“My 8 year old son with Asperger Disorder is reading chapter books above grade level, and has a full scale IQ of 112. He seems bored in school, especially with listening to other children’s reading or thier questions or answers to questions. He dislikes reading poems and keeping a journal. He also dislikes cursive writing. He dawdles and says he’s bored. But we can’t get his teachers to challenge him with more interesting educational activities. What do you suggest?”
I’ve heard this question dozens of times in slightly different iterations for both boys and girls with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. It confuses school adjustment with academic achievement. School adjustment is the child’s number one priority, academic achievement will follow for bright students like this child. Whether children on the autism spectrum do more or less well in school generally depends on how well they can communicate with their peers and teachers, and their social skills. For some, it also depends on any interfering compulsive routines or other behavior difficulties, like tantrums. The child also has to display some school readiness skills, like remaining in their seat and following directions.
School adjustment rarely depends on providing students on the autism spectrum with a more academically demanding curriculum. This child is probably bored because he doesn’t enjoy socially interacting with his peers, especially listening to them. Poems are boring because they involve abstract ideas that he doesn’t grasp. Keeping a journal involves writing down how he feels about things, which is very difficult for most kids on the autism spectrum and it simply doesn’t interest him. Many kids with ASDs have poor fine motor skills, that makes printing and writing difficult. He is not bored because his curriculum is too easy, it is too difficult for him in some very specific respects.
It is a very good idea to determine a child’s specific interests, such as science, math or computer activities, and provide them with supplementary guided opportunities to explore more advanced material, but it is usually unwise to push them into curricular subject matter that is beyond their developmental level, such as interpreting motives of characters in stories before they are ready.
Some children with Asperger Disorder or High Functioning Autism are gifted and can transition to a high potential group or classroom as their communication and social skills improve. It is important to keep in mind that a minority of children with Asperger Disorder fall within the gifted range. Parents can often facilitate their son or daughter’s development of social and communication skills by arranging play dates with typical peers. Those activities can be made more effective by enlisting the help of skilled speech and behavior therapists to help promote more appropriate social and communication skills, like turn taking, sharing, listening carefully to others, perspective taking, respecting social boundaries, etc.
We often recommend children with autism participate in cub scouts or campfire girls or other similar small group activities, especially if one of the target child’s parents assist with troop activities. These are generally small groups of the same children each week, with loosely structured activities with predictable routines. Often friendships develop out of such participation, and social skills almost invariably improve.
Our grandson Michael, who has autism is now in 8th grade in a public school in New Jersey, divides his time between regular education and special education supported activities. He is well liked by his teachers and gets along with his peers in school, though he is very quiet. He is studying a unit on ancient Egypt in his Social Studies class so he and his mom will be visiting the King Tut exhibit in New York City. He plays percussion in the school marching band and has participated in plays at school. He is a whiz at history but doesn’t enjoy math and reading more advanced stories very much. His handwriting is so, so. He has a friend who is also diagnosed on the autism spectrum who he hangs out with weekends and plays video games (what else?). Life can be good whether one is performing complex academic tasks or not. So don’t worry too much about challenging your child academically. When s/he is socially and developmentally ready, there will be plenty of time.