Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum

Teaching Students
on the Autism Spectrum:
Considerations for College
Dana Reinecke, PhD, BCBA-D
• Spectrum disorder
• Broad range of abilities
• Major characteristics:
o Communication deficits
o Social deficits
o Excessive and troubling
Asperger’s Syndrome
• Autism without the language difficulty
• “Little professors”
• Can appear to be “normal” but difficult to deal
• Difficulty with social language – may not
understand idioms, sarcasm, etc.
• Diagnosis is being eliminated from DSM-V.
ASDs are almost 5 times
more common among
boys (1 in 54) than among
girls (1 in 252).
(CDC Morbidity and Mortality
Report, 2008)
• The only evidence-based treatment for autism is
applied behavior analysis (ABA)
o Includes many different procedures
o All procedures are based on the same scientific principles
• Other autism treatments are not supported by
Early intervention
• New York State Clinical Guidelines mandate a high
level of intensive early intervention
• 15-20 years ago, parents were fighting for and
getting extremely intensive services for very young
• Those children are now college age and are more
likely to be college-ready than children who did not
get intensive services
• Big transition
• Variable environment
• Socially exciting and
• High degree of
• Physical campus
For someone with an ASD
All of the things that are hard about college for
someone without an ASD
. . . and then some . . .
magnified . . .
Success in college
Problem solving abilities
Understanding one’s disability
These skills are often limited in individuals with ASD.
(Getzel & Thoma, 2008)
• Many students with ASD will benefit from disability
• Survey of disability offices shows that most provide
the same accommodations to students with AS as
those provided to students with other disabilities
• Need for individualized accommodations
(Smith, 2007)
Commonly provided
Preferential seating
Notes provided
Tape-recorded lectures
Alternate setting and extended time for exams
Not required by ADA, but may be helpful:
Additional assistance with course selection
Exemption from certain courses
Exemption from group work
Alternative exam format
Flexibility in due dates
(Andreon & Durocher, 2007)
The “invisible” disability
• Lacking any disabling physical characteristics,
students with ASD may appear “typical” and seem
very capable in certain areas
• Faculty and other students may be frustrated by
their behavior because they are unaware of the
(Camarena & Sarigiani, 2009)
Poor self-awareness
Students with ASD
• May choose not to disclose their disability
• May feel they don’t need accommodations
• May not even know about their disability
(Camarena & Sarigiani, 2009)
Faculty awareness
• Be aware of the characteristics of ASDs
• Consider that a struggling student might have an
ASD and not know about it or not wish to disclose it
• Possible signs:
Disorganized, poor time management, poor executive functioning
Poor self-care
Scattered skills (may be really good in some areas, very weak in others)
Difficulty socializing
Poor eye contact, unusual speech patterns, may seem aloof or anxious
May not understand sarcasm, idioms, or jokes
May be overly assertive or verbally inappropriate – too many jokes,
excessive sarcasm, loud, “pushy”
What you may do differently
for these students
• Maintain as much consistency as possible
• Have a higher degree of 1:1 contact with the
student than with other students
• Consult with advisor, Disability Office, and others
about individual student needs
• Give students more explicit feedback than usual
Executive functioning
May be late, get lost, forget things, forget due dates
• Provide visual supports, including maps, lists, and
• Incorporate additional prompts for due dates (e.g., text
messages or emails)
• Pair student with a peer who is able to give reminders
• Maintain consistency in expectations, communication,
May get overwhelmed by large projects, wait until the last
minute to work on them
• Provide assistance in breaking tasks down into smaller
May neglect hygiene, health concerns, not eat well,
not sleep or take medications
• Be on the lookout for behavior changes that might
reflect neglect of these areas
• If you have a relationship with the student, try
speaking to them about it
• Get in touch with any other faculty or campus
based contacts who might be close enough to
• Reach out to parents
Social difficulties
May be more vulnerable with peers due to lack of
social skills and understanding
• Be aware of greater vulnerability to bullying
• Be aware of potentially problematic attempts at
romantic relationships (e.g., misunderstandings)
• Pair the student with a tolerant, supportive peer
• Create structured opportunities to socialize
• Encourage the use of technology to connect with
people at first (Facebook, Twitter, texting)
May have a hard time with group/partner work
• Offer to help get into a group or meet a partner
• Consider allowing individual work or smaller groups
• Outline how work should be divided among group
May not pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues
May appear disrespectful, demanding, or fail to reach
out for help and support
• Make expectations very clear on both sides
o How to address you, how to contact you
o When they can expect responses to emails and phone calls
• Be explicit in communication – subtlety probably
won’t work
• Provide concrete rules and stick to them
o “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I’m not able to interrupt my teaching
to answer questions throughout the class. Please limit yourself to 2
questions during the lesson. If you still have questions at the end of class, I
can sit with you for 10 minutes and go over anything you want.”
Language difficulties
May not understand complex and abstract language
• Provide “translations” as appropriate
• May need to adjust expectations or guide towards
appropriate subjects that are more concrete
May not express him/herself well in front of the class,
especially with little warning
• Consider building up this skill, not calling on student
unless s/he volunteers, or only calling on student for
topics known to be comfortable
Difficulty in writing is common
• Provide outlines, templates, very clear instructions
• Consider grading more on content than on writing,
while working on writing skills separately
• Refer for writing help
May be reluctant to talk about/work on topics that
are not high interest
• Offer incentives for participation
o May be as simple as clarifying the extent to which their grade will be
• Provide choices if possible
• Negotiate equal time – ahead of time, if possible
o “Baseball is a great analogy for this topic, but it shouldn’t be the basis for
your paper. You can use the baseball example at the beginning and
end, but not in the middle.”
• Offer to continue off-topic conversations at another
o “Great story! I’d love to hear more, but we’re getting behind. Come to
office hours and fill me in on that sometime.”
May resist changes or simply be unable to track them.
• If changes are necessary, give lots of warning, explicit
alternative instructions, and be prepared for some
May have a narrow focus
• Take advantage if possible
• If a broader perspective is necessary, be clear about
that and provide examples
May be a perfectionist
• Model making mistakes
• Frame errors as learning opportunities
Learning differences
May be extremely competent in some areas, and extremely
weak in others
• Suggest tutoring, pair with a peer who is willing to help
• Provide additional materials
May not process information well in certain modalities
• Consider offering alternatives
Find out if texts are available as audio books
Provide written transcripts of lectures or lecture notes
May avoid work that is “too hard” or that appears to duplicate
something that’s been done before
• Be clear about impact on their grade, and stick with it
• Be prepared that student may be happy enough with a lower
Sensory differences
May be affected by stimuli that you don’t even notice
• Be aware, offer changes as appropriate
May not be aware of the most important stimuli
• Highlight stimuli for the student
Use his/her name or stand closer when addressing him/her
Use color coding or other visual cues
May process stimuli differently
• Explore what helps student – chances are he/she has some
idea of what’s needed
May have a physical need to move or escape at times
• Reduce distraction for others by seating student in the back
• Talk to student about how to excuse him/herself without being
not excuse-making
• Whether or not the student has a known ASD,
support can be provided in specific areas
• Maintain content, curriculum, class rules and
contingencies; there is no need to change
• Aim to help improve functioning
Andreon, D. & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of
individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School
and Clinic, 42, 271-279.
Camarena, P. M. & Sarigiani, P. A. (2009). Postsecondary educational aspirations
of high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders and their parents.
Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24, 115-128.
Getzel, E. E. & Thoma, C. A. (2008). Experiences of college students with
disabilities and the importance of self-determination in higher education settings.
Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 31, 77-84.
Smith, C. (2007). Support services for students with Asperger's syndrome in higher
education. College Student Journal, 41, 515-531.

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