red flags for autism spectrum disorder in elementary school

Children with classical autism, especially those who fail to develop speech and who engage in repetitive behaviours such as hand flapping, are…

Children with classical autism, especially those who fail to develop speech and who engage in repetitive behaviours such as hand flapping, are usually identified at a much younger age than children with Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified.

While many autistic children are identified before they go to kindergarten, it may take several more years before the complex developmental needs of the other Autism Spectrum Disorder children are recognized. 

The average age for identification of Asperger’s Syndrome is 11.

Current statistics suggest that one in 160 children have Autism Spectrum Disorder so this means that quite a few of these children are likely struggling in school and at home.



Children with Asperger’s Syndrome usually have a good vocabulary.

Their communication difficulties show up in interactions with others. They can be quite pedantic and didactic and other children may refer to them as “the professor.”

They have intense interests in a few things (dinosaurs, space, battleships, airplanes and cars are frequently high on the list) and will talk excessively about their interest to anyone who will listen.

They are frequently knowledgeable, but the knowledge is not useful, like knowing the names of all the cars made by Datsun. They can be quite boring and turn other children (and adults) off. 

Their communication difficulties stand out in a conversation. Asperger’s Syndrome students are good at monologues but have difficulty with the turn taking required of dialogue. They frequently (and abruptly) change the topic of a conversation and end up back on their favourite hobbyhorse.

These extra-linguistic skills used in a conversation are called pragmatic language skills.

Pragmatic language skills refer to the social use of language such as knowing when to jump into a conversation and when to let others speak.

They are not good at reading the facial and bodily gestures we use in talking or in sensing the emotions of the listener. 

They interpret language literally so have difficulties understanding jokes in spite of good average intelligence.

Metaphorical language is lost on them.

While they may have learned to read easily, comprehension of texts in later elementary school, where they are expected to understand intentions, emotions and desires of characters, eludes them.

Other linguistic idiosyncrasies that set them apart include not using classmates’ names even when they know them, referring to themselves by their own name rather then saying me or my or mine, and using personal pronouns inappropriately, as in referring to a girl as “he.”

Social interpersonal


Asperger’s Syndrome children also have social interpersonal difficulties.

Other children find them odd and may not want to engage with them.

The Asperger’s Syndrome child may want to play with others but does not know how.

They are often solitary on the playground and may eat by themselves at lunchtime. Often they will go to the library or find a computer. Many prefer their own company, as being with others is too much like hard work. The co-operation and compromise required of group work frequently challenges them.

Additional red flags

Asperger’s Syndrome children can be quite rigid and inflexible. They get upset when a routine is disrupted or when the teacher asks them to set out a piece of work in a different way.

Asking an Asperger’s Syndrome student to write his name at the bottom of the paper instead of the top can elicit a stream of protest.

They frequently like to report infractions of the rules to the teacher. This causes endless squabbles and does not endear the student to his peers.

They can seem quite self-righteous, a miniature judge and jury.

Students with Asperger’s Syndrome usually do well academically in the primary grades, where the focus is on learning to read and to calculate.

The higher-level critical thinking and problem-solving skills required in the later elementary years can cause them difficulties. In spite of being knowledgeable and articulate (in their areas of interest), the rest of their work does not seem to reflect their intelligence.

Asperger’s Syndrome students are frequently physically awkward.

They may seem clumsy, which makes sports and play difficult.

Fine motor skills, such as cutting, pasting and handwriting may also be immature.

Work is frequently not finished, either because they were distracted or are such perfectionists that they erase and redo constantly.

Work can also be messy.

They can have difficulty organizing their thoughts and in getting them down on paper in an organized fashion. They frequently lose possessions as well as assignments.

Students with Asperger’s Syndrome frequently have self-regulation issues.

They are not able to control their attention and may be distracted by environmental factors (lights, noises, etc.) or by internal factors, like their own thoughts.

They also may have difficulty learning to control their emotions. They can be quite emotionally volatile and explode in frustration or tears.

Many of these students are sensitive to a wide range of environmental factors that don’t typically bother other children.

Typical ones include lights, noise and textures. They may shield their eyes from ordinary lights or not want to go to a particular room.

They may cover their ears at particular sounds.

They may not want to change into their gym strip or do so very slowly because they do not like the feel of the material.

They may wear only a few favourite articles of clothing. They may be reluctant to taste different food and eat a very restricted diet. They may not want to get involved in arts and crafts because they don’t like having stuff on their hands. 

Children with unidentified Autism Spectrum Disorder are often thought to be lazy or stubborn or just plain difficult.

Identification of the neurological disorder underlying these difficulties can change the way significant others (parents and teachers) understand the child’s behaviour.

It also opens the door to interventions that will help the student with their communication, social interpersonal skills and other challenges.

Dr. Webster is an educational psychologist who consults locally and internationally on children and youth with special educational needs.

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