At Giftedkids.ie we get enquiries from teachers wanting information on how best they can support their students with Aspergers. Often these students have the potential to excel academically but find everyday classroom encounters and playground scenarios incredibly challenging. Time and again the two issues that come up on our twice exceptional board is that of sensory processing and social skills development. For instance the sensory overload that children with Aspergers experience within the school environment, from the hum of the interactive whiteboard to the noise of children’s chatter, can potentially create a painfully disorientating and at times frightening experience. Even something as simple as a buzzing insect can present difficulties. This sensory hypersensitivity can have a significantly detrimental effect on learning as commonplace sights and sounds interrupt concentration, cause distress and create behavioural flashpoints. All of which serve to isolate the child with Aspergers if not handled with sensitivity and understanding. Poor sensory processing together with a difficulty in reading non-verbal cues during social interaction can make the average school day an endurance test for a child with Aspergers. Thankfully new developments in edtech are coming up all the time on how best to engage and support these students.
It can be hard for teachers and other students to understand how a child with Aspergers sees the world around them and to truly grasp the difficulties encountered in everyday activities. After all how difficult can it be? A new virtual simulated playground produced on the UNITY platform called Auti-Sim seeks to help people understand these difficulties with a “playable simulation of sensory hypersensitivity”. Developed during Hacking Health Vancouver 2013 Hackathon, the player navigates through a playground as an autistic child with auditory hypersensitivity. Using a combination of the arrow keys, mouse or keyboard shortcuts to move around the space, the player encounters loud children causing sensory overload, impacting cognitive functions demonstrated by the screen blurring and increasing noise distortion. To be honest I had to turn it off after a couple of minutes such was the noise and sense of disorientation and as a player I automatically sought out the “quieter” areas of the playground. Very quickly you begin to understand why a child with sensory processing issues would choose to be alone in such a seemingly benign environment. From the comments posted on the simulation’s site there has been a mixed bag of response from the ASD community. Some say it represents this complex issue well whereas others say it doesn’t go far enough. This response I feel is indicative of the nature of ASD, it is a spectrum after all and sufferers’ experience of sensory overload will be individual to them. Overwhelmingly though the community welcomes the fact that it is helping to raise awareness about an often overlooked and certainly misunderstood issue. It could provide a useful tool for teachers in a CPD setting or be used as a discussion tool for students to bring about greater awareness and understanding of ASD. In my view anything that helps us to understand how these children negotiate the world is hugely beneficial to those of us who parent, teach or support them in some way. You will need to download UNITY web player to operate the simulation.
Secret Agent Society “Solving the Mystery of Social Encounters”
I’ve long since thought that virtual worlds and game based learning could be hugely beneficial in teaching social skills to children on the ASD spectrum. From my experience kids with Aspergers love video games; it seems a very natural fit. Online interaction, for instance, dispenses with the social skills minefield that real life social encounters entail. What better way then to teach social skills and improve emotional intelligence than through a game where they can learn to “read” other people and to respond appropriately within a psychologically safe virtual environment. The Secret Agent Society is just such a game based learning programme aimed at 8 to 12 year olds with high functioning autism including Aspergers. Developed in Australia it is now available in Ireland through Social Skills Ireland and an adapted programme is being offered to schools for use in small group settings. At the heart of the programme is a multi-level video game where the child as the protagonist has to solve the mystery of social interactions, helping them to “crack the codes of emotions and friendships, bullying and friendly joking, conversations and coping.” In addition to the video game there are also board games and social skills workbooks. According to the website the aim of the programme is to aid social skills development and teach children:
- How to recognise simple and complex emotions in themselves and others.
- How to express feelings in appropriate ways.
- How to cope with feelings of anger and anxiety.
- How to start, continue and end conversations and play activities with others.
- How to tell the difference between friendly joking and mean teasing.
- How to manage bullying.
- How to cope with making mistakes.
- How to handle new situations and ask for help when needed.
- How to make friends.
I haven’t seen this programme in action but a randomised controlled trial in 2008 has shown that children with Asperger Syndrome who participated in the early pilot programme showed greater improvements in social and emotion management skills than children who received treatment as usual for the two month intervention period. This was reported by both parent and teacher respondents. Research has also shown that these improvements in social functioning were maintained five months after the programme ended. Impressive results. However, it must be stated that one of the researchers involved was the original programme developer. That said, it shouldn’t detract from a fantastically innovative solution to social skills development for children with Aspergers. On a side note the programme has also been endorsed by the respected Asperger expert Tony Attwood who many practitioners and parents would be very familiar with.
Beaumont, R., & Sofronoff, K. (2008). A multi-component social skills intervention for children with Asperger Syndrome: The Junior Detective Training Program. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49, 743-753.
Dual Exceptionality Recorded Webinar – Margaret Keane & Anna Giblin, Giftedkids.ie
Dual Exceptionality Presentation – Margaret Keane & Anna Giblin, Giftedkids.ie