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Disability Specific Adjustments: Autism

*Please note that throughout this information we have used the terms “autistic” and “on the autism spectrum” in an attempt to be inclusive of a variety of language preferences. No offence is intended by the use of either term.

Autism is a life-long neuro-developmental disability, which impacts on a person’s social and communication skills. Autistic individuals also demonstrate restrictive and repetitive behaviours, interests or activities, which is often associated with a preference for routine and structure. Sensory processing difficulties are also commonly experienced by autistic individuals, as are cognitive difficulties such as difficulties with executive functioning skills (e.g. planning, problem solving, organization and time management). The cause or causes of autism are, as yet, unknown.

A person on the autism spectrum may have average or above-average intelligence, but they can find the post-secondary education experience daunting and challenging. While traditionally many autistic students have been known to enrol in STEM based degree areas, they also have successful tertiary education experiences across a range of subjects and degrees.

Impact of ASC

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

  • ability to retain extensive factual information
  • development of a specialised interest in a specific topic
  • advanced vocabulary in their area of interest 
  • exceptional memory for detail, and attention to detail
  • original and creative thought patterns
  • a strength for visual based learning

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

  • difficulty interpreting and understanding social situations and communication cues
  • difficulties in comprehension and abstract thought, concept development, and in making inferences and judgements
  • difficulty with executive functioning skills such as problem solving, organisational skills, time management, prioritization of tasks
  • difficulty with cognitive flexibility, tending to think in a more linear way; their thinking tends to be rigid, they have difficulty adapting to change 
  • autistic students may have difficulty learning from their mistakes if not provided with clear guidelines or clarification as to the error that has been made
  • tendency to take language literally. Confused by non-literal sayings (e.g. 'get off my back', 'pull your weight') and may respond in a way that seems rude
  • preoccupation with a particular subject of interest which may have been learnt by rote
  • their specialised area of interest, need for routine, or ritualised behaviours may interfere with learning
  • may have difficulty with switching their focus between tasks or activities students on the autism spectrum may have difficulties developing and maintaining social relationships/friendships. In group situations may behave in ways that seem ‘odd’, ‘unusual’ or ‘eccentric’ to others, and may come across as arrogant, rude or withdrawn
  • may have difficulty picking up on non-verbal cues, gestures tone of voice (e.g. sarcasm or irony). This may make it difficult for them to pick up on others’ moods, feelings or intentions
  • may have inappropriate eye contact (e.g. very little eye contact, or excessive eye contact)
  • difficulty in recognizing, understanding or communicating own feelings – may also be unable to predict or understand others’ behaviour (in group work may not naturally consider other people’s wishes or needs)
  • some people on the autism spectrum may have poor motor coordination, clumsiness, odd postures and poor gross motor skills
  • speech patterns may appear unusual (e.g. monotone or repetitive)
  • may be overly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells sights, and touch even sensory stimuli that others may not perceive. Some individuals may have an under-sensitivity to these sensory inputs
  • anxiety – many autistic individuals experience high levels of stress and anxiety on a daily basis. Difficulties managing sensory inputs may increase anxiety significantly. Stress (even that which appears minor) may cause the individual to rely increasingly on individual coping mechanisms, such as repetitive behaviours (muttering, other verbal habits), fidgeting, frequent questioning or seeking reassurance

Disability Practitioner Strategies

Each individual on the autism spectrum will have their own unique characteristics, needs and strategies. It is important when working with an autistic student to ensure that any strategies that are implemented are individually tailored to meet the specific needs of the student. This will require getting to know the student, their needs and their personal strategies. It may be necessary to spend additional time in establishing rapport with the student so that they feel comfortable discussing these issues with you. It may also take time for the student to identify what works and what does not work for them in this new environment.

For students who received their autism diagnosis in childhood there may be clear strategies that have worked for them previously that can be adapted to the post-secondary education setting. For students whose diagnosis is more recent, the implementation of strategies may take some trial and error, as students may need time to identify what works best for them.

There are a range of services and equipment that are commonly facilitated by Disability Practitioners as reasonable adjustments for students on the autism spectrum:

These may include:

  • Access to peer note takers
  • Provision of recorded lectures, professional note takers, or transcription of lecture recordings
  • Access to Student Access Study Centre
  • Access to speech recognition Assistive Technology for written assignments
  • Access to Assistive Technology or scribe in examinations
  • Arranging the provision of specific tutorial allocations or tutors with whom the student is already familiar
  • Identifying sensory processing challenges within the learning environment and addressing these with adjustments or modifications where possible
  • Arranging a case management service to support engagement with study, planning and time management, and assess regular progress
  • Supporting students to set up weekly and semester planners to assist with planning for assessment submission
  • Informing academic staff that students may at times be accompanied by a support person
  • Informing academic staff of the student’s preferred method of communication
  • Meeting with lecturing/tutor staff before the course commences, in order to provide the student with clear and detailed information about the structure of the course, practical arrangements, assessment requirements, expectations and deadlines. This information should be provided in written format after the meeting to ensure the student has an accurate record of the discussion
  • Provision of additional time within tests and examinations due to reduced processing speeds

The provision of peer mentoring to assist with the transition to learning in the post-secondary education setting may also be beneficial. Peer mentors may help to provide students with assistance in navigating the campus; understanding academic requirements; time management, planning and organisation; and may also help students to establish social connections. 

As a disability practitioner it may be helpful to be aware of inclusive teaching and assessment strategies that can assist all students. ADCET has identified some specific strategies that may be useful for Autistic students.

Revised by Alison Nuske. Access and Inclusion Adviser, University of South Australia (August 2021)

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