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Autism and Asperger syndrome: Implications for


by Jane Lones
Reproduced from Skill Journal, 56, 1996, pp. 21-24.
Autism is a comparatively rare developmental condition; the most recent information suggest that
between 10-15 are affected by it in every 10,000 of the population. The cause is not clearly
understood but it is not due to poor parental care. There may be a genetic factor involved and some
physical damage to brain. Some individuals with the condition have been shown to have a missing
factor in the immune response. This article describes autism and Aspergers syndrome and outlines
the issues for those helping candidates with examinations.
Essentially those affected by autism find it hard to make sense of the world. They tend to:

ƒ lack curiosity and imagination

ƒ have difficulty in communicating and relating with others
ƒ find abstract ideas very difficult to understand
ƒ be obsessional about a particular interest
ƒ need to keep to very precise and set routines and may follow elaborate 'rituals' repeatedly.

Autism is often accompanied by learning difficulties but a significant number of individuals have
average to above average intelligence. In the latter case the condition is often referred to as
Asperger syndrome. However, there are no clear cut boundaries. There are various references to
there being an autistic continuum encompassing autism, Asperger syndrome and semantic-
pragmatic disorder but clinical accounts of conditions resembling autism do not differ just in terms of
severity but also in the pattern of symptoms (Bishop, 1989).
Children with Asperger syndrome do not show a delay in early language development. However,
they do have communication difficulties, particularly non-verbally, they are often described as clumsy
and with circumscribed interests and usually have a verbal IQ well above the performance IQ.
Children with semantic-pragmatic disorder show a marked delay in language development, they have
comprehension problems and their performance IQ is higher than their verbal IQ.
It follows that candidates for GCSE are most likely to come from the Asperger's group but some
people may use the term autistic to describe the condition. However, for all those in the autism
continuum there is one outstanding feature and that is the variability of effects on individuals. This is
far more than is associated with any other condition and hence there will be no similarity in the
requests for special arrangements.
Educational background of candidates
It is likely that in the past those with relatively mild Asperger syndrome have been educated in
mainstream schools and the condition has not been recognised. Essentially they would have been
loners, easily bullied because they would have been perceived as being 'odd' by their fellows. They
may have taken refuge in their particular interest or obsession and built up an expertise which,
eventually, would have been acknowledged by their peers, perhaps gaining them the nickname of
'professor'. Indeed it is postulated that some single-minded academics may have a mild degree of
the condition. Today those with a mild form of the condition in mainstream schools are being
identified and given appropriate support and increasingly they are being entered for external
Those with more marked symptoms find it difficult to cope in mainstream classes even when given
support, and behavioural problems can isolate them further from their fellow pupils. There is some
special provision specifically for those with Asperger syndrome where the education concentrates on
improving communication and behaviour. This has to take precedence over subject learning and
hence few reach GCSE level at the normal time. Some, however, do so in further education.
Those with marked academic ability and behavioural problems may be placed in a special school for
those with physical disabilities. This may seem a strange choice but small classes with extra support
and experience of uneven intellectual functioning can lead to a less stressful atmosphere which can
help some individuals to concentrate on academic work. Also they can receive therapy to improve
impaired motor skills.
The pupil with Asperger syndrome in the classroom
Social aspects
Pupils may fall anywhere in the continuum between 'withdrawn' and 'active but odd'. They want to
communicate with their peers but lack the ability to do so. They do not understand what people are
feeling or thinking and cannot empathise with them. When asked to imagine themselves in a
particular situation they experience great difficulty and cannot role-play. There is a lack of
understanding of body language and social conventions and they have great difficulty in making and
sustaining friendships. Because of this they miss out on many aspects of teenage culture and, for
example, may have no knowledge of 'pop' music, football, fashion etc. Therefore when such topics
are used to stimulate interest in examination questions they can be at a disadvantage.
They have no appreciation of personal space and get too close to people. This, combined with
inappropriate body language can be misinterpreted by others as threatening behaviour.
They find it difficult to work in pairs or as part of a team or to participate normally in classroom
discussions, and need direct teaching. Because of their desire for friendship they can be very
vulnerable and easily persuaded to do things without being aware of the consequences.
Disruptive behaviour such as self-directed injury, tantrums and aggression is thought to be the result
of communication difficulties but the teacher in the classroom may be concerned for the safety of
other pupils and restrict the use of certain equipment in practical lessons and participation in outside
activities. Hence the pupil with Asperger's Syndrome may have had a narrower educational
experience than his or her fellows.
Communication difficulties
Most of the social difficulties described are the result of communication problems. Syntax and
grammar are rarely a problem but there is often a non-productive, pedantic, literal use and
understanding of language (Jordan, undated). Speech may be flat and 'robot-like', and possibly
accompanied by distracting gestures such as body swaying or grimacing.
They try to understand what the words mean rather than what the speaker means and may be
confused by idioms and metaphors.
A question such as 'can you tell me the names of ?' is likely to be answered with a 'yes' or 'no'.
They tend to find the written word easier to understand than the spoken. Some may be able to read
mechanically beyond the level of their understanding (hyperlexia). Their writing shows a rigidity of
thought and they often produce learned patterns of phrasing in answers to examination questions.
Orally they can be very boring because they spell out everything in great detail or because of their
preoccupation with a particular interest or topic. They cannot build on what others say, have poor
topic maintenance and are unlikely to make appropriate eye contact.
It is not uncommon for these children to have had delayed milestones in their motor development
and for clumsiness to persist into adulthood. Both fine and gross motor skills are involved and their
performance in practical classes and in sport will be affected.
The arrangement of written work is often poor with deeply marked crossing out. Handwriting varies
from being very small and almost illegible to being large with poorly formed letters which overlap the
Stress and the environment
Children with Asperger syndrome are perceived to be intolerant of individuals as well as the
environment. They become very anxious in unstructured settings and where people are moving at
random. They may not be able to tolerate people close to them (although they may take up this
position themselves). Noise, whether it is sudden or it comes from general background activity, can
cause acute stress, fear and even panic and at the very least the pupil will be distracted and unable
to concentrate. Factors causing stress are very individual although all find alterations to routines very
disturbing and have difficulty in making choices.
Some respond to stress by antisocial behaviour - repeated swearing is not uncommon - and others
have to remove themselves physically from the situation. A quiet environment, free from distractions
and where rules are followed rigidly can do much to help them concentrate.
Carrying an object can give them a sense of security. The nature of this can seem quite bizarre to
others (e.g. a cat's eye from the road) but without it they are unable to settle or concentrate. Some
derive comfort from repeating a set ritual of some kind and it can be long and complex.
It goes without saying that the ritual, however time-consuming, will have to be carried out in an
examination situation and the comfort object allowed to be present if the candidate is to be able to
cope with the stress of taking the examination.
Intellectual functioning
Verbal ability tends to be stronger than non-verbal and this results in uneven attainment across the
breadth of the curriculum. This is reflected in examination results and also within subject papers. The
candidate may be able to do exceptionally well recalling facts or applying well practised methods but
may score poorly or not at all when asked to imagine a situation or to comment on the nuances of a
fictional text.
Some show 'islets of great ability'. These are usually confined to one subject and may be in a limited
area of that subject but the young person displays an insight and a knowledge way beyond others in
their age group. Often this is linked to their main interest or obsession.
Obsessional interests
Obsessional interests tend to dominate the thinking and much of the life of many pupils with
Asperger syndrome. Sometimes these change abruptly but many persist for years and perhaps for
life. They become very knowledgeable about their interest and go to extreme lengths to pursue it. In
an examination, whether written or oral the candidate will tend to see everything in terms of this
interest and bring it in to all answers. It will tend to take over and the candidate will wander off the
point of the question and not know when to stop.
Special arrangements for examinations

i. The examination room There may be a request for the candidate to be invigilated
separately because:
ƒ it would give the candidate a less stressful setting where s/he could concentrate
without what for him/her are overwhelming distractions
ƒ the candidate would not distract others by his or her ritualistic behaviour or by
extraneous movements and noises which are beyond his or her control
ƒ the candidate can move around if this is helpful in relieving undue stress

There may be a request that a 'comfort' object is allowed in the examination room.

ii. Extra time It is noted that the information booklet issued by The National Autistic Society
recommends to teachers and parents

that a request for extra time should be made to examining boards because
they (people with autism) find it hard working to a time limit.

Whilst working to a time limit may cause excessive stress to some candidates, it could be
counterproductive to others who would feel that they had to keep writing even if they had
completed their answers.

iii. Presentation of examination papers There may be a request that the question paper is
presented on plain paper and in one colour because the candidate finds a range of colours
iv. Use of language in question papers There may be a request that carrier language of
questions is modified to be as clear as possible. This would be similar to the request made
for congenitally deaf candidates who also need clear, unambiguous instructions and an
avoidance of abstract ideas, except when understanding such ideas is part of the
v. Prompting of the candidate when it is time to move on to the next question This may
be requested because of the candidate's obsessional behaviour which may cause him or her
to keep writing on a particular topic, totally unaware of the passage of time. S/he may have
been used to being 'moved on' in class and such prompting is allowed in examination
conditions (see the GCSE Advisory Notes on the Use of Prompters).
vi. Word-processing and handwriting If a pupil's writing is illegible or if motor control is so
impaired that handwriting is difficult or excessively slow, word-processing may be the usual
method of written communication in class and may be requested for examinations.
Alternatively there may be a request that the candidate be exempt from the assessment for
handwriting etc. The centre may require advice on this point as the candidate's grammar
and spelling should not be affected.
vii. Request that the answer papers are scrutinised at some point by someone aware that
the candidate has Asperger syndrome and who is familiar with the condition There
could be a number of reasons for this including:
ƒ the general appearance of the paper including diagrams and labelling etc
ƒ the language used and the obsessional content of the answer
ƒ the possible use of bad language or other expletives which may be triggered by a
distraction or because excessive feelings have been aroused in response to the
question. Using bad language in this way is beyond the control of the candidate and
is not an attempt to shock or be rude to the examiner.
viii. Oral tests It would be very difficult for anyone to conduct an oral test with a candidate with
Asperger syndrome without being apprised of the situation and of the particular behaviour
and difficulties of the candidate. Indeed, examiners might feel threatened by the candidate
unless they were aware of the condition. Examiners should be made aware that the
candidate may display some of the following behaviour:
ƒ not understanding body language
ƒ getting too close to the examiner
ƒ avoiding eye contact and possibly writhing, twisting, swaying and walking around
during the interview
ƒ making inappropriate, over-familiar or over-formal remarks
ƒ echoing questions, even to the extent of copying the voice and accent - it is not
rudeness but a lack of understanding and a variation of wording might assist the
ƒ stilted speech, unless the topic is the obsessional interest and in which case it will
be hard to stop or divert the conversation to another subject
ƒ failing to understand abstract ideas and taking jokes, exaggerations and metaphors
ƒ he or she will not have had the usual day to day experience of life. This particularly
applies to relationships and doing things with the peer group: for example, he might
not be able to respond to a question about what a candidate did with his friends at
the weekend because he would not perceive himself as having any friends.

Bishop, DVM (1989) Asperger's Syndrome and semantic-pragmatic disorders: where are the
boundaries? London: The National Autistic Society.
Jordan, Rita (undated) 'The special needs of children with Asperger's Syndrome', Education
Research Into Autism Group, University of Hertfordshire, unpublished paper.

Jane Lones was formerly Principal of Lord Mayor Treloar National Specialist College, Alton and is
now retired. This paper was written as an advisory and training document for the Joint Forum for