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Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training
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Autism Spectrum Condition

Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) is a life-long developmental disability that affects one in 150 people. This includes people with Asperger’s syndrome. The cause or causes of autism are, as yet, unknown. The developmental disability impairs (to varying degrees) a person's understanding of what he or she sees, hears and senses. This results in problems with social relationships, communication and behaviour.

People with ASC may have average or above-average intelligence but they can find the post-secondary education experience daunting and challenging. However, many students have successful experiences in a range of subjects, most commonly in mathematics and computing.  

Impact of ASC

Whilst the condition varies considerably for each and every student with ASC, there are a number of characteristics that may be evident. These include:

  • ability for extensive factual information
  • development of a specialised interest in a specific topic
  • advanced vocabulary in a particular topic
  • exceptional memory for detail
  • a natural affinity for computers
  • original and creative thought patterns
  • very independent learners.

However, they may also exhibit the following characteristics in the learning environment:

  • weakness in comprehension and abstract thought, problem solving, organisational skills, concept development, and in making inferences and judgements
  • difficulty with cognitive flexibility, tending to think in a more linear way; their thinking tends to be rigid, they have difficulty adapting to change or failure and do not readily learn from their mistakes
  • tendency to take language literally. Confused by non-literal sayings (e.g. 'get off my back', 'pull your weight') and responding in a way that seems rude
  • difficulty coping with change; preoccupation with a particular subject of interest which may have been learnt by rote, or obsessions or routines which interfere with learning
  • anxiety - even minor stress may cause increase in coping mechanisms, such as repetitive behaviours (muttering, other verbal habits), panic, incessant questioning
  • problems with social relationships, and difficulty in making and keeping friends. In group situations may behave in ways that seem ‘odd’ to others and may come across as arrogant, rude or withdrawn
  • inability to pick up on non-verbal cues and showing poor eye contact; lack of understanding of sarcasm or irony, or people’s moods and feelings
  • difficulty in understanding or communicating feelings - may be unable to predict or understand others’ behaviour (in group work may not naturally consider other people’s wishes or needs)
  • difficulty interpreting and understanding social situations and communication cues
  • poor organisational skills, poor coordination, clumsiness, odd postures and poor gross motor skills
  • speech which is pedantic and monotonic 
  • overly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells and sights, even sensory stimuli that others may not perceive.

Teaching Strategies

Despite being very intellectually able, students with Asperger's syndrome often show characteristic behaviours that can disrupt their learning. However, students with this condition can excel academically if appropriate support and awareness is in place. There are a number of strategies that can assist these students to learn effectively:

  • Get to know the student’s particular needs in advance - meet them before the course starts to discuss needs.
  • Provide clear, detailed information (oral and written) about the structure of the course, practical arrangements, assessment requirements and deadlines.
  • Be consistent in approach and keep variations to a minimum. If a change (e.g. in timetable, room, lecturer) is inevitable, give clear, specific information as far ahead as possible, e.g. around exam time.
  • Use clear, unambiguous language (both spoken and written) and either avoid or else explain metaphors, irony etc and interpret what others say. Give explicit instructions and check that the student is clear about what he/she has to do.  
  • If providing feedback, be very clear about what is inappropriate or appreciated, and why.
  • Be patient, encouraging and supportive but guide the student back on task if necessary.
  • Present course materials and instructions in a structured way using literal language.
  • Show how components fit together as a whole. Provide subject word lists, glossaries of terms and acronyms.
  • In group work make clear exactly what is required of students with Asperger's syndrome and mediate to resolve disputes in a calm, logical way, providing an opportunity immediately after group sessions to check that they have understood. If group-work proves too stressful, provide alternative ways of completing team work.
  • Students may have difficulties in motivation for certain parts of their course due to a particular interest in one aspect of it. Set concrete, realistic goals to assist motivation, e.g. 'If you want to become an engineer you must complete all parts of the course, even the essays'.
  • Provide access to pastoral support or a particular staff member who can provide support if the student becomes distressed.
  • Provide specialist tuition support, e.g. language skills, structuring work.

Assessment Strategies

  • Students may benefit from the opportunity to look at the instructions and structure of examination papers before the exam so that any confusion can be dealt with and anxiety minimised.
  • The language and rubric of examination papers need to be both explicit and literal. For some students, multiple choice papers can be particularly confusing and alternative testing modes may be appropriate.