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Confronting Asperger’s in the classroom

They’ve been called “odd ducks,” “eccentrics” or “little professors.” Now these often brilliant but socially awkward students, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, are flocking to postsecondary classrooms in greater numbers than ever before. Here’s how faculty are meeting the challenge.

By MOIRA FARR | JAN 09 2012

It’s just a gesture and a sequence of words, a private signal between James Wright, an associate professor of music at Carleton University, and his student, Maureen Pytlik, to remind her not to dominate the class question period. They worked it out together, so she doesn’t become so absorbed in the discussion that she forgets she’s in a classroom with other students, and that they need the professor’s attention too. Ms. Pytlik, 23, has Asperger’s Syndrome, and she doesn’t pick up social cues as easily as other students would.

Asperger’s, or AS, is a neurological disorder first identified by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944 as a cluster of characteristics exhibited by children, predominantly boys (a four-to-one ratio), on the high-functioning end of autistic spectrum disorders. The highly accomplished but socially inept Dr. Asperger thought he had it himself. The term was barely in use, however, until the 1980s; since then, it has become an increasingly common diagnosis.

Like most people diagnosed with AS, Ms. Pytlik is very intelligent and academically inclined. “The quality of her work and insights is breathtaking,” says Dr. Wright. When it comes to music theory, “I’ve never seen anything like her ability to see mathematical patterns. It’s right off the scale. Her research skills are second to none.”

Despite her academic triumphs, adjusting to life as a postsecondary student has not been easy for Ms. Pytlik, who uses words like “hypersensitive” and “obsessive” to describe herself. She was diagnosed as a member of the AS tribe as a teenager. Bullying at school had made her withdrawn, anxious and depressed. At Carleton, though, she’s blossomed into a well-appreciated member of the music program. “The department of fine arts is a nice, open environment,” says Dr. Wright. “We’re used to eccentrics.”

Used to eccentrics or not, university faculty members across the country, and in particular in the Ottawa area, are finding themselves faced with increasing numbers of students with Asperger’s Syndrome and are feeling their impact on classroom dynamics. (Why Ottawa? No one knows for sure, although researchers suggest genetics may be a factor; studies have shown that in regions with a large population of people working in high-tech industries, such as California’s Silicon Valley and parts of the Netherlands, a higher than average number of children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.)

“We’ve seen a phenomenal rise in the numbers [of AS students], from zero to 50 in five years, and we expect to see many more,” says Larry McCloskey, director of Carleton’s Paul Menton Centre, known for its groundbreaking work over the past two decades helping students who have disabilities succeed at university as well as educating the general campus population about these students’ needs.

That education includes seminars and workshops for faculty who want to understand AS better and to learn how best to work with such students so they can succeed academically. That’s how I ended up with a dozen or so colleagues from various disciplines at a late June workshop at Algonquin College and another one in early September at Carleton. (I teach at both institutions, and have begun encountering a number of AS students, with differing and sometimes challenging needs.) We were gathered to learn from the well-versed campus specialists who deal with this group of students in their growing numbers each day.

“We find that there tend to be two types, one very chatty, the other very reserved,” says Laura Brawn, a disabilities coordinator with the Paul Menton Centre. “It is a question of social abilities,” she adds, “either too much communication or too little.”

graph1_aspergers
Source: “Identifying Trends and Supports for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Post-Secondary Education,” 2010.

Students with AS may behave in an extremely literal way, favouring unchanging routines, clear-cut instruction and external structure. Sometimes they are – to be blunt – obnoxious. They may blurt sarcastic comments in class, ask annoying questions or make observations best kept to themselves, an unfortunate factor contributing to possible social isolation. Their quick wits and academic talents, on the other hand, may win them praise and endearment, or at least tolerance, from classmates and faculty.

At Carleton, associate mathematics professor Michael J. Moore found himself with three AS students who had problems fitting in with his classes last year – a first, he says, in more than 40 years of teaching. One student was very quiet and withdrawn, another made inappropriate remarks in class (“I talked to him about it one or two times, with only moderate success”) and the third had difficulty with the course but became belligerent when Dr. Moore advised him that he must do the work in order to pass.

The situation prompted Dr. Moore to offer his services to the Paul Menton Centre. This past summer, he led a seminar for about a dozen incoming AS students (and some of their parents) on what to expect in a university classroom.

“Basically I said ‘this is how I do a lecture, here is a course outline, this is what a deadline means, and this is how you behave. You don’t yell out answers, you put up your hand. You call me Professor Moore.’ It went quite well. Whether it will help, I don’t know. But I did run into one of the students at a barbecue and he told me some math jokes.”

In general, faculty are becoming more aware of how to deal with AS students, says Heather Fawcett, an Ottawa-based spokesperson for Autism Ontario, whose own daughter attends Carleton. But there’s still a long way to go in getting everyone on board in helping such students adjust. “I know universities can only do so much, but we need to educate people, not just academics but the wider community as well.” The goal, she notes, is to help these young people eventually enter the work force.

Faculty members and the Paul Menton or any other centre can only document and help those students who self-identify as having AS and who’ve had testing and medical documentation to prove it. There are, without doubt, many students with AS at colleges and universities who don’t formally announce themselves or use the support services offered. That is their right.

As for academic accommodations, these may range from allowing extra time for exams and quiet rooms in which to do them to allowing note-takers or recording devices in class. Sometimes, people with AS are also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), making these accommodations even more critical to success with course work.

As with other disabilities though, accommodation does not mean expecting less of a student with AS or providing extra instruction not given to others, Mr. McCloskey is quick to point out. Rather, it means leveling the playing field.

aspergersgraph2
Source: “Identifying Trends and Supports for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Post-Secondary Education,” 2010.

“We’ve fought so hard for no special treatment [at the Menton Centre] and we want faculty to know what we do and feel supported,” says Mr. McCloskey. “Accommodation is not based on the whim of a student asking for an extension and using excuses. A letter of accommodation is very clear about what is being asked for, and it doesn’t go beyond that.”

Others in the field of helping postsecondary students with disabilities agree. “I don’t think it’s our job to modify every program to every student,” says Susan Alcorn MacKay, director of disability services at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario. Ms. MacKay is the author of a 2010 study, “Identifying Trends and Supports for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Post-Secondary Education,” (PDF) for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. In it, she reveals the dramatic increases in the numbers of students at the province’s universities and colleges, in particular Ottawa and eastern Ontario. It is a trend seen across the country, with each province and most educational institutions now providing supports for this group of students, as is their legislated duty with these and all students with disabilities.

Ms. MacKay’s study also revealed gaps in support, pointing out what a giant leap it is for students going from high school to university or college. At the secondary level, AS students may have had access to “well-trained special educators,” while at university, the training for faculty in how to deal with disabilities is optional. Many high schools with AS students have “safe areas,” quiet spots where a student can go to chill out, but university campuses generally don’t cater to that need specifically. And secondary school curriculums are modified for AS students, while universities expect all students to complete the same course work.

In the best-case scenario, you have a conscientious and likeable student like Maureen Pytlik, aware of and open about her problems, willing to work with faculty and use support services to solve them, and in the end capable of exceptional work.

Sometimes, however, highly verbal, intense, socially inept students with AS can be disruptive, defiant and disorganized – or, they fly so beneath the radar that in a large first-year class, their failure to thrive may not be noticed until it’s too late.

Alexander Coculuzzi, age 20, admits that his first year as a student at the University of Ottawa was a bit of a disaster. As is typical for many with AS, he is disarmingly frank about his experience. Diagnosed with AS at age 13 (he also has ADHD), he’d been severely bullied and had problems in the classroom throughout high school; in one incident he punched a teacher. After being assigned an educational assistant in Grade 10, his attitude and school work turned around. With high marks in math, he was eager to start university and live in a dorm.

In hindsight, he reflects on what went wrong. “Academically I was ready, but I wasn’t mature enough to live on my own.” That meant not making it to class much of the time, partying and ignoring assignments. “I don’t remember January,” he confesses. When he did attend class, he tended to monopolize discussion, something he wasn’t even aware he was doing until a girl he’d befriended told him that people wanted him to stop talking so much. “I wasn’t offended,” he says.

While slacking off isn’t an activity unique to AS students, Mr. Coculuzzi’s problems were compounded by AS. Despite being given extra time to write exams, he ended up failing two courses. “I just wasn’t in the right mindset and didn’t realize the challenges until I was there,” he says now. “I needed help organizing my day, getting into a routine. Things that other people do naturally, I have to be taught.” It’s not only university centres that offer this kind of life coaching. In Ottawa, the Y’s Owl Maclure Cooperative Centre, a non-profit agency, helps young people with autism and AS cope at the postsecondary level, whether it’s organizing a schedule or making sure they eat properly.

Ms. Pytlik is the first to acknowledge that she’s needed lots of support – extra time and quiet rooms for exams, a peer mentor and one-on-one interaction with professors have all helped. In fact, she came to the university accompanied by her mother, before she even had begun classes, and met individually with Dr. Wright and other faculty members.

“I didn’t really know what Asperger’s Syndrome was at the time,” says Dr. Wright. “It’s Maureen who has taught me.” Since then, he has been more than accommodating with his signaling system and encouragements, making sure she feels comfortable and accepted in the classroom, and getting her through roadblocks she has encountered in some of her studies. “It’s a subtle business to make sure you don’t marginalize someone,” says Dr. Wright.

While Ms. Pytlik has excelled at the mathematical aspects of music theory, assignments involving creativity have caused her extreme anxiety. “To invent and create, explore human expressivity, this was new for her and she was a bit at sea,” says Dr. Wright. While at first he felt “at a loss” on how to help with this aspect of her course work, talking about it with her, helping her discover her own ideas, laying out the assignment more explicitly than he was used to doing for students, all meant a lot to Ms. Pytlik.

“I guess he thought I was worth putting up with,” she says with a shy smile, during an interview in a quiet conference room at Carleton’s Paul Menton Centre.

It’s the same room where Aspirations, a group of up to a dozen students with AS, meets biweekly to socialize. Sometimes they’ll watch a movie or TV show, talk and eat popcorn, or sometimes just relax in a safe haven of people who share similar challenges and experiences.

Now in her fifth year of study, Ms. Pytlik has fourth-year standing and expects to graduate with an honours bachelor of music in the fall of 2013, and with an honours bachelor of mathematics the following spring. She wants to pursue graduate studies in the field of music perception and cognition at McGill University. Like many with AS, she has much to contribute to society. “What Maureen brings to us,” says Dr. Wright, “more than counterbalances the challenges.”

Moira Farr is a writer and journalist who teaches magazine writing to college and university students in Ottawa.

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  1. Anne-Marie / January 10, 2012 at 9:02 am

    As the parent of a young son with AS (and a Carleton grad)my heart leapt as I read this article. Thank you Moira for raising these issues and sharing a little bit of the Carleton U experience.

  2. manon / January 10, 2012 at 9:28 am

    I am the parent of a very bright, very scientifically minded high school student with AS. He also suffers from acute misophonia, a not uncommon co-morbid affliction. Misophonia is the inability to tolerate certain sounds. In most cases, as in my child’s, the offending noise is other people eating. His anxiety levels hit the roof when he sees people with food.

    When accommodating students with AS, there must be readiness to accommodate when possible beyond academics. In my son’s case, a simple request to refrain from eating or chewing gum in the classroom is the difference between success and failure.

  3. Concerned Citizen / January 10, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Ah, Aspergers. The psych diagnosis de jour. This is just another example of educators being asked to accommodate every student’s individual issue. What about the rights of those other 10, 50 or 300 students (in the case of a typical undergrad class) to fidget, chew gum, snack on peanuts or–gasp!–breathe? We are drowning in ‘special cases’. In my day, if one had a special issue one dealt with it privately and, yes, informing the teacher. But certainly not by requiring my peers to accommodate me. Presumably they are busy with their own issues and challenges. Awareness should be encouraged but when an entire class is expected to adapt to a single student this crosses a boundary from ‘understanding’ to unfair.

  4. Anne-Marie / January 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Gee I wish I’d read Concerned Citizen’s comment before leaving my own. I’m wondering if you read the same article I did? I didn’t read about other students being asked to adapt. What I read about was a professor who spent extra time getting to know a student and their needs and was enriched by the process. And I read about a student who was willing/able to adapt as well so they could grow and learn. Forgive me but ‘in my day’ that’s what school was about: those special teachers who went the extra mile and the students who responded to that call.

  5. Laura / January 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    What I want to know is how higher education is advising these students about going on to join the working world. I’ve learned to navigate a classroom with AS students, but am baffled as to how to advise them about the job hunt. The ones I’ve had in class have wildly unrealistic occupational ambitions and our disabilities services helps students operate in the classroom; their job does not include career counseling. Neither does mine, but I want to help. What to do?

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