UNIVERSITY ACADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL STAFF

Are you a staff member at a tertiary institution? Find out more about how to support autistic students below.  

For some base knowledge, you may want to watch the following video from the Organization for Autism Research Understanding Asperger's Syndrome: A Professor’s Guide.

The following web pages for supporting autistic tertiary students were developed as part of the project “Supporting transition to and participation in tertiary education for students with an ASD” funded by the Department of Human Services (DHS, Victoria). Please note, while this information is designed to support autistic students, a lot of the information and resources also apply to students with other neurodiverse variations.

If you are viewing this resource on your computer or tablet, you can use the side bar to navigate to the sections you are interested in.  Each section is organised into four parts: learning objectives, key points, discussion, and a short summary.  The learning objectives are stated so you understand what you should be learning as you go through the materials.  The “key points” summarise the most important information in each section and provide an overview of what is to come.  The content comes next and covers the key points in depth.  There is a short summary at the end to reinforce what you should have learned.  At the end of  the staff section there is an additional resources and references page.  To link directly to the additional resources and references, click here.

 
 
 

 
 

AUTISM DIAGNOSIS

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

This section explains what autism is and what difficulties autistic people may experience.  As you read this section, keep in mind the following learning objectives:

  • What autism is

  • The characteristics of autism, including potential strengths and challenges of autistic people

Below are the key points of this section.  You should read the key points before reading the rest of the section. 


KEY POINTS

 
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that can affect behaviours, interests, interactions with others, as well as social and communication skills.

About one in one hundred people are autistic, with a higher prevalence in males.

It is important to understand that not all autistic people have the same strengths. There are certain traits and characteristics autistic people may display. Strengths can include: attention to detail, good rote memory, straightforward and honest communication, and adherence to rules and routines when appropriate structure is in place.

Autistic people may experience challenges with social, communication, behavioural, emotional, cognitive, sensory, and motor skills.


DISCUSSION

What is autism?

Autism is a pervasive neuro-developmental disorder which affects social skills and communication, and impacts  behaviours and interests. Different autism diagnoses include autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS).

Prevalence estimates vary widely as autism has become more recognised; it is more prevalent in males, with about four males for every female with a diagnosis. Current research indicates that approximately one in 100 people are autistic.

High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s 

While a majority of autistic people also have an intellectual disability, about 40 to 45 per cent do not. Autistic people without an intellectual disability are referred to as high-functioning. Most higher education students with high-functioning autism are likely to have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (many people refer to themselves as having Asperger's Syndrome) which is generally associated with intellectual and language skills in the normal range.

While people with high-functioning autism have good cognitive and language skills, their difficulties with social skills, communication and behaviours(such as the need to adhere to specific routines, or having strong interests), and other secondary characteristics often associated with autism (e.g. high anxiety, poor organisation) can affect their ability to cope and learn at university.

Characteristics of autism

Although every autistic individual is different, there are certain traits and characteristics associated with these conditions.

Strengths

Autistic people may have many strengths, which include:

  • Sustained and heightened attention to detail on topics of interest

  • Good rote memory

  • Forthrightness in communications

  • Adherence to routines and rules when appropriate structure is in place.

Challenges

Autistic people may also experience challenges due to the core characteristics of autism and the secondary problems that are common in these conditions.

The three core characteristics of autism are related to the social, communication, and behavioural areas.

The secondary problem areas include emotional, cognitive, sensory and motor difficulties.

Some other groups that may also have these problems are students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), students with specific learning difficulties and students with mental health problems.

Challenges faced by autistic individuals

Social

Many of the social difficulties that autistic people have are related to their communication difficulties. Autistic people have a tendency to interpret literally what another person says, affecting the way students interpret instructions given out by staff. This may lead to misunderstandings which have a negative impact on the student-staff relationships, peer relationships and student learning outcomes.

Here are some examples of situations which staff have encountered when teaching tertiary autistic students.

Staff:The student was always anxious, always very literal. I asked him to dictate the work to me and he was horrified and said 'I would never presume to dictate to you'.

Staff:One time we were teaching how to plant seedlings. I told the student what to do but I hadn’t told him then to move on, so all he was doing was planting it, pulling it out, making a hole, planting again.

Staff:What is probably now a celebrated case of a student having completed assignment work but not handing it in and failing the course merely because the question was 'Have you done your assignment?' not 'Can you hand your assignment to me?’

Communication

Autistic students may experience communication difficulties such as:

  • not wanting to communicate concerns to staff

  • being unable to demonstrate knowledge in the particular form of assessment required by teaching staff

  • preferring not to participate in group discussions and not to undertake group assignments due to communication challenges and high levels of anxiety.

Here are some situations that parents and tertiary students have faced.

Parent:Last year, he was doing an assignment and I said 'How's it going?'  He said 'Oh, I've done question one, two and six'. I said 'Can you ask about this' and he said 'Oh well, you actually do it in a group but I'm doing it all on my own'. I said 'Well, no wonder you're finding it hard'. I said 'Have you explained to the lecturer that you find it hard to get into group?' He said 'No, I didn't think I needed to say that.’

Parent:My daughter often come [sic] to me recently and said that in particular with group activities or work requirements that have to be done, she gets extremely angry and upset and stressed when other students don’t contact her with work that has to be done, promptly.

Student:I don’t ask for help because it's embarrassing and I don’t want look like an idiot in front of everyone.

Student 1:I mean, I can write but when it comes to putting a sentence down, I find it difficult to be able to put words onto paper and an answer that they would probably find acceptable.

Student 2:I have a similar problem, I can’t articulate my thoughts very well. I mean I can’t write them down, I can speak it and talk about it in very very knowledgeable [way]. I just can’t write about it.” 

Student:I've been known to send several emails to the same person or group of people in the one day. Even [when] someone in the group was sick initially I kept them in contact because I thought it was polite to keep them in the loop. I soon realised that the other members said 'best to keep us in the loop and just send the minutes to the sick student at this stage'.”

Behaviorial

Many autistic students have trouble being organised.

Student:I am really disorganised. I try to be organised but it’s this uphill impossible struggle. It’s a wharf [sic] of chaos. Everything is just so random, chaotic, and I’ll try to be organised but it’s not going to end up being organised. I’ll just try to make it not as disorganised. Trying to minimise the damage.

One of the key academic problems resulting from poor organisation is that students are unable to hand in assignments and undertake assessments on time.

Student:From a one to a ten scale for being organised, I am probably a two. I can get to class on time. But handing assignments in, I'm not that good because while everyone else has finished, I'm still struggling to even start sometimes.

Student:I'd say about six out of ten times I am able to hand in assessments on time...it's normally I don't really plan it out ahead of time.

Some students also find it hard to judge time.

Student:For me organising myself is difficult because I don’t know how long it takes to do things. So I think it’ll take a day but ends up taking four days. And then that displaces your whole plan.

Student:No, I can't even judge time. Like ten, twenty minutes ahead of time. No. It is not possible for me.

Emotional

Autistic students can have elevated levels of anxiety and are prone to becoming clinically depressed. One parent commented that autistic students operate 'on a level of anxiety that is equivalent to Year 12 students, all the time'. The stress and anxiety may come from a range of factors and some are listed below.

Classes and workload

a) Academic issues such as not understanding the lesson and being overwhelmed by the workload.

Student: I got a form that lets me get extensions because sometimes I freak out a bit. People can’t really see it. I just keep it inside.

Communication

b) Not being able to communicate with the academic staff.

Student: I’ve had a screaming fit in the middle of the corridor at the admin building. My particular lecturer walked away from me when I asked for help and I said, don’t you walk away. And I really lost it.

Routine and structure

c) Change in routine and transition into tertiary education; staff support can be a great help.

Staff member: When there was a stand-in teacher for two weeks only, I actually requested that that teacher come and meet the whole class, but I wouldn't normally do that. I made it as though it was something that happens that here's your teacher who you're going to have in two weeks' time. But I did that primarily because of that student that's on the spectrum to ease the anxiety and to also keep in mind that if a teacher was going to be away that I would consciously again have to have in the back of my mind, 'Well how's such and such going to cope with that?'.

Staff member: There does seem to be a common denominator that when they begin their first year, that is incredibly stressful and at the start of each year it is stressful, but that stress lessens over time. But certainly that first transitional period from wherever they've come from to university is quite extreme in some cases.

Co-morbid mental health conditions

d) Many autistic students have other co-morbid conditions including anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and clinical depression, which need to be considered in relation to accommodations made to support autistic students and interactions with them.

Parent 1: My daughter rebels or sometimes she would go into a deep dark depression and it’s quite common for Asperger’s to have depression with what they have as well. She’s on medication for that.

Parent 2: So is mine.

Student: Overwhelm is my middle name. When you have OCD on top of ASD it’s just a nightmare. Every surface in the world is a scary thing and every day a process is an obstacle course of stress. Yeah everything is overwhelming. Getting out of bed is overwhelming. Going downstairs to breakfast is overwhelming.

Cognitive

Autistic students tend to prefer structure and routine in their daily lives.  Students can experience difficulty focusing on many things at the same time, take longer to process information, and can be easily distracted.

Structure

This preference for structure includes the need for structure in academic settings, and the difficulty experienced when this structure is missing.

Student: I always assumed that uni would be just the same as school. When I got to uni, there was a lack of structure. It was okay for the first six months but on the second I was wasting my time away on computer games, not doing the work. I wasn’t getting the help I could have had. I think I just treated uni like school but less intense.

Student: I once failed an exam because there was a question on it which I thought ‘Well we didn’t learn that’. Do you know what I mean? And it was thrown in. Because it was out of the pattern and out of the structure of where I had to learn, it’s thrown me.

Structure aids coping

Structure enables students to cope with the demands of their courses. It assists them to comply with assessment requirements.

When some structure was in place, students were able to cope better.

Student: I was diagnosed very late in my life. In fact, I got through [institute’s] science, chemistry. Chemistry was very organised. It has exact outcomes, so that suited me and I was able to get through the material and finish the degree.

Student: When I did physiology at [institute] we had to prepare a big report on an experiment that we had done. Unlike all the other units we have done in science, this lecturer has said in the first week you need to do the introduction, next week you have to write up the method, the third week you do the results, and then the fourth week you prepare the discussion and then you have the whole report done. Interestingly for me I ended up getting the highest mark. And what it meant was for me that structure meant I can focus on one little bit and get that right.

Multi-tasking

Many autistic students have difficulty focusing on multiple things at one time. For example, some students find it difficult to listen to the teaching staff in lecture/class whilst writing down notes.

Student: That’s why I decided to get note takers. Problem is when I note take, I’m writing down what I heard last but not listening to what the teacher is saying now.

Student: My brain is unable to process multiple information at the same time. I can think about my own thoughts and what I need to say for the topic, but I can’t think about the person, what they are feeling, and what they need to hear.

Student: Problem is when I note take, I’m writing down what I heard last but not listening to what she’s saying now. Eventually, I decided to listen instead. Some of the stuff lecturers point out is not so important and if I dwell on those, it’s pretty bad. Last time, they’ll talk about what room I have to go [sic]. I’ll be thinking about that and they talk about what you have to do and I’ll still be thinking about the room. The note taker is quite good because they will write those points down as well.

Information processing

For some students, it takes time to process new information.

Student: So my classmates came up with a logo in ten minutes, whereas I'll take fifteen just trying to brainstorm up ideas and then another twenty or twenty-five trying to put it all together, whereas they've got it flat in twenty.

Student: In lectures, it's too much information, too fast. You can't even see the information in order to write it down. You can't write it down fast enough.

Distractions

Autistic people often have co-morbid attention difficulties. They are easily distracted and have difficulty shifting attention from one activity to another. 

Student: Probably in exams, I find from past experience, in high school, was that it was very difficult for me to concentrate. I tend to notice things like the ceiling, or the examiner walking about, and that gets me distracted. And I can’t concentrate on the actual questions. So the time extensions and the rest breaks really help.

Student: While we've got this aspect where we can focus and be very focused, your distraction level is also high. So the discipline that's required for anybody with an ASD to get through university is significantly higher.

Sensory and motor 

Autistic people are often highly sensitive to sensory stimuli. They can also experience difficulties with handwriting. 

Sensitivity to sensory stimuli

Many autistic students are over- or under-sensitive to certain sensory stimuli. For example, some students cannot function well in noisy environments. This may impact the students’ ability to cope within tertiary education settings.

Parent: My son is very sensitive to noise. If he’s trying to study and there’s a bumble bee, he will get distracted. Quiet rooms are very, very much preferable, but not always possible. Walls without too many things, too many distractions is preferable because he gets distracted, which leads to anxiety.

Student: Special provisions for exams were made so I could be in a room on my own. I've got special ear phones which cut out all noise.

Students may use strategies to reduce the external stimuli, including not directly looking into the eyes of the other person while having a conversation.

Student: Those block out strategies can appear as though you're vacant and not taking it in. This can be quite distracting for lecturers and tutors because as a lecturer or tutor, you can be looking at someone and you can think 'oh that student's spaced out' when in actual fact they're reducing the stimuli.

Difficulty with handwriting

Some autistic students have difficulty with fine-motor skills and have slow or poor handwriting.

This may impact students in a number of different ways, including not being able to write class notes down fast enough, unable to complete exams in the time allowed, and the examiner not being able to read his/her handwriting.

Student: My hand writing is of really poor quality, so uni gave me a computer to type. I used to get marked down on that in high school because they weren’t able to read it.

Student: They’ve let me use a computer for typing for exams, which helps me massively because the handwriting is difficult, because I can always feel like I need to go back and swap things around.


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SUMMARY

You have completed the “Autism diagnosis” section.  You should now know what autism is and what characteristics and traits autistic people may display. If you feel you need a recap of the information, revisit the learning objectives and key points from the beginning of the section.

End of  “Autism diagnosis” section.  

 
 
 

SUPPORTING AUTISTIC STUDENTS

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

This section is about the challenges autistic students may face as they transition to tertiary education and what you as a faculty member can do to support them. As you read this section, keep in mind the following learning objectives:

  • The differences between secondary school and tertiary education and how autistic students may struggle with the transition

  • Autistic students have the right to reasonable adjustments

  • Strategies to appropriately support autistic students

  • What reasonable adjustments and accommodations you can make to support autistic students

Below are the key points of this section.  You should read the key points before reading the rest of the section. 


KEY POINTS

 
The prevalence of autism in students at universities may be as high as one percent. As a faculty member, it is important to know how to support this growing population of students.

The learning environments in secondary and tertiary school are very different. The transition can be especially challenging for autistic students. There are things staff members can do to help students with the change.

A lot of the strategies to help autistic students will also help other students, including those with ADHD, mental health conditions, or learning differences.

Legislation gives autistic students the right to reasonable adjustments and alternative assessment arrangements. There are reasonable adjustments and alternative assessment arrangements that can help students with some of their difficulties. It is your responsibility to make sure the individual needs of each student is met. Look at the chart later in the section to see examples of possible reasonable adjustments and alternative assessment arrangements and how they can help students. Depending on where you are in the world, you should find out what legislation applies to your university.

DISCUSSION

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.

Equity

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

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.

Transition support

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.

Appropriate Support

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.

Regular contact

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.

Disruptive behaviour

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.

Absenteeism

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.

Exams

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:

  • slow handwriting

  • 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.

Group work

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.

Tutorials

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.

Seek help

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. 

Reasonable adjustments

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.   

Functional impacts on academic performance) Reasonable adjustments Alternative assessment arrangements
Sensory and motor
- Light sensitivity
- Noise sensitivity
- Irritation to certain environments
- Difficulty with fine motor skills such as handwriting
- Short breaks during classes to help manage sensory sensitivities
- Provide a learning environment which minimises the impacts of environmental
effects e.g. lighting
- Note taker for taking class notes
- Flexible arrangements for field placements with extra consultation with field supervisor
-For exams, provide extra writing time or use of computer to type answers
Cognitive
- Easily distracted
- Miscomprehension due to literal interpretation
- Difficulty comprehending certain communication styles (verbal and gesture)
- Difficulties with new tasks or unplanned changes
- All communication (oral and written) to be clear and concise using non-figurative and unambiguous language e.g. no metaphor
- Paraphrase communications
- One-on-one catch-up with lecturers
- Copies of overheads and formal lecture notes provided few days prior to class
- Audio recording of lectures or classes
- Short breaks during class to help manage the condition
- Digital audio recorder for non-audio-recorded teaching space
- Special exam conditions for exams and in-class tests (written, practical and laboratory). For example, separate room for exam
- Extra reading time with access to clarification of exam content
- Extra writing time
- One exam per day
Behavioural  
- Poor organisational skills
- Obsessive or repetitive routines
- Referral to specialist department within the tertiary institution to assist with organisational skills and study planning - Extensions as negotiated with academic staff and relevant support staff when condition is impacting
Social/interpersonal
- Abrupt or intrusive communication style
- Difficulties with group work
- Difficulties initiating or responding appropriately in communication with others (academics and fellow students)
- Assigning roles and responsibilities to students within the group
- Individual assignment as alternative to group assignments where the academic integrity of the course is not impacted
Emotional  
- Anxiety and depression
- Referral to Counselling Service - Referral to Counselling Service
 

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SUMMARY

You have completed the “Supporting autistic students” section.  You should now know about different reasonable adjustments and alternative assessment arrangements you can make for autistic students to help them succeed at university. If you feel you need a recap of the information, revisit the learning objectives and key points from the beginning of the section.

End of  “Supporting autistic students” section. 

 
 
 

DISABILITY / ACCESSIBILITY SUPPORT SERVICES

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

This section explains what autism is and what difficulties autistic people may experience.  As you read this section, keep in mind the following learning objectives:

  • How you will find out if one of your students is neurodiverse

  • Why it is a good idea to plan a meeting with a student if you know they are neurodiverse


    Below are the key points of this section.  You should read the key points before reading the rest of the section. 


KEY POINTS

 
If a student has disclosed their condition with the university, staff members should be notified by the disability/accessibility support staff that the student has a disability. However, the disability/accessibility staff may not be able to tell you the actual condition, depending on the wishes of the student.
Once you have been notified that the student is neurodiverse, it may be a good idea to have a one-on-one meeting with the student. This will give the student the opportunity to tell you their needs and help you provide appropriate support.

DISCUSSION

The disability/accessibility support staff at your institution should contact you when you have a student with a disability enrolled in the course you are teaching. They may or may not be able to notify you of the specific diagnosis, as this will depend on the regulations of your institution and whether or not the student has given permission for their disability to be disclosed.

Meeting the student

Once you have been notified about the student's disability, it is worthwhile setting up a meeting with your student to discuss the student's specific support needs so that you and the disability/accessibility support staff can provide tailored support. If you do not know what disability the student has, the student may be willing to disclose this to you in order for you to provide more individually tailored assistance.


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SUMMARY

You have completed the “Disability/accessibility support services” section.  You should now know that the disability/accessibility support staff should notify you of a student’s disability and what you should do to make sure you provide the best support possible for the student. If you feel you need a recap of the information, revisit the learning objectives and key points from the beginning of the section.

 End of  “Disability/accessibility support services” section

 
 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

BOOKS

Jamieson, J., & Jamieson, C. (2004). Managing Asperger Syndrome at College and University: A resource for students, tutors and support services. Great Britain: David Fulton Publishers

Wolf, L.E., Brown, J.T., & Bork, G.R. (2009). Students with Asperger Syndrome: A guide for college personnel. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC

VIDEO

Organization for Autism Research. (2010). Understanding Asperger Syndrome: A Professor's Guide. [Retrieved 26 June 2012]

ONLINE TRAINING

There are three e-learning modules:  Building awareness of adults autism, Supporting adults with autism, and Working with adults with autism. You will need to sign-up to the British Psychological Society to access the e-learning modules. 

WEBSITES

Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training. [7 April 2016]

Hughes, M., Milne, V., McCall, A., & Pepper, S. (2010). Supporting students with Asperger's Syndrome. Higher Education Academy UK Physical Sciences Centre [Retrieved 7 April 2016; PDF 1.3 MB]

Martin, N., Hodge, N., Goodley, D., & Madriaga, M. (2008). Pathways 9: Assisting Students with Asperger Syndrome. Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training. [Retrieved 7 April 2016]

National Autistic Society. (2012) Education professionals in further and higher education. [Retrieved 7 April 2016]

Organization for Autism Research. (2010). Life journey through Autism. [Retrieved 26 June 2012]

RIT Spectrum Program.  Faculty Fact Sheet.  [Retrieved 23 April 2019]

Trinity College Dublin. (2011). Autism spectrum disorder. [Retrieved 26 June 2012] 

University of Cambridge. (2009). Supporting students with Asperger Syndrome. [Retrieved 26 June 2012; PDF 126 KB]

University of Melbourne. Student Equity and Disability Support: Asperger's Syndrome  [Retrieved 15 April 2016]

NOTE: A few of these resources were written in other countries and some of the content in these resources may not be applicable for university students in Australia e.g. legislation and tertiary education system.

REFERENCES

Barbaro, J., & Dissanayake, C. (2010). Prospective identification of Autism Spectrum Disorders in infancy and toddlerhood using developmental surveillance: The Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS). Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 31, 376-385.

Brugha, T.S., McManus, S., Bankart, J., Scott, F., Purdon, S., Smith, J., et al. (2009). Epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders in adults in the community in England. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68, 459-466.

Eaves, L.C., & Ho, H.H. (2008). Young adult outcome of autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 739-47.

Farley, M.A., McMahon, W.M., Fombonne, E., Jenson, W.R., Miller, J., Gardner, M., et al. (2009). Twenty-year outcome for individuals with autism and average or near average cognitive abilities. Autism Research, 2, 109-118.

Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2004). Adult outcome for children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 45, 212-229.

Hughes, M., Milne, V., McCall, A., & Pepper, S. (2010) Supporting Students with Asperger’s Syndrome: A Physical Sciences Practice Guide. Retrieved from http://dspace.jorum.ac.uk/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/6844/supporting_students_aspergers_syndrome_rpg.pdf?sequence=1 [19 June 2012].

Järbrink, K., (2007). The economic consequences of autistic spectrum disorder among children in a Swedish municipality. Autism, 11, 453-463.

Knapp, M., Romeo, R., & Beecham, J. (2009). Economic cost of autism in the UK. Autism, 13, 317-336.

MacLeod, A., & Green, S. (2009) Beyond the books: case study of a collaborative and holistic support model for university students with Asperger syndrome. Studies in Higher Education, 1-16.

Myles, B.S., Adreon, D.A., Hagen, K., Holverstott, J., Hubbard, A., Smith, S.M., et al. (2005). Life journey through autism: An educator's guide to Asperger syndrome. Arlington, VA: Organization for Autism Research. Retrieved from http://www.researchautism.org/resources/reading/documents/EducatorsAsperger.pdf [29 May 2012].

Richdale, A., Dissanayake, C. & Cai, R., (2012). DHS final report: Supporting transition to and participation in tertiary education for students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Department of Human Resources (DHS, Victoria).

RMIT University’s internal resource for supporting students with ASD.

Schattuck, P. T., Narendorf, S. C., Cooper, B., Sterzing, P. R., Wagner, M., & Taylor, J. L. (2012). Postsecondary education and employment among youth with an autism spectrum disorder, Pediatrics, 129,1042-1049.

White, S.W., Ollendick, T.H., & Bray, B.C. (2011). College students on the autism spectrum: prevalence and associated problems. Autism, 15, 683-701.