Finding Kansas

The DSM no long uses the term “Asperger’s syndrome” for students on the autism spectrum who may have more language or a high level of academic competency. The new term used is “high functioning autism.” I find this to be misleading. The ability to complete algebra in the 3rd grade does not make society easier to maneuver.

At times it seems that students with high functioning autism struggle more in the school setting than students with classic autism. Many public schools have programs with highly qualified teachers trained specifically to work with students who have classic autism. A student with high functioning autism is more likely enrolled in typical math and English classes. Teachers in these classes tend to have more training related to the subject area. Even many special education teachers who work in resource settings do not have the necessary training to work with a student who has high functioning autism.

In the book, Finding Kansas, Aaron Likens describes his life as a person with Asperger’s syndrome (high functioning autism). Aaron portrays his school experiences as miserable. He remembers talking to his kindergarten teacher about math during recess and being directed to play with the kids or he would lose his recess.

As he became older, social situations were completely beyond his understanding. With a perfect auditory memory, many tasks teachers asked of him seemed pointless, as he did not need to practice to learn math facts or state capitals. By the fourth grade Aaron was homeschooled and at age 16 he earned his GED; receiving the 3rd highest score in the state.

Aaron states that he was much more attached to objects than people. He comments that objects are predictable and will “do what I tell them to do.” People, on the other hand, are unpredictable. People do not follow a set of rules. People cannot be commanded to talk about subjects we like. We cannot predict if a person’s voice will be loud or soft.

Board games, however, do follow rules and provide consistency. Aaron describes his “game theory.” He states that he is a different person when he plays a game. “In the “real” world there are few set rules except laws, and all other rules are determined by the individual. But in a game those elements are tossed out. My overthinking and critical attitude toward others is bypassed, because within a game all participants are playing by the same rules.”

How many times have we (as teachers) had the student who gets incredibly frustrated because, “Joey isn’t following the rules”? For a student with high functioning autism, who is trying to diligently to follow the rules, watching another student break that rule is beyond frustrating! I also think of the craving for consistency and routine of students on the spectrum. With so much unpredictability in the “real world”, it makes sense that creating schedules, following routines and providing a clear beginning and end to activities allows for increased success.

In Finding Kansas, Aaron Likens provides insight into the mind of a person with high functioning autism. I think it is a must-read for parents of children with high-functioning autism and, teachers; general and special education and administrators.

Take Aways…

The most challenging students I have ever worked with are those with high-functioning autism. They were always two steps ahead, which meant I had to be three steps ahead…and it was exhausting!

Just because a student has many words does not mean the student has a lot of language skills. These students struggle to express needs and feelings. They struggle to tell a person how to make a situation better and many times, this frustration manifests in negative behavior.

Students with high functioning autism (HFA) benefit from using visuals. Many times teachers switch to words instead of pictures – which is fine in many cases. However, when a student is escalated, pictures provide a faster cue because the brain does not need to translate the written word into visual form.

Students with high functioning autism typically do not pick up on cues. Tell the child/student exactly what is expected. Using a consequence map (in my blog “One of My Favorite Behavior Tools”) is extremely helpful. This provides rules to social situations.

Sensory issues may be a major factor in behavior of students with HFA. Different stimuli affect a student differently depending on the day.

Don’t assume because a child was able to handle a situation one day that he/she can handle it again on a different day. What a student (or any human) can handle depends on the student’s bus ride and what was served in the cafeteria for breakfast and how loud the other students were in the hallway. Never assume a student who displays negative behavior does it because he or she wants to – there is always a deeper purpose behind the behavior.


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