My department chair started the new semester by giving us a list. “Resources to Use if a Student Needs Help.” I scanned the checklist. “What to do if a student is: failing, homeless, suicidal, violent . . .” She never said that this was in response to the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, but we all instinctively, inherently understood. We accepted the list quietly and appreciatively.
The gunman had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. But you probably knew that. In this age of 24/7 media, we knew all the details. As teachers, we tracked every minute of that soul-splitting day. We relived the horror, cried, and cried again with every updated newscast.
And now we face our own classroom. Unarmed and unsure. Admit it. You thought, “I hope I never have a student with Asperger’s.”
But you have, or you will. The Center for Disease Control now estimates that 1 in 88 people have autism. So if you teach full-time for even one semester, you will probably have a student with Asperger’s Syndrome in your class.
I actually have recurrent nightmares about it. In my dreams, I’m yelling at a student who keeps asking me, “Yeah? You got a Master’s? Well I got a gun!” and I can’t say a word. I can’t talk. I have no voice! But I am in charge, and I am responsible! I frantically motion for the other students to leave, and as they file out, and I look at that one, lone, angry student, I still cannot say one word. I have no power.
But in reality, I DO have power. I DO know how to handle a student who has Asperger’s. Because I have a son with Asperger’s .
I joke that he attends college on a part-time basis – when I can’t get him to go to school. He sits in the Library, reading 400+ page books, while I teach my class, and hope, really hope, that I will not run into the College President, or any of my colleagues, while I walk, quickly, to and from my car with my child in tow. (Actually, I’m usually the one in tow. He is anxious to leave. He wants to finish his book. And he will, later that day. He usually reads at least one book a day.) People with Asperger’s are often highly-intelligent, as in near-genius intelligence. They struggle instead with social interactions and emotional balance.
When my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s seven years ago, the first step in my grieving process was to read. I read hundreds of articles and books. I attended conferences. I interviewed other mothers who had children with Asperger’s. I interviewed children with Asperger’s.
And this is what I learned. A student with Asperger’s is much more worried about himself than he is about you. But he may, indeed, get agitated in the classroom setting. People, expectations, clocks, quizzes, grades – all of that can agitate anyone. But a student with Asperger’s enters the room starting with an anxiety score of 90 on a scale of 1-100.
That anxiety may cause him to display the following symptoms:
· An inability to complete tasks
· Pedantic speech
· Tics – blinking excessively, clearing his throat constantly, etc.
· Talking to himself
· Concrete, or black-and-white thinking
· Isolation from his peers
· Lack of eye contact
· Inability to answer inferential questions
· Intrusiveness in discussions
· Acting or speaking in a grandiose manner
That’s a lot of conditions for a teacher to handle (not to mention the student). What accommodations can you make? What should you do according to the Faculty Handbook? Let’s be real - how afraid should you be?
Not very. Really. Most people with Asperger’s are more likely to hurt themselves before they would hurt you. But many of them WILL have meltdowns. They WILL get frustrated. And they WILL get angry.
So what do you do?
The exact opposite of what you want to do.
When a student with Asperger’s gets frustrated and begins to yell or confront you, you want to confront him. You want to order him out of the room. You want to protect your classroom, your students, your authority. (Yes, you do. Come on, admit it, Professor.)
But don’t. Step back. Quiet down. Soften your voice, your demeanor, and your stance. Let him have his say, and agree with him, some way, some how. Then slowly change the subject. Let him cool down. Let him save face. If you embarrass him, you are asking for more trouble. If you dismiss him, you are asking for him to demand more attention. If you ignore him, you are asking for him to interrupt again. So, listen, and then slowly, adeptly, turn back to the lesson you planned.
Let it go, like it was just a problem with the computer. (You’re used to that.)
But perhaps after class, you could take him aside, and whether or not he has self-identified, you could say, “I appreciate that you participate in class. You have a really good mind, and you have a lot to contribute. But maybe you could limit your comments to three sentences. Because there are a lot of good minds in that class. And you can learn from them too. I noticed you were somewhat angry today too. Have you seen a counselor here? They’re free. I can find the number to make an appointment, if you want…”
That is teaching in the year 2013, Post-Newtown Teaching. You deal with real students, while teaching from an idealistic syllabus. You protect your students, your self, and that student. You learn to avert the meltdowns, the showdowns, the shutdowns, that scare you, and ironically, scare people like my son. They don’t want to breakdown in class. They really don’t. They don’t want that attention. They just want respect.
Of course, I won’t guarantee that you can avert a Newtown, Connecticut shooting. How can I? Like you, I am unarmed. My only weapon is experience, and a really, really deep compassion. I know you have it too. Every teacher does. Use it. It’s the best gun-lock I know of.