I almost think an obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine is a diagnostic criterion for Asperger's syndrome," says Maggi Rigg. "Of course, normal children are interested in him, too, but they move on and replace him with something else. Children with Asperger's syndrome (AS) pursue their interest to the point of obsession."
She should know. A former primary teacher, Maggi has been teaching pupils with this mild form of autism for more than 30 years. AS children have average to high intelligence, but experience difficulties relating to others and with flexible thinking.
They look like any other child, but their behaviour will be different. "In a mainstream primary class, they will be extremely articulate and may not stop talking. They speak like an adult. But their "conversations" are often boring, long-winded and one-sided," says Maggi.
Their problems with social interaction can show themselves in different ways. "Those who are aggressively acting out tend to get excluded early on," says Maggi. "But they can also appear solitary and on the periphery of what is going on."
AS pupils may also struggle to make friends because other children get tired of their endless stories. They also can't read people's eyes or body language and lack empathy and intuition.
AS children have difficulty working in groups. They may not like being touched and tend to take words and phrases literally. Although often hyperlexic - able to read well above their age level - they may struggle to understand what they read. They can be very blunt and may call the teacher by her first name, correct her, tell her she has bad breath, or use swear words while in class.
Pupils often used to reach secondary school or even adult life before these difficulties were diagnosed. Today, AS is usually diagnosed at eight or nine, although a trained clinician can diagnose it much earlier. Nine out of ten parents know there's a problem, according to Maggi. But if a teacher suspects a child has undiagnosed AS, he or she should discuss his behaviour with the parents and seek advice from the school's educational psychologist.
She also advises:
- Consider allowing AS children to sit at a desk by themselves. They may be more comfortable with their own space.
- Be flexible about assembly. You may need to mark out "their" space on the floor, or give them a mat.
- Help them avoid stress and anxiety triggers. Allow them to go somewhere other than the playground at playtime, if they dread it.
- Teach them how to take turns in conversation, perhaps in a special social skills group, and about personal space.
- Give them fair warning of any change that might distress them. Provide them with a visual cue, such as an egg-timer, so it's not too sudden.
- Focus on their strengths and interests. There's no harm in teaching them maths with TV's Bob the Builder.
- So many AS children are manic about computers that you may need to cover them up in class. Allow them five minutes on the computer as a reward for good work.
- Be sensitive about sharing a pupil's difficulties with the class. Pairing them up with a buddy can also work well.
"Teachers need broad shoulders to cope with these children," says Maggi.
"But they're the most exciting group of children to work with because the sky's the limit."
Maggi Rigg founded Southlands School, an independent boarding school in Hampshire for children aged eight to 16 that was the first in the country to specialise in educating children with Asperger's syndrome. She is now group principal of the Cambian Group of seven schools, including Southlands.
HOW COMMON IS ASPERGER'S SYNDROME?
Autism affects 1 per cent of children and Asperger's syndrome accounts for more than a third of those cases. It is thought to affect far more boys than girls - up to eight or nine times as many - but recent research suggests that many AS girls may be going undiagnosed. Because girls are innately more sociable than boys, they may simply behave obsessively about people rather than things.