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Accommodating for ASD

The information on this page was created in partnership with the Communications Sciences and Disorders department under the direction of Dr. Trisha Self, CCC-SLP, and Master's students Marlee Rath and Shayla DeGarmo, as well as the Disability Services Office.

ASD Expressed as Different Ways of Thinking

Theory of Mind, the ability for a person to understand the internal desires, intentions, and beliefs of others, typically develops early in children, who tend to develop the skill by 5 years of age. However, theory of mind is impaired in some people with ASD. As a consequence, instructors may experience students with ASD as having difficulty recognizing that other people can have different solutions to the same problem, and that there can be more than one "right way" to solve a problem. You can help your students with delayed theory of mind by:

  • Being direct and literal, saying exactly what you want
  • Providing enough detail
  • Avoiding idioms, clichés, and euphemisms

Theory of Central Coherence is the ability to recognize the "big picture" and understand ideas at the conceptual level. This is a skill that is still developing in many typical college students, but you may find the challenges to be exacerbated in students with ASD. You may find that ASD students attend too much to minor details and are challenged by sorting relevant information from irrelevant. This problem stems from the ASD student assigning equal value to all the information you present and they have stored. You can assist your students who are still developing central coherence by:

  • Providing study sheets for tests
  • Encouraging students to indicate in their notes when you talk about something that is especially critical to understand or remember
  • Begin each class period with a "preview" of what will be discussed that day and how it fits into the whole course

Theory of Executive Functioning — the ability to shift focus, plan and organize, and to pay attention — is also developing in many typical college students, but again, you may find that your students with ASD face special challenges with these skills. As a consequence, ASD students may be challenged when they need to remember/retrieve information they learned in the past, apply information they have learned to problem solving, and integrating information. You can help your students with executive function delays by:

  • Providing a streamlined, easy-to-read syllabus
  • Providing students a clear outline of the course and how the assignments relate to your goals
  • Provide guidance in both verbal and written forms throughout the term
  • Highlight important dates and information by underlining them and/or using bold font

Problem-Solving Ideas

Students with ASD are a diverse group, and no one student will exhibit all the strengths and weaknesses associated with being autistic. If you have students with ASD in your classes, you will need to be prepared to be flexible in response to any challenges you might experience as you work to help your students succeed. This is important work. At this time, nationally only about 39% of students with ASD graduate from their higher education program. Your efforts may have the direct effect of keeping your students in college. If you have questions about how to reach your students, remember that the Office of Disability Services is here to help you, and you may also find the following ideas useful to try in your classes:

Challenges with Expressing/Understanding Emotion

Situation: Your student is asked to express how they are feeling or they need to understand the feelings of others.

How to Help:  

  • Use visual supports for emotional concepts.
  • Ask simple, direct questions and use clear, concrete descriptions and examples
  • Show how this is relevant information to know/consider

Challenges with Repetitive and/or Reactive Behaviors in Class

Situation: Your student is engaging in repetitive behaviors like pacing or rocking, or they leave abruptly, and/or appear upset, angry, or frustrated.

How to Help:

  • Try not to stare or catch your student's eye.
  • Remember, your student is an adult, not a child. Address them like an adult.
  • Remember, this behavior may be triggered by anxiety or a feeling of being overwhelmed. Reduce or eliminate things that may be triggering. For example, if the classroom is loud with student voices, ask people to speak more softly.
  • Recognize that your student understands that the situation is not ideal. 

Upset in Classroom Routine

Situation: Your student is upset and disruptive when the classroom routine or schedule is changed.

How to Help:

  • If you know in advance that your routine or schedule will be changed, contact your student in advance with clear information about what will change.
  • Recognize that common stress responses in students with ASD include repetitive or reactive behaviors. If a change in routine cannot be avoided, prepare to respond to these sorts of behaviors appropriately.

Building Relationships with ASD Students

If you have a student with ASD in your class or program, take the time to introduce yourself and get to know them. Research with these students shows they can be more prone to loneliness than other students, and this loneliness can lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Connections with their professors are also important because ASD is a spectrum, and what might work well to reach one student might not be what is needed with the next.

You may find that your ASD student rejects your attempt to use "person first" language to describe them. Rather than "a person (or student) with autism" they may well see themselves as an autistic person as their identity, much in the same way that some people who are deaf or hard of hearing prefer to be called a Deaf person. If your student prefers to be called an autistic person, respect that they have the right to self-define, and do not attempt to change their point of view on the topic. It is each person's right to self-define.