Considerations when teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Students who have a disability on the autism spectrum may exhibit some or all of the following behaviors:

Communication Skills

Most students with an autism spectrum disorder have some problems with communication. Some of these differences may be very subtle because these students may be very articulate and have a large vocabulary which may hide their communication challenges. Receptive difficulties might include processing verbal exchanges more slowly, misunderstanding sarcasm, very literal interpretation of words, and misunderstanding gestures and body language. Expressive difficulties may include problems initiating communication, trouble staying on topic, and difficulties with turn taking in conversations. Some may be slower to organize thoughts and speak, and/or their voice tone and volume may be unusual.

Accommodations for these students might include providing the lecture notes or a note taker to help key in on important information, providing study guides, allowing a longer verbal response time, and allowing for important exchanges of information to be done in written form. It would also help for instructors to be clear, concise, concrete and logical when communicating.

Social Skills

The social challenges for a student on the autism spectrum include problems understanding others’ perspectives, sharing space, and making eye contact. Students may have social anxiety, or have difficulty negotiating with others, interacting, and working in groups. These students may misinterpret facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.

Accommodations for these students include allowing for short breaks to leave class, or allowing the student to have a “social buffering” object, such as a computer, book or other object. If group work is assigned, the instructor might assist in the formation and monitoring of groups of students to assure the proper inclusion of the student with an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Sensory Differences

Some students on the autism spectrum have an extreme over sensitivity or under sensitivity to environmental stimuli. Common sensory difficulties include florescent lights that may appear to flicker and certain bright colors that are distracting. Also certain typical classroom sounds may be perceived as painful, such as the movement and use of desks, people, and other objects in the room, or even in the next room. These students may be disturbed by people accidentally bumping them or the feel of a particular desk or chair. They may wear unusual clothing, footwear or accessories because of sensory differences. Certain odors may be distracting or overwhelming.

Accommodations to support these students include allowing hats or tinted glasses to be worn, or allowing ear plugs. Allowing the student to choose his or her seat and helping to assure it is always available may be important. If requested by the student, a computer for in class work, tests and assignments might also be an appropriate accommodation.

Motor Skills

Both fine and gross motor skills may be affected in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. Fine motor challenges might affect writing, drawing, turning pages, using equipment, and manipulating small objects. Gross motor challenges may affect walking (may have “odd” gait), sitting, and balancing.

Accommodations might include allowing a computer for in-class work, tests and assignments, providing a note taker, allowing work assignments done at a slower pace, providing extra time to take tests, and providing readers and scribes (or technology that reads and takes notes).

Learning Style

Students with an autism spectrum disorder often have a very uneven learning profile. They tend to have excellent long term and rote memory abilities, but executive functioning deficits cause these students many problems. This includes difficulties with organization and planning skills, impulsivity, and problem solving, as well as the ability to self-monitor. Other learning problems can include poor sequential learning, being easily bored with repetition, problems with attention, literal thinking, and a poor sense of time. These students need to understand why something is important, relevant or meaningful to them, and they may not realize they are having academic difficulty until it is too difficult for them to correct on their own. The strengths of students on the autism spectrum can sometimes help them compensate for their weaknesses. These students may have extremely good visual and visual-spatial skills. They often learn best from whole to part (complex to simple) and they can be very creative. These students can also show an amazing knowledge on topics of interest which is most often their major field of study at the university.

Accommodations for students on the autism spectrum include providing review sheets, work checklists, and intermittent check-ins. Providing hands on learning, models, demonstrations and other visuals is very helpful. Instructors can help support these students by providing reinforcement at every opportunity.

Coping Skills

Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder frequently describe themselves as dealing with a lot of anxiety and stress. When under stress, they may engage in stress relieving activities which look odd and may even make others feel uncomfortable, such as body rocking, pacing, waving or flapping hands, or lecturing on a topic of interest. They also may abruptly leave the situation with no explanation before or afterwards.

A possible accommodation in helping the student cope, in the moment, might be to discretely ask the student if something is overwhelming, or ask if the student needs help or wants to leave. Do not discourage or interrupt behavior unless truly disruptive, and understand that the student does not intend to be disrespectful. The student might not realize when he or she is being disruptive and needs to leave. The instructor and student can agree on a cue to signal that the student feels overwhelmed or confused and needs to leave.

It is important to be prepared for students on the spectrum who are seeking to be a part of universities in greater and greater numbers. These students must be given reasonable accommodations to provide an equal opportunity for pursuing a college education. Many great minds and opportunities for society could be lost if individuals on the autism spectrum are not supported in their post-secondary academic pursuits.

Resources

ASAN: The Autistic-Self Advocacy Network. (2013) Navigating college: A handbook on self advocacy written for autistic students from autistic adults. Washington, D.C.: Autistic Self Advocacy Network. (Also available online at http://autisticadvocacy.org.)

Wheeler,M.(2014). Academic supports for college students with an autism spectrum disorder: An overview. The Reporter Vol 15(10). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2022/13226.

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