Students with Autism in the College Classroom
MODULE GOALS: To assist post-secondary faculty and administration in understanding the characteristics and needs of a person with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This module aims to provide information on how the disability manifests and how it impacts the student throughout their college careers. In addition, it discusses strategies for providing support to the student.
- Define autism
- Legal mandates
- Characteristics of student with ASD: what it looks like in the college classroom
- Accommodations for a student with ASD
- Information and resources on students with ASD in the post-secondary education setting
Despite adequate cognitive ability for academic success in college many individuals on the autism spectrum find post-secondary education an insurmountable hill to climb. Often gaining admission without ever identifying themselves as individuals with autism / Asperger’s those students go unnoticed by their professors until their sensory, social, learning styles and organizational challenges combined with fatigue, cause them to fail. (US Autism and Asperger Association, 2013)
- What is autism?
- How will I recognize a student with autism in my course?
- How can I provide supports to students with ASD?
What is Autism?
What legal mandates are relevant for students with disabilities?
- has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- has a record of such an impairment;
- is regarded as having such an impairment. (The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, 2008 §12102)
The ADAAA does not make schools responsible for the free and appropriate education of all students, but the protections that are “guaranteed by the ADAAA/Section 504 apply equally to public and private K-12 schools, colleges, universities and testing agencies. These protections do not extend to organizations controlled by religious groups” (The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, 2008).
“Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is designed to eliminate discrimination on the basis of handicap in any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”(The Rehabilitation Act, 1973 § 504) Section 504 employs the same criteria for and definition of disability as the ADAAA. Institutions of higher education must provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities found eligible for services. In order to qualify for services, students must provide documentation regarding the impact their disability has on their life and academic performance to disability support services. While Section 504 does not provide funding for services, the federal government does provide remedies to violations of the law under § 12117(a)(The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, 1990).
“The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) (PL 110-315) was enacted on August 14, 2008; it was a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965” (Higher Education Opportunity Act 2008, n.d). This law includes may new provisions that improve access to post-secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities as well as students with ASD who have significant cognitive deficits” (Think College, 2013). HEOA provides financial assistance to students who meet requirements and encourages collaboration among college, businesses and relevant organizations to provide support and improve accessibility to students in college. In order to qualify for federal financial aid, students must meet the following criteria:
- The student must meet the definition of intellectual disability as outlined in Section 760 of the HEOA (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-110publ315/pdf/PLAW-110publ315.pdf)
- Students must be attending an approved Comprehensive Transition Program - a list of these programs is maintained on the Federal Financial Aid website (https://studentaid.ed.gov).
- Students who meet these two criteria DO NOT have to have a standard high school diploma, or be pursuing a degree or certificate.
- Students with intellectual disabilities DO still have to meet the financial need criteria for eligibility
- They are eligible for federal grants and work study funds, but NOT student loans (HEOA, 2008, para. 3; Think College, 2013).
How will I recognize a student with autism in my course?
Individuals with high functioning autism (HFA) bring many positive attributes to bring to the college campus. They have a unique perspective that will enrich group activities and they tend to be honest and loyal. They tend to be very persistent in their efforts and are able to focus on one thing for extended periods of time. In general, those with HFA are conscientious, logical, attentive to detail, thrive on routine and clear expectations (Attwood, 2007).
Students with HFA generally have average to above average intelligence. They have an extensive vocabulary and may speak in a formal or pedantic manner and tend toward verbosity. You will also notice that they appear to lack social understanding and have limited ability to engage in reciprocal conversations often focusing entirely on their topic of interest (Wenzel & Rowley, 2010). Other signs a student may be on the spectrum:
- Odd prosody
- Excessive talking
- Abnormal focus on a particular subject / activity
- Talking too little
- Repetitive pattern of speech
Theory of Mind
Theory of mind (ToM) is similar to empathy and encompasses the abilities to recognize and understand the thoughts, intentions, beliefs and desires of others (Dillon, 2007). People with ASD often have impaired ToM which impacts daily life in several critical areas such as the ability to glean information from body language, facial expression or tone of voice. It also causes the individual to be remarkably honest and direct often unwittingly offending, embarrassing or hurting others’ (Attwood, 2007). This challenge also makes it difficult to acknowledge and accept points of view that differ from their own and they may appear belligerent when faced with differing opinions (Dillon, 2007). These challenges can make it very difficult for the individual to analyze characters in novels, discuss feelings and emotions or engage in imagination based activities.
Executive functioning (EF) skill deficits impact the individual in the areas of organization, planning, controlling impulses, understanding abstract concepts, retaining information in working memory, managing time and prioritizing (Attwood, 2007). For example, a student with challenges in this area may not turn homework in or will turn it in half done. They are often forgetful and tend to lose things.
Central coherence can be descried as the ability to understand context and “see the big picture”. The ability to determine what is important and relevant and what can be discarded is a crucial component to success in college. Unfortunately, people with ASD often have weak central coherence; “they often do not have a broad cognitive perspective in the classroom and focus solely on the details that they miss the big picture” (Attwood, 2007, p. 241).
Co-Morbidity and Tics
People with ASD often display characteristics of other disorders which may or may not be diagnosed. According to Siminoff, Pickles, Charman, Chandler, Loucas and Baird (2008), 70 percent of adults with autism have at least one additional disorder such as social anxiety and attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder and oppositional disorder. Obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, insomnia and depression are also commonly found in people with autism (Attwood, 2007).
Additionally, people with ASD may have tics such as facial grimacing, nose twitching and throat clearing. While these tics generally appear in individuals who are on the more severe end of the spectrum, they can also appear in higher functioning individuals. Any signs of tics or co-morbid symptoms may be clues that a student also has ASD.
How can I provide support to students with ASD?
Although individuals with ASD are diverse and require personalized support, they tend to think literally and require very specific instructions. A student with autism needs more specificity than for the professor to say, “Turn your papers in by the due date.” They may not respond to a directive that they perceive to be somewhat vague and will not turn their work in. A more effective directive would be, “When you are dismissed from class, place your research papers on this desk on your way out of the room”. “Be sure to upload your papers to the dropbox on Blackboard by Wed, July 3rd”. Below is a list of tips as suggested by Atwood (2007):
- Make directions clear and provide step by step instructions in written format
- Ask student to repeat instructions to verify comprehension
- Ask for another student to volunteer to be a ‘mentor’ (assisting with organization, turning in assignments, navigating social situations)
- Allow for student to have short breaks if necessary – pacing is sometimes calming for people with ASD
- Allow delivery of assignments in different formats such as electronically
- Extend deadlines to allow for challenges in organization, time management, and processing
- Provide students with the option to work in a group or independently if they feel uncomfortable in a group work setting
- Provide visual supports to promote understanding
The Office of Disability Support Services on your campus can provide further support and information for meeting student needs. While individual offices vary, typically offer an overview of laws covering students with disabilities in postsecondary settings; information regarding the different disabilities students in your course may have and how to support them. Be sure to check the HEATH Resource Center’s module on Accommodations for more information (http://heath.gwu.edu/accommodations).
REVIEW OF TOPICS:
This module described how to recognize students with ASD in your college course and the supports you can put into place that will help them be successful. It provided a brief background on ASD, a summary of legislation that pertains to students with ASD in a postsecondary setting followed by fairly comprehensive description of characteristics of students with autism. Although postsecondary education can be challenging for students with ASD, with the proper supports, they can be successful and enrich your course with their unique and insightful perspectives.
- How would you recognize a student with ASD in your course?
- What laws cover students with ASD in post-secondary settings and how do they impact you as the instructor?
- What kinds of supports would be beneficial for students with ASD?
- In reviewing the list of resources provided, are there any organizations that could provide additional support to your campus?
Laura Harris Delrieu is a doctoral student in the Applied Neuroscience in Special Education program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Ms. Harris Delrieu focuses her doctoral research on students with ASD and their successful transition to postsecondary settings and employment. She is completing an internship with the HEATH Resource Center in Washington, D.C. In addition to pursuing her doctorate, Ms. Harris Delrieu serves as a special education teacher for the Loudoun County Public School System working primarily with students with ASD. She holds an M.A. in Special Education from the University of New England and a B.A. from the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to asperger syndrome. Philadelphia, Pa: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Dillon, M. R. (2007). Creating Supports for College Students with Asperger Syndrome through Collaboration. College Student Journal, 41(2), 499-504.
Gobbo, K., & Shmulsky, S. (2012). Classroom Needs of Community College Students with Asperger's Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 36(1), 40-46.
Graetz, J. E., & Spampinato, K. (2008). Asperger's Syndrome and the Voyage through High School: Not the Final Frontier. Journal of College Admission, (198), 19-24.
Hewitt L. Perspectives on Support Needs of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Transition to College. Topics In Language Disorders [serial online]. July 1, 2011;31(3):273-285. Available from: ERIC, Ipswich, MA.
Higher Education Opportunity Act 2008. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/leg/hea08/index.html
Morrison, J. Q., Sansosti, F. J., & Hadley, W. M. (2009). Parent Perceptions of the Anticipated Needs and Expectations for Support for Their College-Bound Students with Asperger's Syndrome. Journal of Post-secondary Education and Disability, 22(2), 78-87.
Nevill, R. A., & White, S. W. (2011). College Students' Openness toward Autism Spectrum Disorders: Improving Peer Acceptance. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(12), 1619-1628.
Siminoff, E., Pickles, A., Charman, T., Chandler, S., Loucas , T., & Baird, G. (2008). Psychiatric disorders in children with autism. Journal of the Academy of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(8),
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (PL 93-112, September 26, 1973)
Think college: Higher education opportunity act 2008. (2013). Retrieved June 8, 2013 from http://www.thinkcollege.net/topics/opportunity-act
US Autism and Asperger Association. (2013). About us college autism project (uscap). Retrieved from http://www.usautism.org/uscap/index.htm
VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting More Able Students on the Autism Spectrum: College and Beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1359-1370.
VanBergeijk, E. O. (2011). Changes in Federal Policy: Help Students with Intellectual Disabilities Gain Access to College. Exceptional Parent, 41(12), 38-39.
Wenzel, C., & Rowley, L. (2010). Teaching Social Skills and Academic Strategies to College Students with Asperger's Syndrome. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 42(5), 44-50.
White, S. W., Ollendick, T. H., & Bray, B. C. (2011). College Students on the Autism Spectrum: Prevalence and Associated Problems. Autism: The International Journal Of Research And Practice, 15(6), 683-701.