Teaching College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

An increasing number of individuals are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), particularly the higher functioning form of autism previously known as Asperger’s disorder. Many of these individuals choose to attend college and it is no longer unusual to encounter them in your classes. Although they can be excellent students, those with ASD may come across as odd or eccentric with idiosyncratic behaviors and interests. This can make their presence in the classroom somewhat vexing for instructors who do not understand the challenges and strengths of these students.

Characteristics of ASD

Many students with ASD have social difficulties, including problems with verbal and nonverbal communication (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). They may be unable to understand others’ points of view; have problems with taking turns in conversations (language pragmatics), speak in a loud or flat voice; and have problems understanding sarcasm, abstract language, and some forms of humor. In class, they may be preoccupied with certain subjects; inhibit other students by monopolizing class discussions; or may never speak at all. Students with ASD are comfortable being alone and often have difficulty reading social cues (APA, 2013). This is especially true in novel situations, such as the college classroom, and their behavior may seem stiff or unfriendly.

Students with ASD also have repetitive and restricted activities (APA, 2013). This can take the form of difficulty adjusting to change (i.e., change in assignments or seating arrangements) and sensory sensitivity (e.g., sensitivity to fluorescent lights, sounds, or smells). Time management can be difficult and students may lose track of time and miss class or arrive very early to ensure they get preferred seating (Dillon, 2007).

by Kathy DeOrnellas, PhD

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