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Autism Spectrum Disorder

Square Pegs

Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder are hoping you’ll help them find a place in the classroom that fits just fine.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

Sonja Lovett, the mother of a 9-year-old Florida boy with what she calls Asperger syndrome, wants his teachers to “get a lesson on what it is to be Riley.”

So here it is.


Photos by Greg Lovett

To be Riley is to be able to recite really long stretches of Star Wars dialogue and inform any discussion on airplanes and the history of flight. To be Riley is to still love a morning hug from mom and an evening with Harry Potter.

To be Riley is to be distracted by small noises. That desk by the classroom door? Not a good fit. Being Riley also means being a little uncomfortable in social settings and painfully literal in conversation.

“He got a yellow (cautionary) card from his teacher once because she told him to use his quiet hands and he said, ‘What are quiet hands? I don’t know!’” his mother recalls. “We’re on the fence on whether he meant to be smart with her...usually he’s savvy enough to say, ‘You don’t mean it that way, do you?’”

So that’s Riley—and only Riley. “You know what they say? If you know one kid with Asperger’s, you know one kid with Asperger’s,” Lovett says.

But increasingly you do know one kid—or more—like Riley. They’re the ones sitting in your classroom, wondering what the heck is “crisscross applesauce…” You know their parents, too. They’re the ones pleading, “Please, just tell me one good thing today!”

Until 2013, to have Asperger Syndrome, more commonly known as Asperger's, was to have a diagnosis based on the durability of at least a few common symptoms, including persistent anxiety, an inability to “read” others through social cues or body language and to maintain eye contact in conversation, a preoccupation with one or two specific interests (see: Darth Vader, R2D2…), plus heightened sensitivity to noise, lights, and texture, and a serious attachment to routine. In 2013, Asperger's was folded into a broader diagnosis, called Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Any one of these symptoms, misunderstood by educators, can lead to massive frustration and disruption in school communities—not to mention a miserable kid and an equally sad educator. And that’s why parents and “Aspeys” alike want to share this important message with you:

“You’ve heard people say we don’t want to be square pegs in round holes, we want to be square pegs in square holes,” says Lucas Hofstetter, a recent high school graduate who works at the Connecticut non-profit, Focus Alternative Learning Center. “To me that means we don’t need to be fixed. We’re not broken people. We just need to be understood.”


Watch for the signs. You might see ears reddening. Arms flapping. The most powerful symptom of Asperger’s is the common anxiety. Left unchecked, it can lead to melt-downs, crying fits, or disengagement. (Riley? He zones out.)

Hofstetter remembers those days: When his anxiety would reach fever pitch, he would skedaddle to the back of his third-grade classroom and tuck his body under the big pillows in the reading corner. It was “deep and comforting,” he recalls—then quickly laughs. “One day I did get more than I bargained for, because one of the other kids sat on me. I reached out an arm and poked him, then heard a scream and a pair of feet running away. It was rather amusing!”

The idea that kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder don’t have a sense of humor? Not true.

The idea that they all love video games? Well...maybe.

The shared anxiety? Yes, yes, yes.

Sensory breaks help, says Shannon Knall, the Connecticut mother of Jack, a 10-year-old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder. “If he can go on the swing for five minutes, it organizes him a little bit.” Routines also help a great deal. “You can’t have too much structure!”



Jack enjoying a beach vacation with family and friends.

Photo by Hannon Leary Knall

But kids also appreciate a simple acknowledgment of their anxiety. Says Lucas Hofstetter, “If a teacher could just say, ‘Lucas, you look a little down today, is there anything I can do to help?’ even if my response is just a grunt...I will hear it and I will remember that somebody cares.”

For both Jack and Riley, lunch is still the worst, most anxiety-producing part of the school day, as it is for many kids on the autism spectrum. “There’s so many sensory issues—it’s bright, it’s noisy, it’s smelly. And then there’s too little structure—they don’t know where exactly to sit,” Knall says. Plus, for many kids, lunch is the social hour. And while that’s great fun for “neurotypical” kids, it’s not so much when you get iced out of every conversation.


“Jack wants to be social, but he doesn’t know how,” Knall says. “He doesn’t get it. He just doesn’t get it. He’s not interested in team sports. He’s not interested in Power Rangers. He wants to talk about Mozart and Bach’s birthdays, and the symphonies they composed, and all the facts of the states in the New England region.”

What Knall would really like to see is a teacher who can “highlight my son’s quirkiness as cool.” Last year, his music teacher hosted a celebration of Bach’s birthday in her classroom and it was great, Knall says. “His peers knew that’s what he likes and he was a resource to them as a result. It brought about peer interaction where he wasn’t the weird one.”

Campus clubs that form around common interests can be great, says Hofstetter. “I’ve heard of schools with anime clubs or manga clubs—those are common interests of kids on the spectrum,” he adds.

It’s not just about helping kids make conversations. It’s about helping them to not be the target of bullies. Last year in Georgia, after a 17-year-old with Autism Spectrum Disorder hanged himself in his closet, his parents blamed unrelenting bullies. And he’s not the only victim—surveys have shown that students with disabilities are among the most frequent targets of bullies.

Count Lucas Hofstetter among them. In sixth grade, he suffered a concussion in a school hallway. Also count Colleen Burns. The recent college graduate looks back at middle school with a shudder, especially the cafeteria. It wasn’t so much that she minded sitting alone, she says—“but kids threw food at me.” Just one of her bullies was ever punished, with a three-day suspension that didn’t suddenly transform him into a better person.

“He came back just the same,” she says.

Bullying shouldn’t be shrugged at, Burns notes. Policies should be written—and respected—for the benefit of all kids. “I think teachers should try to make a safe, tolerant environment, so that everybody is accepted, no matter if they’re on the spectrum, have a different disability, or if they’re neurotypical,” she says. “I think it’s the kind of thing that could benefit everybody.”

Check out From the Teacher's Desk. Tips on working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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