Colleges and Universities have experienced a noticeable increase of students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who are pursuing a postsecondary degree. This may be a victory for the population with ASD in terms of their general acceptance into institutions of higher education, but it also poses some real challenges for the faculty working with them in the classroom. Although this population displays high academic skills—particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics—they are challenged with social and emotional skills. Such challenges can have an impact in the classroom. In 2015 an article titled, A Comprehensive Survey of Current and Former College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine reported that this population had one of the worse transition rates among those with disabilities, specifically in terms of attending postsecondary education. Many schools since then have recognized the need for providing services to help support these students. Within the range of support, there are some simple adjustments faculty can make to enhance the acceptance and success of students with ASD, and will also be of benefit to all students without sacrificing content learning.
In the 2016 article, Student Life on the Autism Spectrum, Helping to Build a More Inclusive Campus, published in Change magazine, Lee Burdett Williams speaks about some of the challenges these students experience outside the classroom and the need for realistic expectations, especially when dealing with interpersonal behavior. This is of particular concern, as Williams suggests, in the area of respecting personal boundaries, because many students on the autism spectrum have difficulty detecting and interpreting social cues. To address this issue, many campuses have instituted new support networks designed, not only to help students with ASD integrate into college life, but also intervene on their behalf if problems occur. Enhanced peer mentorship and self-advocacy programs, like the one at Drexel University and the Autism Initiative Program at Mercyhurst University are a representation of the kind of campus resources now being offered. The residential life and counseling departments are also beginning to find unique ways to help create inclusive living spaces.
In contrast to what schools provide outside the classroom, faculty are often given little support or training to address the unique needs of these students in the classroom. Many teaching faculty may turn to the guidelines set forth by the National Center for Universal Design for Learning in order to create an inclusive classroom. By including the provisions for applying varied materials, actions and modes of expression for differing learners, this directive focuses merely on providing access to materials and can fall short in offering these students the opportunity to expand their skills in a structured learning environment.
Classroom faculty have undergone numerous shifts in pedagogy since the Obama administration strengthened the federal focus on making postsecondary education more accessible through the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011. The success of this effort can be seen by the increased number of college students who have diagnosed learning disabilities. Among them are those students with ASD. This not only poses a challenge for higher education institutions (HEIs), but it also provides an opportunity for postsecondary educators to make pedagogical shifts that meet the needs of these students in the classroom and that will benefit all students.
As other institutions have felt the impact of these diverse learners, Landmark College, exclusively serving students who learn differently since 1985, has also been exposed to an increased number of students on the Autism spectrum. In general, faculty that teach at Landmark have a depth of experience and expertise in teaching a variety of learners who find it difficult to learn in traditional classroom environments using more traditional modes of teaching. They are also able to perceive when students may be struggling and intervene in a variety of ways. I feel that it is important to share the knowledge we have gained so faculty at other institutions may help these students be successful and thrive in a college educational environment.
Students who are diagnosed with ASD can display different behaviors and challenges than students diagnosed with other disabilities. Although there are common traits related to language and social skills, there is also a range within these characteristics that are useful to recognize. Some have more sensitivity to being in a classroom environment than others. Some manage their ability to tolerate tasks that seem unclear or too challenging, while others are more reactionary. Some have an array of strategies to use when working in small groups, whereas others rigidly refuse to work with other students. And some have developed sophisticated methods for understanding abstractions, while others have none. Understanding those variables, helps us to see the student as an individual, rather than generalizing them by the diagnosis.
Creating reasonable accommodations in the classroom is challenging, especially for faculty who have little experience working with students with ASD. As faculty, we are groomed to expect certain behaviors from students in our classes, and those who deviate from the expected norm can be baffling. Adjusting to such changes can also be overwhelming if we teach large, mostly lecture style classes and are not accustomed to knowing students on a personal level. Although breaking away from standard class structures can seem daunting at first, there are changes that all students can benefit from.
When working with students on the spectrum, it is beneficial to understand when class expectations may or may not be helpful to impose on students because of the underlying traits of the disability. For instance, it is not always reasonable to assume that these students cannot meet the typical expectations of the college classroom, but it is also wrong to penalize them disproportionately for their lack of in skills inherently affected by their disability. Getting to know the students on an individual level helps faculty to respond to their areas of challenge more appropriately.
While it is useful to know students’ triggers and avoid circumstances that may increase their anxiety or frustration, it is not always necessary to circumvent exposing them to situations that are difficult and may lead to frustration. Most classroom environments can make simple adjustments to lessen the anxiety for students on the spectrum, as well as all other students. Here are some beneficial actions for instructors that can be managed easily:
- Write a class agenda on the board at the beginning of every class. Direct the student to read the agenda prior to the beginning of class and if they notice any activity or assignment that they think will be challenging, they can alert the teacher at that time.
- Begin the semester with a structured sharing activity that focuses on a concept being covered in class, but requires only background knowledge to answer. Impose such rules as everyone’s voice will be heard in turn, and one person speaks at a time. Responses are not allowed until everyone shares their ideas, and they should be informative as well as respectful. This is done well in groups around a circle where everyone can see who is speaking. Continue the practice throughout the semester.
- Introduce group assignments by starting with pairs and having a clear outcome for each pair. Once the students have demonstrated success in pairs, they can move to small groups. Each person should establish their role (at first using their strengths and then venturing into their challenge areas). For students who are not sure what role to assume listing the roles on the board could help. The outcome will be more successful if each person knows what their responsibility is to the group. Have students discuss how successfully the group worked together and what they can do to improve next time.
- Have students work in different groups so that they get to know one another better. Create groups randomly, so there is no favoritism. Encourage the groups to move around to different locations in the classroom, which will encourage flexibility. Students are also more likely to work productively together outside class after they have increased their comfort level with one another. They will become aware of how to work successfully with others.
- Balance instruction with an equal amount of time working together as well as working alone so that students are not always feeling stressed in class. It is also helpful to establish a routine that is predictable. A repeated cycle of lecture, followed by individual work, ending with working in groups, is a good example. This also will help students learn new information, analyze and apply what they are learning, and then synthesize and create from that knowledge.
- Help students transform abstract ideas into concrete examples. Being flexible about how students on the spectrum address abstractions demonstrates an understanding of the challenges they face. Ask students to examine facts presented in a source in order to be able to make a logical prediction. If the student cannot assume another’s point of view, help him or her to generate three different ways that they could react to given the facts that were collected.
- Publicly discuss assignments with students asking them to explain how they will complete the work. Preview challenging multistep assignments and break the work down to relieve stress and remind the student that you are available for further assistance if needed.
- Lead by example. If you want other students to respect those with ASD, then recognize their strengths during class when appropriate and deserving.
- Let students know that if they are experiencing a high level of anxiety during class they may leave class quietly to calm down before reentering. They may need to be invited back to class.
- Emphasize the value of the process as well as the outcome and connect the value of a working collaborative to the workplace so that students understand the relevance of what you are asking them to do in the classroom.
These 10 suggestions are designed to not only recognize the challenges of students with ASD, but also to help them to strengthen their social and emotional skills while working directly with the academic content. These are just two of four domains of learning that were explored in an earlier article titled, Holistic Support that Promotes Student Learning that I wrote with colleague Sophie Lampard Dennis. The other two domains are identified as motivation and self-regulation. I have observed that when I make the adjustments above that motivation increases because my class becomes predictable and my expectations are clear. I also see students improve skills of organizing and time management of their time and materials as they observe others in the process. As the students get to know each other they are also less likely to become isolated and more likely to ask for help when they need it. Students who already have these skills remain engaged if the work is at a high level and they become valuable assets to those students who are still learning these skills.
Hidden beneath a seemingly inflexible nature lies a resiliency that is far more important to recognize. Students with ASD exhibit a determination that students without the disability rarely need to persevere in a college environment; the very environment that at times can be more confining to them than the disability itself. I believe everyone benefits by creating compassionate learning environments where both teachers and students are fully invested in the process.
Dorothy A. Osterholt is an associate professor of education at Landmark College.