How to Determine if a Student has Asperger’s and Qualifies for Special Education

Asperger's SyndromeBecause students with Asperger’s have various symptoms that can make learning difficult, teachers and parents need to recognize certain characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. To help Asperger’s students prepare for future roles as productive adults, teachers and parents need to answer these two important questions:

  1. How do I determine if a student has Asperger’s syndrome?
  2. Can an Asperger’s student with mild autism symptoms receive special education benefits?

Current and prospective teachers challenged with managing inclusive classrooms should be prepared to help all students become ready for college or career. The process begins by recognizing certain telltale symptoms of Asperger’s and then developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student who has it.

Definition and history of Asperger’s syndrome

Asperger’s syndrome was named after an Austrian physician, who discovered unusual patterns of social behavior among some children in his practice. In the mid-1940s, pediatrician Hans Asperger observed several children with similar issues. Although their intelligence was often above average, the children displayed the following characteristics:

  • Emotionally detached, clumsy and physically awkward
  • Lack of empathy for others and prone to isolating themselves
  • Difficulty understanding verbal contexts like irony and sarcasm
  • Unusually obsessive interests in specific activities like collecting objects
  • Attention often narrowly focused on a single topic
  • Tendency to dominate discussions

In the early 1980s, British psychiatrist Lorna Wing noticed similar patterns among children she was studying. After discovering Dr. Asperger’s findings in an obscure paper, Wing named her patients’ symptoms Asperger’s syndrome.

Asperger’s diagnostic timeline

  • 1992: International psychiatry community recognizes Asperger’s as a distinct psychological and behavioral disorder.
  • 1994: The American Psychiatric Association includes Asperger’s syndrome in its diagnostics guide.
  • 1995-2012: The American Psychiatric Association observes that many children who are diagnosed with Asperger’s are more accurately described as autistic.
  • 2013: The American Psychiatric Association changes its classification for Asperger’s and places it under the wider umbrella of autism spectrum disorders, or “high-functioning autism.”

Asperger’s symptoms teachers should look for

People with Asperger’s generally demonstrate classic symptoms of autism. In order to distinguish patients with Asperger’s, therefore, psychiatry professionals must validate that the person has normal to above-average intelligence and strong verbal communications skills.

Teachers who think a student may have Asperger’s syndrome should look for these symptoms from students in their classrooms:

  • Motor skill delays
  • Social awkwardness
  • Limited eye contact
  • Disengagement
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Normal or above-average intelligence
  • Absence of speech delays
  • Strong language and cognitive skills

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, additional diagnostic criteria teachers and parents may observe include:

  • Persistent lack of social interaction
  • Ritualized behavior patterns
  • Highly restricted and fixated interests
  • Inflexible adherence to routines
  • Lack of empathy for others

How Asperger’s mirrors autism spectrum disorders

Teachers and parents should be aware that certain symptoms that mirror autism are common in many students with Asperger’s. These symptoms include:

  • Speech that lacks rhythm, a peculiar inflection, or monotone voice
  • Repetitive physical motions such as constant rocking and hand gesturing
  • Walking that appears rigid or bouncy, or tiptoeing beyond the age of about 4
  • Emotional displays exhibiting high anxiety or unusual depression for their age

Students with Asperger’s exhibit normal verbal and intellectual abilities. The 2013 American Psychiatric Association guidelines specify that a person with Asperger’s should show “no clinically significant general delay in language.” They must possess average to above-average intelligence, and should demonstrate “no clinically significant delay in cognitive development.”

This criteria poses challenges for school leaders when classifying students under federal guidelines for special education benefits. The Asperger’s student must fall under the autism spectrum disorders diagnosis while simultaneously demonstrating intellectual abilities and verbal skills that are disproportionately higher than they are for the vast majority of autistic students.

How teachers can help students with Asperger’s qualify for special education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for every student who qualifies under federal laws for special education.

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The costs of educating a special education student are estimated to be up to 90 percent higher than they are for nondisabled students. Therefore, school leaders often look to teachers to help ensure those costs are covered under the IDEA.

The first step is an evaluation from a qualified professional, who can help determine whether Asperger’s symptoms are prevalent enough to warrant placing the student in a special education program.

For the purpose of identifying a student with Asperger’s, the evaluation will focus on autism spectrum disorders because this classification qualifies as a disability under IDEA. If the evaluation concludes that a student has a disability, the IEP is written.

What parents and teachers should do to develop an IEP for Asperger’s students

Parents who suspect a student has Asperger’s should consult a pediatrician, who can run tests to determine whether the child exhibits cognitive and sometimes physical symptoms commonly associated with the disorder.

Teachers and school leaders who believe a student has Asperger’s should work with the student’s parents to develop an IEP without delay.

Steps for Individualized Education Plans

Here are steps for parents and educators to consider in developing IEPs for students believed to have Asperger’s syndrome or other autism spectrum disorders.

  • The student’s teacher, parent, counselor, school nurse or other education professional requests a student evaluation.
  • If the school requests an evaluation, the parents or guardians must consent.
  • A qualified professional, such as a school psychologist or pediatrician, makes the evaluation.
  • If a parent or guardian disputes the school’s evalution, an independent, qualified professional from outside the school makes a second evaluation at the school’s expense.
  • If the parents or guardian agree with the evaluation, a meeting is scheduled to develop an IEP, which is tailored to address the student’s symptoms.
  • Teachers and parents should write down any questions they have before the IEP meeting.
  • An IEP meeting is held, as required by law, to address all of the student’s special education needs.
  • In addition to the parents or guardians and teacher, the initial IEP meeting may include a counselor, school nurse, psychologist, special education advocate, social worker and specialists, such as speech and physical therapists. The student may also be present.
  • The IEP should specify any special education services like speech therapy or behavior management counseling. For example, within the IEP an observer is expected to document how the student interacts with other students who do not have disabilities.
  • The IEP must identify any special modifications that are necessary for tests and grade-level academic assessments.
  • The IEP should include specific goals with measurable objectives for periodic performance reports. In addition, the law requires written annual progress reports.

In considering the importance — and magnitude — of IEPs for students with autism spectrum disorders, teachers and parents should look at the plan as a type of written contract. The expectation of the IEP is to help guarantee that students with special needs, including those with Asperger’s syndrome, receive the professional attention and special education they need to prepare for college or career after graduating from high school.

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