Fifty-six per cent of Australians have a post-secondary qualification (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). However, people with high-functioning autism are less likely to achieve a post-school qualification, with many having poor outcomes. A UK study found there are fewer people with high-functioning autism who have a post-secondary qualification than expected. According to USA research, less than 40 per cent of autistic people attend post-secondary education and very few receive a degree.The failure to succeed in post-secondary education results in negative financial and personal costs for autistic people and their families. Education is an important component of obtaining future employment and is therefore a key to reducing the associated costs to communities, families and individuals.
One per cent of students may be autistic
In the coming years, tertiary institutions may expect to enrol more autistic students. Preliminary estimates indicate the prevalence of autism in university students may be as high as the current rate of autism in the general population (approximately one per cent). Meeting the needs of this growing student body will be extremely challenging if tertiary institutions do not understand the support needs of these students.
Providing appropriate support
Provision by staff of appropriate support for autistic students is invaluable to the future of these students. As a staff member who is currently working, or who may soon work with autistic students, it is important for you to build your knowledge about autism, understand how autism impacts upon your students, and identify strategies for working with these students. Also where necessary, to make reasonable adjustments to support them.
Providing for autistic students is, fundamentally, an issue of equity. Autism is a chronic, life-long condition, and like other students with temporary or chronic conditions (e.g. visual impairment), autistic students may require one or more of a range of supports to assist them to reach their potential within the post-secondary education setting. Many of the strategies that you will encounter here will also be valuable for other students in your classes, including students with ADHD, specific learning difficulties, or mental health issues.
Transition to tertiary education
Autistic students who are diagnosed before starting tertiary education have typically had a lot of support from family and teachers in high school. These students will be accustomed to a high level of support and may experience difficulties without similar support in the tertiary education environment. Other students may enter tertiary education without a formal diagnosis, and life may become difficult in the less structured tertiary setting, leading to an eventual diagnosis.
When students transition into university, where there are not as many support structures, the transition period can be extremely challenging.
University is an adult learning environment, although student ages can range from fifteen to eighty. Students are expected to be independent learners and complete a lot more work, often in shorter time periods, than at secondary school. There are different methods of delivering course content, including classrooms, lectures, online, flexible delivery, off-campus, and hands-on training.
Studying at university can be particularly challenging for autistic students due to the characteristics of these environments, which are quite different from secondary schools, i.e.:
attendance at lectures is not compulsory
self-directed studying is expected
lectures often have hundreds of students
different teaching methods are used
no hand-holding for students is provided
there are no 9 am to 3 pm daily routines
there is less interaction with teaching staff
there are few practice-runs
there is an expectation of independent learning.
Rather than make assumptions about the impact of students' diagnoses on their learning, educators and disability support liaison officers need to ask autistic students what assistance or accommodations they need.
A good place to begin is to collect up-to-date information on the individual as a whole. Getting to know the autistic individual who is beginning the post-secondary transition process is the foundation for developing a successful transition plan. This includes understanding their background, the skills they already have and the skills they need to acquire.
Tailoring the transition support
Students at the same institution and with similar diagnoses may have very different needs, depending on the following factors:
1. type or extent of impairment
2. previous education experience
3. skills and strategies that they have learned
4. course nature and requirements
5. teaching format and learning environment
6. level and field of study.
More importantly, as with any disability, it is the implications of the condition, and the social context of the disability, that are important, rather than the ‘diagnosis’ in itself.
The essential components of effective transition planning include:
student involvement in their own transition planning
parent and family involvement in transition planning
a good fit between the student, the choice of university and the course
a meaningful curriculum
student-orientated and outcome-based goals.
While there is a set of core difficulties that lead to a diagnosis of autism, all autistic people are individuals and there is inherent variability in their personalities, behaviour and needs.
The label ‘autism’ may imply a uniformity which belies the variations in the individual manifestations of the condition, and the huge differences in strategies best able to deal with it.
We should not assume that there is a single approach to assisting all autistic students.
Individual differences and providing tailored support
The apparent heterogeneity is due to a number of factors such as:
variability in the severity of the core symptoms
individual differences in intellectual ability (some students may be gifted)
diagnosis at different stages of development (some in preschool or school or even in the tertiary setting)
different interventions and supports prior to entering or university
varied levels and types of support from family (the majority are likely to still be living at home)
co-morbid psychological disorders (many have anxiety or depression)
differing biological bases for the presenting condition.
Staff should be aware of the diversity in presentation of autism among affected students. The support needs of these students are thus often complex and highly idiosyncratic and may be at odds with the student’s apparent capability.
Therefore, a tailored approach that specifically targets the particular issues faced by each autistic student is necessary.
Strategies for staff
This section contains a collection of issues that staff may encounter in supporting autistic students, and some strategies to assist.
Initiating and maintaining regular contact with an autistic student can be extremely helpful. Sometimes a student will approach only a familiar member of staff, rather than the relevant teaching staff for a particular subject or course.
If you are a teacher and you find there is an autistic student in your class, it is advisable to arrange a meeting with the student. This will allow you to get to know the student and vice versa, and help you to understand the student's needs and arrange potential support strategies.
Be explicit in communication
Autistic individuals have the tendency to interpret literally what other people say. Hence it will be very helpful to autistic students if all communication (both oral and written) is clear and concise, using unambiguous language.
Care should be taken in the use of figurative language which might be taken literally, such as irony, metaphor or hyperbole. This will not only improve communications with your autistic students, but also international students, students with specific learning difficulties, and students with mental health problems.
Make sure instructions do not use unnecessarily obscure language and explicitly tell students to come back to you if they have any concerns or questions.
Assignment specifications, exam questions, and instructions should also be clear and unambiguous, with the opportunity to clarify with you or an invigilator explicitly stated at the outset.
No surprises and planning ahead
Many autistic individuals prefer to follow routines and do not like surprises. A sudden unexpected change in a schedule may cause anxiety. It will be beneficial for students when you can plan ahead and give warnings to students ahead of time when plans change. These strategies will benefit other students as well.
Examples might be:
providing the class with course information prior to the first day of class; providing online lecture/class material a few days prior to class
a clear statement of assessment procedures at the beginning of the course or unit
notifying students well ahead of time of any room/time changes.
An autistic student in your class may display unusual behaviour, such as making disruptive noises or asking an unreasonable number of questions. If the student’s behaviour affects other students and disturbs the class, you may want to speak to someone from the disability/accessibility support service in your institution and they may be able to work on the issue with the student and yourself.
Monitoring the class attendance of any known autistic student may permit effective corrective action in a timely manner. There may be various reasons for absenteeism. Some may be very easily resolved, e.g., student not being able to find the classroom, or student unaware of attendance requirements. Others may be more difficult to deal with, for instance an autistic student experiencing high anxiety, or being unable to cope due to feelings of being overwhelmed, etc. In these circumstances, it is best to contact someone from the disability/accessibility support service who may help determine the cause of the absenteeism, directly support the student and make specific remedial suggestions to you.
Assessments and coursework
Many autistic students find it difficult to hand in coursework on time and this may have negative consequences if it is not recognised early enough.
There may be numerous factors which cause late submission of coursework. These may include the fact that the student:
is unsure how to start the work and does not understand the questions
is overwhelmed by the work and hence does not attempt to start the work
cannot get the coursework to the quality that meets their expectation
has completed the assessment work-however the assessment instructions did not explicitly state to hand in the work, where to submit etc.; hence the student does not hand it in on time
There are a few things that can be done to address these issues:
Make sure coursework instructions are clear and unambiguous.
Ensure all assessment requirements are listed at the commencement of study.
Ensure that the autistic student is fully briefed.
Act as soon as deadlines are missed; this could involve speaking to the student or contacting the student's disability/accessibility support liaison officer.
Find out why the student is missing deadlines.
While some of these issues are easy to tackle, the disability/accessibility support liaison officer may be able to help with the more difficult ones.
Enabling students with disabilities to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities in an exam environment can be a complex issue.
Some autistic students find exams extremely challenging. Again, similar to the late submission of coursework, there may be numerous factors which make exams unfairly demanding for autistic students, including:
misunderstandings and problems interpreting the exam questions
distractions during examination, e.g., surrounding noises
fears and anxieties making examinations unreasonably stressful.
In many circumstances, reasonable adjustments can be made to the exam environment and content. Please read about reasonable adjustment (below) to see examples of possible adjustments that have been suggested or put into practice.
Many autistic students find group work extremely challenging due to their difficulties in communication and social skills.
Students may experience real anxiety about having to work within a group, particularly when working with previously unknown students.
If it is possible, it will be helpful to assign one or two familiar faces to the autistic student's group. If this is not possible, it may be useful to consider assigning specific roles or tasks to group members so that the autistic student knows exactly what is expected of them.
Make sure tutors are aware of which students in the class are autistic (if allowed under your disability agreement with the student).
It may be a good idea to personally introduce the relevant staff member to the student and encourage them to become familiar with the student.
If you have not already done so, it will be worthwhile identifying the point-of-contact at your tertiary institute who is responsible for providing assistance for autistic students. This person could be a disability support liaison officer or someone from the student support services.
Disability Discrimination Act 1992
The Disability Standards for Education (2005) were formulated under the Disability Discrimination Act (1992).
The Standard states the obligations of education and training providers to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access and participate in education and training on the same basis as those without disability.
The Standards provide for reasonable adjustments and alternative assessment arrangements to allow students with disabilities equal access to academic courses and activities.
Providing reasonable adjustments
A reasonable adjustment is a measure or action which enables a student with a disability to participate in education and training on the same basis as other students.
An alternative assessment is an adjustment or alteration to the standard format of an assessment.
Examples of reasonable adjustments and alternative assessments provided to students by Victorian higher education institutions are listed in the table below.
If you have not already done so, please check with the disability support service at your institution for the types of adjustments that may be provided to students with disabilities, as this may differ between institutions.
While some autistic students may independently initiate discussions with academic staff, the disability support liaison officers may attend the meeting with academic staff to facilitate discussion of appropriate adjustments for the particular student. In some cases disability support may send you a letter stating what reasonable adjustments the student requires.
Examples of reasonable adjustments and alternative assessments
Many lectures in tertiary settings are now automatically recorded and placed online. It may be helpful to make sure that autistic students are aware of this and are able to access this information independently. A Faculty Fact Sheet is available on Rochester Institute of Technology’s Spectrum Program website.