Welcoming ASD Students

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 student Kathryn Stybr. It is presented here for use by student groups as they work to reach and include a broad range of students on our diverse campus.

What is Autism?

Autism, also called Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a range of deficits in social communication and interaction and the presence of restricted, repetitive behaviors. Research about the causes of autism is ongoing, but it is important to understand that autism is not anyone's "fault" and it cannot be "caught" from an autistic individual.  Currently there is about 1 autistic person for every 59 people in the United States, and about 16,000 people with autism go to college each year.

Autism is a "spectrum" disorder meaning that people's disability can range from severe to "high functioning." The disorder can be associated with certain noticeable disabilities such as challenges with expressive communication, a tendency to be very literal in their speech and understanding, an inability to establish or maintain eye contact, and problems initiating social communication. As a consequence, many students with ASD find it challenging to establish and maintain friendships in college, and that's where student groups can really help.

Accounting for Your Autistic Peers

As you plan events, especially those events designed to attract or serve student participants, keep in mind that your peers with ASD face certain challenges that other students may not.  For example, students with ASD may have significant sensitivity to sensory input, so loud music and bright lights and colors may make them move away from you rather than coming up to see what's going on.  As you set up for your events, consider having certain times of day or dedicated areas where the sensory input is limited: the music is quieter, there are no flashing lights, and you limit things like strong smells so your peers with ASD feel more welcome. 

Once you attract a participant with ASD, keep in mind that they may interact with you in ways that feel different from other friends.  Autistic people are individuals, of course, so while there are no hard-and-fast rules about how any one autistic person might behave, you may notice some or all of the following:

  • They may find it upsetting when plans or routines change.
  • They may have trouble establishing and maintaining eye contact.
  • They may not understand there can be more than one way to solve a problem.
  • They may talk a lot and in great detail about things that interest them.

At the same time, peers with ASD can be outstanding participants if they are given time to acclimate to your group, and what first might feel like a problem can turn out to be a strength. For example, many people with ASD are very comfortable with detail and have excellent memories. They also bring a diversity of experience and viewpoint to your group that you might not be able to get anywhere else. So how can you go about attracting and serving ASD students?  You can start by:

  • Providing written information about your group
  • When speaking, make sure to be literal and concrete and use the person's name when addressing them
  • Allow time for the person you are talking with to process the information you are giving them. Don't rush them!
  • Don't assume prior knowledge or experience. Students with ASD may come to college from a socially isolated past.
  • If it comes up, you may find the person prefers to be called "an autistic person" rather than the "person first" language you may have learned about in other diversity training.  Respect the individual's right to self-define in any way they see fit.