A Neuropsychological Perspective
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Gorham Campus, University of Southern Maine
Bernice Conklin-Powers, Psy.D.
What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
Asperger’s Syndrome is a pervasive developmental disorder
characterized by the following diagnostic features or symptoms (DSM-
Marked impairment in social interaction
Marked impairment in non-verbal behavior
Failure to develop peer relationships
Lack of spontaneous seeking to share interests with others
Lack of social or emotional reciprocity
Restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests,
Encompasses preoccupations with stereotyped or restricted interests
Inflexible adherence to routines or rituals
Stereotyped and repetitive motor movements
Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
Each individual with Asperger’s Syndrome (AD) has a unique cognitive,
emotional, social, and behavioral profile.
“One size fits all” solutions do not pertain when it comes to working with
individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome.
There is no “magic bullet” or “quick fix” when it comes to managing challenges
in your relationship with an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome (although
maintaining an attitude of openness and curiosity helps!)
Facts About Asperger’s Syndrome
Prevalence rates vary by study (@2.5/10,000)
It is a disorder that is more common in boys than girls (ratio rates vary by study
(4:1 to 8:1).
Asperger’s Syndrome is caused by a variety of genetic and biological factors.
Common neuropsychological profiles (weak pragmatic language, poor
memory, poor motor coordination, weak executive functioning, etc.)
Distinguished from other forms of autism by relatively intact overall IQ and
Frequent co-morbid diagnoses include ADHD and specific learning disabilities
of Asperger’s Syndrome
Cognitive perseveration – particularly regarding preferred topics
Cognitive inflexibility or rigidity
Poor processing of information communicated non-verbally (humor,
sarcasm, innuendo, etc.)
Challenges with abstract language – can be overly concrete and literal
Poor executive functioning (organization, planning, etc.)
Difficulty with main points or global concepts (perceiving the “forest from
Poorly developed “theory of mind” resulting in difficulty observing the
situation from the perspective of another individual.
Recognizing the Cognitive Features
Difficulty perceiving the perspective, feelings or needs of others in
conversations or interpersonal exchanges.
Rigidity and inflexibility in thinking and/or communication (increases
May have difficulty getting the “gist” of a conversation.
Difficulty managing time and meeting deadlines
Difficulty completing homework or other academic demands
Difficulty with study skills (developing a study plan, monitoring progress,
revising as needed)
Can be overly perfectionistic and inflexible in their approach to tasks
Difficulty with written expression, particularly long-range and/or complex
Difficulty with sustained attention, easily distracted
Managing the Cognitive Features
Use clear & specific in your language (avoid humor, sarcasm, idioms,
Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome benefit from clear communication
and structure. Be clear and specific in your language and in your
Check, don’t assume comprehension
Use concrete examples to elucidate abstract points
Break multi-step tasks or communications down into smaller parts or
Provide a visual (and refer to it) whenever possible when communicating
Provide individualized academic accommodations. Menu of suggestions
for academic accommodations will be provided in a handout.
Behavioral Features of Asperger’s
Repetitive or stereotyped behaviors
Adherence to routines and rituals, particularly calming and stress reduction
Difficulty with transitions or (unexpected) changes
Poor verbal inhibition
Difficulty with emotional regulation, particularly if anxious or over-stimulated
Recognizing the Behavioral
Idiosyncratic gestures or behaviors such as hand flapping
“Calming rituals” such as pacing or rocking
Bringing “comfort items” to class
Interrupting lectures with questions
Monopolizing class discussions
Continuing to talk after being asked to stop
Correcting or arguing with instructor or classmates
Strong reactions to small sensory events (noises, lights, etc.)
May have difficulty regrouping after becoming frustrated or upset
Strong preference for routine
Managing the Behavioral Features
Include explicit and specific directions up front (syllabus, residential life
info, etc., regarding behavioral norms and expectations
Be consistent in enforcing behavioral norms and expectations.
Provide an “exit” during classes or activities for the student to take a break
and regroup if needed.
If behavioral issues arise, address them privately. Be clear and specific.
Keep it simple. Summarize at the end and check comprehension. Provide a
written summary or follow-up.
If additional intervention is required use consultation as appropriate to the
Emotional Features of Asperger’s
Variable motivation is high for preferred tasks, low for non-preferred tasks.
At higher risk for symptoms of anxiety and/or depression
Vulnerable to becoming emotionally overwhelmed under stress or when faced
May appear to others to lack empathy for others or lack emotional reciprocity
May have difficulty communicating feelings in a way that is clear to others
(verbal communication may conflict with non-verbal communication)
Poor emotional monitoring and regulation
Stress or emotional distress often results in behavioral symptoms (increased
perseveration, rigidity, etc.)
Recognizing the Emotional
May become upset or emotional if routines or schedule is changed or
May become excessively stressed by typical academic demands such as quizzes,
presentations, group work, etc.
May be particularly emotionally sensitive to common learning events such as
making a mistake, getting corrective feedback (even if it is done supportively)
Can be impatient and easily frustrated if they misunderstand or are
May have difficulty containing or regrouping once upset
May engage in repetitive calming behaviors or rituals when stressed or upset
(rocking, pacing, etc)
Managing the Emotional Features
Understanding and planning for emotional needs will minimize behavioral
expressions of distress.
If an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome is distressed, communicate
deliberately (allow processing time) and clearly. Focus on a short, basic
Avoid engaging in debates or arguments. Simply repeat concise, clear direction.
Do not add additional language (additional processing demands).
If the individual continues to be perseverative, or argumentative, end the
conversation in a firm but supportive manner. Once an individual with
Asperger’s is “stuck” continuing to discuss or debate may be counterproductive
(and may produce increased distress and agitation).
Social Features of Asperger’s
Inability to process non-verbal social information
Difficulty reading the non-verbal feedback of others and adjusting
Poor understanding of social rules or norms of behavior
Poor flexibility in social skill repertoire
Difficulty understanding social “cause and effect”
Lack of social reciprocity (turn-taking, reciprocal social greetings, etc.)
Difficult seeing another person’s perspective
Difficulty forming age appropriate peer relationships
A tendency to be easily slighted or annoyed in social exchanges
Identifying the Social Features
Unusual non-verbal behavior, such as reduced eye contact
Difficulty with the social demands of small group work (choosing group
members, negotiating differences of opinion, social give and take, etc.)
May violate unspoken social norms, such as intruding into the personal space
Difficulty monitoring and regulating volume of voice
May present as arrogant or rude to others due to poor processing of social
May have difficulty asking for help or accommodations
May have difficulty responding to feedback or criticism
May have difficulty letting go of an issue and moving on in response to
differences of opinion
May lack tact in social situations
Managing the Social Features
Try not to take aversive behaviors personally. Keep in mind that aversive
behaviors are often the result of processing challenges and skill deficits.
Avoid responding to arguments or debates.
Be mindful of the challenges that partner of group work might present.
Be mindful of calling on student and putting them “on the spot” unless they
Practice flexibility with regard to effort and participation or other expectations
of social participation.
Integrate expectations regarding social issues into syllabus or other written
When addressing social concerns, do so privately.
If a student has a declared disability, meet with them early in the semester to
develop rapport and establish and clarify expectations.
Individuals with Asperger’s may benefit from social algorithms or clear
“if…then” statements of how to handle particular social situations.
Basic Steps to Address Issues or
Understanding the key neuropsychological features of the disorder and
prevention are your best tools in avoiding problems from developing.
The best prevention strategies are introducing clear structure and expectations
at the outset (especially in written form).
If issues arise, first speak with the student privately (see handout on tips for
If concerns continue, contact the Office of Student Services to discuss a plan of