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*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 offense 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 enroll in STEM based degree areas, they also have successful tertiary education experiences across a range of subjects and degrees.

Impact of Autism

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 beahviours  may interfere with learning
  • may have difficulty with switching their focus between tasks or activities students on the autism spectrummay 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

Teaching Strategies

Autistic students can succeed academically if appropriate support and awareness is in place. It is important to note that each person on the autism spectrum will be different and it is important to understand each student’s individual needs, however some strategies that can assist these students to learn effectively are:

  • Meet with the student before the course starts to discuss their needs. An autistic person’s learning needs are likely to vary depending on the type of course content, the method of content delivery, and the assessment requirements.
  • Provide clear, detailed information (oral and written) about the structure of the course, practical arrangements, participation requirements, assessment requirements and deadlines. Written versions of information that is provided orally are particularly important for students on the autism spectrum.
  • Be consistent in approach and keep variations and changes 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. Where it is not possible to provide information ahead of time be aware that this may create additional anxiety for the student.
  • 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. Allow the student time to process the information before checking they have understood what they need 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 clear and concise (literal) language.
  • Show how components fit together as a whole. Provide subject word lists, glossaries of terms and acronyms.
  • When requiring students to work in groups it can be beneficial to help the student establish their group. It is also helpful to make clear exactly what is required of students when working in a group 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 groupwork.
  • Autistic students may find motivation difficult in courses that do not focus directly on their specific area of interest. 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'. It is also helpful to provide clear rationale as to why these components are necessary e.g. ‘Engineers are required to produce reports and other written documents, which is why we use these assessment methods in this course.’
  • Provide access to pastoral support or a particular staff member who can provide support if the student becomes distressed. Autistic students will often find it difficult to know who to approach when in difficulty and having one consistent point of contact can be extremely helpful in these situations.
  • Provide specialist tuition support, e.g. language skills, structuring work.
  • To manage sensory sensitivities many autistic students will need to use compensatory strategies such as using a fidget item, or drawing/doodling. They may also use headphones to block out distracting sounds or noises, or sunglasses to block out light distractions. Students on the autism spectrum are more able to attend to and understand verbal instructions when allowed to engage with these sensory strategies. 
  • Having an inclusive campus environment where staff have an awareness and understanding of autism more broadly is an extremely valuable strategy for supporting students on the autism spectrum.

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.
  • Autistic students may also require the opportunity to clarify their understanding/interpretation of assessment task instructions with the course instructor.

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

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