THEY KNOW: Classmates and Asperger Syndrome

By Dan Coulter

I’ve heard it too often. The teasing and rejection that many children with Asperger Syndrome face in school from classmates who don’t understand why they act different. The frustration and impatience from teachers who assume that these students are simply being disrespectful, stubborn, or lazy.

I’ve also often heard about how much things have improved for children with Asperger Syndrome when teachers and classmates learn about AS.

Parents who were concerned that they’d make things worse for their children if they disclosed the facts, have told me how those disclosures made things better.

If you’re the parent of a child with AS worried about what will happen if other students find out, here’s a thought: they already know.

They know they have a classmate who has different and difficult behaviors. But they don’t realize the reasons. And the reasons they imagine are much worse than the facts.

So children who have AS are routinely misunderstood by unprepared teachers and classmates. Their school lives can be torture. They’re friendless and under constant stress. No matter how hard they try, they can’t make things better. Often, they don’t tell parents the worst of it. From shame, or because they stop believing anything can be done for them.

Disclosure may not be the best approach in every situation, but I’d urge parents to consider it carefully before ruling it out. Again, I’ve heard stories of dramatic improvement from parents who’ve chosen to share information about their children’s condition with school staff and classmates. Children making real progress with help from patient teachers. Children making friends for the first time and being invited to parties. Children being protected from bullying by other students. Children leading class sessions on topics of special interest or tutoring other students. Children feeling like they belong.

I recently heard from a father who said, in addition to the many other benefits of disclosure, that the parents at his son’s new school don’t treat him and his wife like they’re the worst parents in the world.

I’d love to have us all make 2009 the year of Asperger Syndrome awareness.

You can get help making decisions about disclosing AS from support groups, school counselors, or psychologists who specialize in AS. The magic is not simply in telling others your child has Asperger Syndrome. The magic is in sharing appropriate information in a way that allows them to understand your child’s thought processes and shows how they can make allowances and help him interact and progress. It’s also important to talk about your child’s strengths and what he has to offer, and not focus only on his challenges.

A mother just wrote me to ask how old classmates need to be to understand about Asperger Syndrome. Great question. In the youngest grades, you may determine that you don’t need to discuss the diagnosis. Maybe you just address behaviors. Everybody’s brain works differently. Jared is very enthusiastic. He has trouble remembering to take his turn and raise his hand so we need to be patient with him. Emily is smart, but she has trouble remembering to be polite. She doesn’t mean to hurt your feelings when she says things about how you look. We need to tell her when she says something that hurts our feelings so she can learn how friends talk to each other.

You need to make determinations about what to say based on your child and his or her classmates, but I think the earlier children hear the words Asperger Syndrome and what AS does and doesn’t mean, the more accepting they’re likely to be from that point forward. And children are never too young to learn that we’re all different and that we need to treat each other with patience, kindness and understanding.

If you’re the parent of a child who has Asperger Syndrome and you’re conflicted about disclosing his or her condition to teachers and classmates, consider how great it would be to feel relieved and glad that…they know.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the producer of the Intricate Minds series of DVDs, which help students understand classmates who have Asperger Syndrome and similar conditions. You can find more articles on his website:

Copyright 2009 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

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