When the Professor Has Asperger’s

Asperger’s syndrome is a functional type of autism spectrum disorder in which a person might exhibit social and physical awkwardness, slow monotone speech, fixation with certain topics, a reclusive nature, and minimal eye contact. These are a few of the many characteristics of Asperger’s that can inhibit effective teaching.

I am officially diagnosed with Asperger’s. I have a PhD and have been a university professor for over 30 years. I admit that my teaching evaluations early in my career were not stellar, but I have learned to significantly improve them given my limitations. I’d like to share what I’ve learned in the hopes of helping others who are teaching with Asperger’s and for those who might be interested in learning what it takes to work around these limitations.

Awareness that you might have Asperger’s is the first step. Sometimes you can find evidence for some Asperger’s markers, such as monotone delivery, topic fixation, and social awkwardness in student comments on course evaluations. If these comments persist, you might consider consulting a licensed psychologist or another professional who can do official testing. Some free unofficial tests are also available online. Behavioral therapy (sometimes paid for with health insurance) can be helpful, but there’s no medicine that reduces these lifelong symptoms.

One way I have found to reduce problems with my monotone delivery is to limit lectures to shorter segments and insert a variety of activities. For example, after a 15- to 20-minute lecture, I ask students to write down what was said as a quick review. I also break up lectures with quick surveys and short debates about whatever we are discussing. I secretly incorporate minilectures in a Jeopardy-style game I use to review my exams. I do that by elaborating on the terms discussed in the students’ Jeopardy answers. Of course, dropping lectures and incorporating cases, role-plays, and other interactive learning methods are also options.

To further enhance my classroom lectures and show my enthusiasm, I talk about my research and race walking passions. Unfortunately, I sometimes mention those passions too much. Individuals with Asperger’s tend to have few passions. They become experts but can bore others by sharing excessive details about the things that they love. To reduce this problem, I have learned to find examples from recent news events or work experiences that might be of more interest to students.

Empathy and social connections with students are more difficult with Asperger’s. In this case, I work on modeling some of the best practices I have seen from colleagues. For example, when students come to my office, ask a question in class, or visit with me after class, I tell them that I appreciate their questions and concerns. That has worked. Listening attentively without staring at the student or having my mind wander in some other direction is a continuing challenge—but at least I am now more aware that this is happening. I also seek feedback and advice from a very few trusted mentors and relatives who can point out my weaknesses in a supportive rather than a negative way.

The strategies that have helped me become a better teacher won’t work for everyone with Asperger’s. There is no single solution because there is a wide variety of symptoms. Some of the other symptoms that can hinder teaching include not understanding the emotions of others very well; long-winded, self-focused conversations; and few facial expressions.

I feel that professors who suspect that a colleague has Asperger’s should not toss that label at the colleague. It might not be understood, can threaten, and probably would not lead to specific behavioral changes. I recommend supportive ideas on how to reduce or modify specific behaviors related to Asperger’s. A professor once suggested that I reduce the words and add more pictures to my PowerPoints to increase the stories I can tell. This simple and positive advice has worked to reduce my monotone reading of a fixed script. In the end, caring, constructive comments help all teachers improve.

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Asperger's syndrome is a functional type of autism spectrum disorder in which a person might exhibit social and physical awkwardness, slow monotone speech, fixation with certain topics, a reclusive nature, and minimal eye contact. These are a few of the many characteristics of Asperger's that can inhibit effective teaching. I am officially diagnosed with Asperger's. I have a PhD and have been a university professor for over 30 years. I admit that my teaching evaluations early in my career were not stellar, but I have learned to significantly improve them given my limitations. I'd like to share what I've learned in the hopes of helping others who are teaching with Asperger's and for those who might be interested in learning what it takes to work around these limitations. Awareness that you might have Asperger's is the first step. Sometimes you can find evidence for some Asperger's markers, such as monotone delivery, topic fixation, and social awkwardness in student comments on course evaluations. If these comments persist, you might consider consulting a licensed psychologist or another professional who can do official testing. Some free unofficial tests are also available online. Behavioral therapy (sometimes paid for with health insurance) can be helpful, but there's no medicine that reduces these lifelong symptoms. One way I have found to reduce problems with my monotone delivery is to limit lectures to shorter segments and insert a variety of activities. For example, after a 15- to 20-minute lecture, I ask students to write down what was said as a quick review. I also break up lectures with quick surveys and short debates about whatever we are discussing. I secretly incorporate minilectures in a Jeopardy-style game I use to review my exams. I do that by elaborating on the terms discussed in the students' Jeopardy answers. Of course, dropping lectures and incorporating cases, role-plays, and other interactive learning methods are also options. To further enhance my classroom lectures and show my enthusiasm, I talk about my research and race walking passions. Unfortunately, I sometimes mention those passions too much. Individuals with Asperger's tend to have few passions. They become experts but can bore others by sharing excessive details about the things that they love. To reduce this problem, I have learned to find examples from recent news events or work experiences that might be of more interest to students. Empathy and social connections with students are more difficult with Asperger's. In this case, I work on modeling some of the best practices I have seen from colleagues. For example, when students come to my office, ask a question in class, or visit with me after class, I tell them that I appreciate their questions and concerns. That has worked. Listening attentively without staring at the student or having my mind wander in some other direction is a continuing challenge—but at least I am now more aware that this is happening. I also seek feedback and advice from a very few trusted mentors and relatives who can point out my weaknesses in a supportive rather than a negative way. The strategies that have helped me become a better teacher won't work for everyone with Asperger's. There is no single solution because there is a wide variety of symptoms. Some of the other symptoms that can hinder teaching include not understanding the emotions of others very well; long-winded, self-focused conversations; and few facial expressions. I feel that professors who suspect that a colleague has Asperger's should not toss that label at the colleague. It might not be understood, can threaten, and probably would not lead to specific behavioral changes. I recommend supportive ideas on how to reduce or modify specific behaviors related to Asperger's. A professor once suggested that I reduce the words and add more pictures to my PowerPoints to increase the stories I can tell. This simple and positive advice has worked to reduce my monotone reading of a fixed script. In the end, caring, constructive comments help all teachers improve.