anxiety. Anxiety disorders are frequently co-morbid with AS. If you have a student who exhibits undue anxiety in communications with you, and who has been identified as a student with special needs, efforts to help resolve the anxiety and find a resolution to the problem confronting the student may be valuable.
- If you are given information about accommodations needed, you might be especially attentive and take the initiative in asking students who seem to be having problems like those mentioned above about how you might help. This will often give them the confidence they need and the support they need to ask for help and thus be more successful.