Supporting ELT or ESOL students with Aspergers

The video is designed to show us what it’s like to live with sensory over-sensitivity. Not everyone on the autistic spectrum will experience this to this degree, or even at all, but it does give a sobering insight into the difficulties that some people face.

It is estimated that about 1 in a 100 people are on the autistic spectrum so the chances are very good that some of your students are, whether you, or even they know it or not.  In fact, because it’s a spectrum we are actually ALL on the autistic spectrum, it’s just a question of how pronounced those features are.

If you work with people with more severe forms of autism you probably already know plenty about how to support them , but many, often highly intelligent, people have traits of ASD without ever realising it. What they do realise is that life, and by extension learning in a classroom setting, is just that bit harder for them.

I’m by no means an expert on all of this, but since my son was diagnosed a few years back, my awareness has grown significantly and I realise how under-prepared/informed I think many language teachers are (me included).  Looking back, I can remember quite a few students that I would now recognise as probably having been on the autistic spectrum, and I now know that there are a lot of things I could have handled differently and more successfully.

There are three main areas where people with Aspergers or high functioning autism (not the same thing, technically, but similar) have difficulty :

Social communication

  • Being very literal. They may have difficulty in understanding jokes, metaphor or sarcasm. Generally speaking, these are things that most foreign language learners have problems with in a second language, but if you have Aspergers, you may also feel like that in your first language.
  • It can be hard for them to tell if someone is affectionately teasing, or being nasty, partly because of the being literal, but also because they may find it hard to read facial expressions of tone of voice.
  • Turn-taking and spotting when someone has lost interest can also cause difficulties.

So, if you have a student who easily takes offence or gets upset, for example, it might be worth considering whether what was said might have been mis-interpreted in this way. You could also try being more careful in your use of metaphor etc.

Turn-taking skills can be taught and practised- and most students can benefit from this, so no need to single anyone out. You could try some of the ideas in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics, such as passing round a ball of wool so that you can see the pattern of interaction in wool at the end of a conversation, or allowing the person to simply listen and take notes before feedback to the whole class at the end.

Social interaction

  • Many people with Aspergers have difficulty in starting conversations or interactions with others, or in sustaining them by asking questions.
  • They may find others unpredictable and confusing, leading to withdrawing and preferring to work alone.

I think as a language teacher, we need to respect that some students, whether with ASD or not, may sometimes prefer to work alone.  People on the spectrum can often be very sensitive to noise as well, and this combined with the unpredictability of others’ behaviour can be absolutely exhausting. So, despite what you may have learned on your CELTA course 😉 , don’t force people to work with others.

When you do ask them to work in pairs or groups, think about how you can structure the task to make it more predictable and less overwhelming. For example, getting the group to make a list of five points, or ranking things in order of preference etc makes the task more concrete and manageable. It’s also good for everyone else, and having a clear outcome tends to produce a better quality of interaction.

Make sure that your instructions are absolutely crystal clear, and only give one instruction at a time. Again, this is useful for everyone, but people with ASD can find it particularly difficult to hold more than one instruction in their head at a time.

Because the world can be confusing and overwhelming, people with ASD often like to stick to routines. Again, this is generally good practice with all classes, especially young learners, but you might like to remember that changing the routine radically might have a negative impact on someone on the spectrum.

Social imagination

  • This is sometimes characterised as lack of empathy, but I think that’s not a very useful way of putting it as, in my limited experience, people with Aspergers definitely do feel for others, they’re just not always very good at imagining how others might feel.

So role-play type activities might cause problems for some students, as this involves imagining yourself in another person’s position. This certainly isn’t true of everyone with Asperger’s, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for such difficulties, and having an alternative up your sleeve.

A couple of other points

People with Aspergers often have what are known as special interests- subjects they are fascinated by and love to talk about. While you need to set up a clear structure- as otherwise they may find it hard to judge when they have lost their classmate’s interest- allowing a bit of space for the to talk about these subjects can also be rewarding, and gives these students a chance to show off their knowledge on the area.

As mentioned before, people with Aspergers may find noise difficult, so a calm atmosphere really helps.  They may also have other sensory difficulties with things such as bright lights. Obviously you don’t want to make the whole class work in silence, but it’s worth being aware that a student might be finding the atmosphere stressful so that you can change it or give them options.

Obviously if any of this is ringing bells with you in regard to a particular student I am NOT suggesting that you should be rushing in to offer a diagnosis! But you could try some of the tips and see if they have a positive effect. If nothing else, it might help you to empathise more with the student.

As I said at the beginning, I am certainly not an expert, so if anyone would like to offer any further ideas or corrections in the comments, that would be very welcome.




Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

10 responses to “Supporting ELT or ESOL students with Aspergers

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. I can understand now…. thank you!

  2. Gaby

    My 4 year old son has extremely high functioning autism as well, and I think it’s great to raise awareness about it because it’s certainly not covered in any teacher training courses that I’m aware of, certainly not in the CELTA.

  3. Pingback: Supporting ELT or ESOL students with Aspergers ...

  4. Reblogged this on English with Kirsty and commented:
    An interesting article with tips on how to create a more inclusive and positive learning environment for students on the autistic spectrum.

  5. Kate Pickering

    Very interesting Rachael – thanks for this. Here at IH Madrid we’re looking at how best to support the increasing challenges our teachers face in managing and integrating children with different needs so this article is very welcome. If anyone out there has any sources/ideas for children with ADHD and or dyslexia that would also be very useful.

  6. Hi Rachael,

    I’ve only just discovered this post, but I’m so glad I did!

    In the past, I’ve worked with learners who share some of the characteristics you describe above – I think the point you make about not forcing people to work with others is a really important one. A couple of years back I had a learner (who I strongly suspect was on the spectrum). He loved creative writing activities, but didn’t ever want to work with a partner or a group. Luckily, the rest of the class respected his decision and so it wasn’t ever an issue.

    Thanks for raising awareness of this very important issue. I will definitely be sharing this post with my colleagues!

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