All social interaction can pose challenges for people with ASD. Being a tertiary student can pose new and additional challenges. It is important then to know what to expect in certain situations and have some strategies for these circumstances.
Some university and TAFE campuses provide communication training or peer mentor support for students with ASD. Look on your campus website or ask at student services to find out if this support is offered. If it is available, it is advisable that you use these services. They provide the opportunity to learn and practise skills to increase your communication skills.
communicating with lecturers
Most university subjects and some TAFE subjects involve attending lectures. Lectures are often held in large rooms or auditoriums (sometimes called lecture theatres). They are usually attended by a large number of students. Attendance is not compulsory, but it is highly advisable that you attend all your lectures.
A presentation is given by academic staff. Mostly there is little or no interaction with students during the presentation. It is advisable not to ask the lecturer questions or make comments during lectures unless asked to do so. You may wish to write down any questions or comments you would like to make and ask the lecturer after the lecture has concluded.
Lecturers at university and TAFE often have other work to do along with lecturing and running tutorials. Some of the other work that they may be involved with includes conducting research, supervising higher degree students, maintaining equipment, doing field work and presenting at conferences. This additional work can mean that they are quite busy on some days.
Lecturers usually have scheduled student consultation times available every week where students can ask questions about lecture material or assessments. If you feel comfortable, you can go to their office to speak to them during these times. If you are not comfortable doing this or the times do not suit you, you can send an email asking your question or asking for a time for a meeting. Most lecturers will respond to emails within 48 hours. Remember that they are busy, so be patient.
Rachel had a question about an assignment that she was having trouble with. She could not do any more work on that part of the assignment until she had clarification on what to do. Each time she went to the lecturer’s office, the door was closed. The deadline for the assignment was coming up soon so she was getting worried.
There was a timetable on the lecturer’s door showing two time slots for student consultations, but unfortunately these both clashed with other lectures that Rachel had to attend. She sent the lecturer an email outlining her question. The lecturer replied the next day with a short answer to the question and offered to make a time to meet later in the week if more information was required.
Rachel started work on the assignment and then took it to the lecturer at the agreed time to get some feedback and make sure she was on the right track. She was then able to finish the assignment on time.
communicating with tutors and small class tutors
Tutorials are generally smaller classes that give the opportunity for students to discuss the course material or undertake practical activities. Attendance at these may be compulsory, unless you are covered by a medical certificate or have extraordinary circumstances that prevent you from attending. You may need to speak to the tutor about any non-attendance.
These small classes can provide challenges for students with ASD. Many are uncertain as to:
- When do I start talking?
- How long do I talk for?
- When do I stop talking?
- What topics are okay for discussion in the group?
- How and when do I ask questions?
It is important to know that participation in the discussion is not always compulsory. If you feel anxious about talking in groups, it may be worth disclosing to your tutor/teacher about your ASD and how this impacts on your participation. This way they can understand and not ask you directly to make any comments.
Sometimes, students can dominate discussions in small classes. It is not appropriate for any student to dominate class discussions, as all students need the opportunity to participate. It is important to ensure that your input to class discussions is relevant, and therefore you need to base your responses or questions on information from the lectures, text books or assigned readings. Avoid answering questions that you do not fully understand.
If you feel anxious about talking too much in groups, it may be worth disclosing to your tutor/teacher about your ASD and how this impacts on your participation. This way they can understand and you can ask them to indicate to you when it is time to stop talking. They also may be able to work out a formula with you about how much talking to do. For example, a certain number of questions per class, or a time limit for responses.
Depending on the class structure, there may be time during or after a tutorial to ask questions about assessment tasks or lecture material. If you are nervous, consider writing down your question or making notes. You can also email questions or concerns to your tutors. Make the emails polite, short and concise.
Usually tutors will have time allocated to student consultation. You can request a meeting to meet with your tutor or teacher about the course material or assessment tasks. It is advisable to have specific questions prepared for the meeting.
Chrissy is a bright and happy student who is fascinated by her field of study, Agricultural Science. Chrissy was finding that some of her fellow students didn’t seem to know the same things that she already knew and that the class needed to spend time on things that Chrissy had learnt previously. Chrissy also wanted to ask lots of questions of her teachers as her mind leapt ahead from subject matter to interrelated topics and back again. Chrissy noticed some people getting frustrated with her asking lots of questions and the teacher often said to her that she needed to wait until they got to that as a group shortly. Chrissy was also getting frustrated and was not sure if this was the right subject for her.
The teacher spoke with the entire student group and everyone agreed to set aside 15 minutes at the end of each session for tabled questions to be addressed. Now during class, students can still ask questions, but if it is something that does not directly relate to the content at hand, it gets noted
to one side of the whiteboard to be dealt with in the Q&A time. The teacher has final decision on what gets tabled. For any extra questions, students need to arrange appointments to speak with him outside of standard class time. Chrissy now has a framework of how and when to ask questions and has learnt to trust that they will be followed through. The teacher is able to progress through the required content and everyone’s frustration and anxiety levels have decreased.
communicating with peers
Many students with ASD find social situations with other students create the most stress for them. It can be difficult understanding the non-verbal cues, innuendos and social rules that accompany much peer communication. However, successful communication with your peers can make your tertiary learning experience much more satisfactory and enjoyable. Many students discuss the course and assignments and share helpful tips. Therefore, as well as the benefits from friendships, you could also gain helpful support and advice about your studies.
It can be difficult to know how to initiate conversations with strangers. One advantage of being a student is that course work is something that everyone in the class has in common, so it can be an easy way to start up a conversation. For example, you could ask the student sitting next to you in the tutorial if they have started the next assignment. It is advisable that you make a list of possible questions you could ask other students in your course. Use some of these to start a conversation. Listen to their responses, as these may provide information for further questions and discussions.
You may wish to observe others’ interactions for some important communication rules. These include: degree of eye contact, physical distance from others, appropriate greetings, and the amount of talking versus listening you should do. Practice using these rules in your communication with other students.
Some campuses have clubs and societies for students to join. They often have social events on a regular basis. The advantage of these is that it brings students with common interests together. It is an easy way to get to know others and belong to a social group. Some campuses have societies for students with ASD.
The cafeteria can be a popular place for students to meet. However, they can be very busy, chaotic and noisy places. You may find this distracting. The busiest times in the cafeteria will most likely be between 12pm and 2pm (lunchtime) and after lectures finish for the day. If you are meeting other students, suggest a quieter place, or meet in the cafeteria before or after the busiest times.
Derek is a tertiary student who avoided eye contact as he found it too intense. It made him feel very anxious. A fellow student told him that it made him appear disinterested and untrustworthy. Derek then learnt the trick of looking at the bridge of people’s nose, rather than the eyes. It does not make him look untrustworthy anymore and he does not get so anxious in social interactions.
who can help?
- Student services.
- Student counsellors.
question & answer
Question: I emailed my teacher with some questions I had about the course work. In her response, she directed me to read certain chapters in the text book. I was frustrated as I had read those and still did not understand some of the material. I emailed her again and asked some more questions but she repeated that I should read the text book. Should I email her again to say that I have read the text book and I am frustrated with her advice?
Answer: You should email your teacher again explaining that you have read the relevant chapters in the text book but that you still have some questions, and ask for an appointment to see her. It is best to avoid a sequence of emails with no real outcome.
Question: I enjoy talking to another student quite often in my prac class. I thought we were friends but sometimes when I pass him in the corridor he does not stop for a talk. I am not sure if he wants to be a friend.
Answer: You should not feel that the person does not like you because they do not always stop for a talk. Maybe they need to get to class and do not have time to talk. You should just say hello to him in the corridor and keep enjoying your longer chats in the prac class.