Saturday, March 24, 2012

Special - Asperger's Syndrome

"knock, knock, knock, 'Penny?'...knock, knock, knock, 'Penny?'.... knock, knock, knock, 'Penny?' "

If you recognize this, you have seen at least one episode of The Big Bang Theory television series. The character Sheldon, referred to as a brilliant ├╝ber geek, always knocks three times at neighbor Penny's door. Here is part of the description of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory fansite: "He lacks empathy, is unable to discern sarcasm, doesn't like change, and has an inflated ego. He does not understand social norms, and makes little attempt to do so."

From WebMD, here are the main characteristic of a person with Asperger's syndrome:
* Problems with social skills
* Eccentric or repetitive behaviors
* Unusual preoccupations or rituals
* Communication difficulties
* Limited range of interests
* Coordination problems
* Skilled or talented

Sounds like Sheldon to me. What is also missing from this list is a high sensitivity to sensory input.  Sheldon is extremely fussy about where he sits, evaluating all the possible sensory parameters that could interfere with his ability to focus in any given spot in a room. He also likes to have clean hands at all times and isn't tolerant of sticky fingers. Watching The Big Bang Theory as a person familiar with Asperger's syndrome, I am continually amazed at how accurate it is. And it is funny.

Living with a child with Asperger's syndrome is not generally amusing, however. It can be extremely challenging. The show gives a nod to this whenever Sheldon says, "No, I don't have (fill in the blank with some abnormality). My mother had me tested." Parents of children with Asperger's syndrome will spend hours and hours visiting specialists of all sorts, going to a variety of therapies, and working with school officials to get the needed resources for their children. Asperger's children can be disruptive in class because of their lack of understanding of social patterns and their challenges with processing sensory input.

Since Asperger's syndrome is generally considered to be high-functioning autism, it is not unusual for medication roulette to be involved. In some cases, especially with young children, the medication is designed to keep them focused during the school day, but it wears off not long after the last bell. This is usually when you will be working with this student in your studio.

When working with a student with Asperger's syndrome in a one-on-one music lesson, it is possible to be able to work around some of these behaviors by gearing everything to that child's ability to focus. Just as with autism in general, Asperger's syndrome creates challenges for maintaining healthy, flexible focus. A student with Asperger's may either exhibit hyperfocus - staying on a conversation topic for a very long time,  for example - or may have intense but limited intervals of attention.

However, this student may very well have a remarkable memory and be talented in some way beyond the norm. If this student shows outstanding musical ability, your efforts to accommodate could be well-rewarded.

Some basic tips on working with a student with Asperger's syndrome:

* Be organized. Have a pattern of teaching that gives this student security from lesson to lesson.

* Be very clear with instructions, and avoid double-meanings in conversation. Being literal is one of the communication trademarks of an Asperger's student. He or she may not understand metaphorical language or even common idiomatic expressions. Recently I was joking with my Asperger's nephew that his mom couldn't even remember her own name - we've all had those days, right? He said, yes, she can remember her own name and wondered why I even said that.

* Build on the student's ability and desire to find patterns. Again, this is a comforting way of functioning for this student.

* Avoid too many visual distractions in the studio. (This is a tough one for me!)

* Be aware of when the student is losing focus. Once it goes, it is usually gone. While all kids have "bad" days in school, Asperger's children have a harder time to shake them off. They may go into tantrum mode without warning, in which case you are probably not equipped to work with the student that day.

* Set up studio rules for behavior, especially with younger children. Since they don't automatically understand social norms but like structure, rules can be the key to keeping things moving in the right direction. You may also allow the student to be part of the rule-writing process.

* Enjoy this child. Asperger's students are often unwilling to work with people they don't like or that they sense don't like them.

* Most importantly, stay in contact with the parents. If the process is not going well, either at home or in the studio, you need to re-evaluate. Parents can also let you know whether the child is adapting to new medication and to expect some disruption while that is happening.

1 comment:

  1. I was just looking through Google and I found this post of yours here. I just had to comment to say that you have got Sheldon's characteristics down perfectly. The most accurate description I've seen for him. It made me laugh for a good while.

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