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Tutors who make the right gestures

Students with a condition affecting their communication skills are getting expert help, writes Susannah Kirkman

HOW to design courses for students who are highly gifted yet lack social skills is a question exercising lecturers atWeston College, Somerset.

Weston is one of several colleges developing support for students with Asperger's Syndrome.

Nigel Evans, the college's director of studies, says Asperger's students are often intelligent, yet find it hard to fulfil their potential.

"Students are finding it difficult to cope with the unstructured setting," he says.

People with Asperger's like routine and order. It is not easy for them to make sense of social cues because they find it hard to interpret facial and vocal expressions or gestures. Many are articulate but cannot understand irony or humour because they interpret language literally.

This makes group work very difficult and students may be thrown by changes in working patterns. "Any new experience is a shock," says Matthew Waddington, one of the four students on the new course.

"Planning assignments is difficult," says Derek Fitton, another member of the course. "Our thinking is linear, as in a railway track; this means we can digest loads of information on a particular subject. The trouble is, we sometimes hit the buffers."

Ruth Salisbury, who specialises in working with AS students, uses an interactive approach to tackle the problem. Her method, known as Request, helps students to improve communication by allowing them to practise appropriate gestures and facial expressions. They moderate their voices and hold two-sided conversations.

As students are talking, Ruth Salisbury coaches them: "Good hand gestures, Alex ... Good expressive tone of voice, Derek ..."

"It seems very 'in your face' at first, but you get used to it," remarks Derek. "It's made things better for me socially and improved my eye contact. I'm better at handling situations now and I don't get so panicky."

Group members have also videoed each other so they are more aware of their own mannerisms.

They have also practised their new skills at a party they organised. Afterwards, guests were asked to grade the students on features such as posture, tone of voice and the content and length f the conversation. All the students agree that improved social skills have helped to boost their confidence.

Matthew Waddington has just been accepted to do an Open University degree, while Derek has gained a merit on his general national vocational qualifications foundation course.

"Request allows students to step outside their condition and start to take control of their lives," says Ruth Salisbury.

Social skills are a crucially important part of the year-long FE access course for AS students at Glasgow College of Nautical Studies.

"We are trying to help students understand that they have to take other people's feelings into account," says Peggy Nicholson, head of the school for social studies and supportive learning. "If they don't know how to deal with other people, this can be a great barrier to integration."

The course aims to ease the transition between school and college. Students have their own base and a mentor they can turn to whenever they need support. As their confidence increases, they are encouraged to join in with mainstream college life and to choose courses suited to their ability.

The course has been so successful that the University of St Andrews has now asked the Nautical College to run an access course to higher education for AS students.

But adequate support for AS students is essential to ensure a smooth transition to college, according to Patricia Svarovsky, careers adviser at the special needs division of the Hertfordshire careers service. Ms Svarovsky has worked closely with colleges designing courses for students with Asperger's.

She believes that colleges must work out who will be responsible for monitoring students' progress, what strategies will be implemented if problems occur and to whom students will be able to turn if they need help. At the same time, she warns against viewing students as "problems".

"We should make an effort to understand how young people with Asperger's think, rather than trying to change them. They are not "difficult" - it's just that we don't have the right structure for them," she says.

For further information, contact: Ruth Salisbury, Peggy Nicholson, 0141 565 2806, Patricia Svarovsky 01707 281400, Rachel Pike 0117 987 2575.

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