National Teacher Appreciation Month: Autism in the Classroom
We all hope for the best teachers, but for college students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the right teacher may be pivotal. In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Month, we want to say thank you to our favorite teachers and professors. Teachers, if you would like to help your students on the spectrum increase their academic performance, continue reading.
Students on the spectrum have learning characteristics that differ considerably from neurotypical learners (Source). These learning characteristics include generalization, stimulus oversensitivity, and prompt dependency. Since students on the spectrum have unique learning needs, they should work closely with instructors and other faculty to create an individual-based plan to ensure the best academic outcomes (Source).
Here are various learning obstacles that students on the spectrum face along with a few ways to alter teaching styles to improve on those obstacles (Source):
Instructors can provide lecture notes or ask a student to be a note-taker to help emphasize the important information. The instructor can also provide study guides for examinations. When lecturing, the professor should be clear, concise, and logical. He or she should also ask the student on the spectrum for clarification; do not assume the student will know all the content that is being taught.
- Social Skills
A student with ASD may not understand the “unwritten rules” of classroom behavior. This misunderstanding can be alleviated with short breaks to allow students to walk around if needed. Pacing back and forth may have a calming effect for students on the spectrum, so allowing breaks can be very beneficial. Professors should also allow for a “social buffering” object such as a computer or book. You may be thinking, wouldn’t a computer or a book be incredibly distracting during the lecture? For students with ASD, having this object may help to decrease the stress of having to share space, understand others’ perspectives and maintain eye contact. Lastly the professor should ensure there is proper inclusion for the student on the spectrum during any and all group work.
The following video discusses the importance of social skills for individuals with ASD.
- Sensory Differences
The professor may want to allow students on the spectrum to wear hats, sunglasses, or tinted lenses to combat the distraction of bright colors in the classroom. The professor can also allow students on the spectrum to choose their seat and then ensure that the seat is always available for that student. For assignments or examinations, instructors can allow an alternate writing utensil if the student were to ask.
- Motor Skills
Professors can allow computers for class work, examinations, or other various assignments. The instructor can allow work to be done at a slower pace or provide extra time for examinations if necessary. Professors can provide models and step by step instructions for class content, assignments, and examination instructions. Lastly, if needed, professors can provide readers or scribes during class or during an examination.
- Learning Styles
Review sheets, work checklists, and “sub” deadlines or intermittent check-ins can be very beneficial for students on the spectrum. If the student is struggling, a professor should be able to negotiate deadlines to ensure the best possible outcome. Professors should also provide hands on learning opportunities, models and demonstrations, and any other visuals that could help reinforce the information being taught. If possible, students on the spectrum should be paired with a peer mentor to provide feedback and proof-read any assignment. Most importantly, professors must provide reinforcement at every opportunity.
- Coping Skills
A professor should be able to discreetly ask if something is overwhelming and ask if the student needs help or wants to leave. The professor should not discourage any behavior unless it is truly disruptive to the whole class. To help avoid disruptions, the professor and student can agree on a “cues” to signal the student that it is time to leave or to the professor that the student is overwhelmed or confused.
These small alterations can make the biggest difference for academic success for students on the spectrum. Teachers, try implementing these strategies throughout your lecture to help support the learning of students with ASD.
Based on personal experiences of having Autism Spectrum Disorder, Temple Grandin gives advice for teaching students on the spectrum (Source). First she illustrates that when communicating with students on the spectrum, teachers must know how to be firm while also being gentle. She also describes that a majority of individuals with ASD are visual thinkers; they think in pictures rather than language. Teachers should try and use as many visuals as possible to ensure that the the student on the spectrum is truly understanding the material. Next, Grandin describes that individuals with ASD can be mono-channel, meaning they cannot process auditory and visual information simultaneously. If possible, teachers should give students on the spectrum either a visual task or an auditory task, but not both at the same time. Lastly, she suggests that teachers should allow students on the spectrum to use computers, specifically laptops if possible. Laptops are more beneficial because they allow students to see the keyboard and screen at the same time. If the keyboard is too far away from the screen, students on the spectrum may not remember to look up after pressing a key on the keyboard.
The following video provides 5 things that teachers should know about their students with ASD.
University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth (UMD) has a few tips for how the faculty and staff have successfully supported students on the spectrum (Source). As a teacher, you may see your student on the spectrum struggle with initiating relationships, interpreting words with double meaning or interpreting metaphors and sarcasm. Here are some tips that UMD has to help with these communication obstacles:
- Do not use absolute words (always, never) unless that is exactly what you mean.
- Provide written instructions rather than oral instructions when revising assignments, dates, etc.
- Use clear directives and establish rules if the student is invading someone’s spaces, imposing on class time, or if the student’s comments become inappropriate.
A student on the spectrum may have redundant information through his or her papers. He or she may also be able to state the facts and details he or she wants to write about, but it may be challenging for the student to synthesize information to get to the larger concept, compare and contrast to get to the “big picture” or use analogies, similes, or metaphors when composing the paper. Here are some UMD tips for teachers to combat some of the writing difficulties:
- Make edits or revisions clear and detailed.
- Provide lists or numbers of the revisions to provide guidelines for the student.
- Have separate sheets for writing rules for future reference.
- To ensure success, make directions simple.
- Ask the student to repeat the directions in order to check comprehension.
Finally, here are some general instructional tips that UMD suggests to implement:
- Clearly define course requirements (dates for exams, when assignments are due etc.)
- Go for gist, meaning, and patterns instead of focusing on specific details
- Make sure all expectations are direct and explicit.
- Use the student’s preoccupying interest to help focus and motivate the student into learning the course content.
- Make sure to take into consideration any sensitivity to sound, light, touch when selecting the test setting.
The following video of Michael John Carley, the Executive Director of GRASP, Dr. Peter Gerhardt, the President of the Organization for Autism Research, and Kiriana Cowensage, a Grad Student and member of GRASP provide information about the struggles of a college student on the spectrum and how a professor can help combat those struggles.
Here are a few resources that may be helpful when teaching students with ASD in college:
Students, if you’ve had a teacher who has made a difference in your life, remember to say thank you for everything they have done for you! Teachers, I hope this piece has given you the necessary information to more effectively teach your students on the spectrum and give you the opportunity to have a positive impact on the life of a student with ASD.
About the Author
Molly Sullivan, Research Intern
Originally from Dover, Massachusetts, Molly Sullivan is a psychology and human development student at the University of Maryland. As the 2015 community service chairman of Delta Delta Delta, Molly planned community service events with Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN), a nonprofit organization that allows children and young adults with physical or developmental disabilities participate in recreational activities. Molly’s goal is to get her MSW and work with kids or young adults who have developmental disabilities. At Madison House, Molly is a research intern writing a three-part series about life after high school for students on the spectrum.
Kubina, R. M., Morrison, R., & Lee, D. L. (2002). Benefits of adding precision teaching to behavioral interventions for students with autism. Behavioral Interventions, 17(4), 233-246. (http://dddc.rutgers.edu/pdf/Kubina_et_al_(2002).pdf)
Resources for Educators and How to Teach Students on the Autism Spectrum. (2016). Retrieved April 29, 2016, from http://www.umassd.edu/dss/resources/facultystaff/howtoteachandaccommodate/howtoteachautismspectrum/
Wheeler, M. (2011). Academic supports for students with an autism spectrum disorder: An overview. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.