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Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) refer to the continuum of symptoms and specific diagnoses that are identified by impairment in thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others.  The ASD diagnoses most commonly seen in higher education are high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome (National Institute on Mental Health, 2009).

Students’ with ASD diagnoses are often incredibly bright but may be seen as “a bit odd”.  They frequently display in-depth and exhaustive knowledge in certain areas and are, in general, very good students.

However, when these students begin their higher education pursuits they often experience difficulties navigating the various contexts of the University setting.  They may struggle in classroom group work, meeting with professors, managing roommate relationships, or simply engaging in social functions on campus.

Students who fit this diagnostic category may display characteristic such as:

  • Difficulty with nonverbal behavior such as eye-to-eye contact, facial expressions, body posture
  • Difficulty developing peer relationships
  • May not seek shared enjoyment, interest, or achievement with others
  • Lack of social/emotional reciprocity
  • Repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities
  • Inflexibility in routines and rituals
  • Repetitive motor movements (i.e. hand/finger flapping or twisting, whole body movements)

There has been an increase in ASD diagnoses in the last 20 years.  With increased numbers, students with theses diagnoses received more support in the primary and secondary education settings and more are coming to the University.  Because of this it is important that we, as a campus, work together to determine what supports will be helpful for these students in the college setting.

Not all students with ASD diagnoses will not all present in the same way.  They will come to the University with different strengths and challenges.  Below are some of the commonalities that are seen in this population.  However, how and to what extent these are present will vary greatly between individuals.

Strengths Of Students With Autism Spectrum Disoders

  • Average, or above average, intelligence
  • Excellent rote memory
  • Very detail-oriented
  • Often savant-like knowledge in certain areas
  • Works well with concrete, rather than abstract or ambiguous, information
  • Extensive vocabulary
  • Incredible gifts/talents in certain areas (arts, math, sciences, etc.)
  • Unique ability to perceive things in new ways, out of the box thinking


Challenges For Students With Autism Spectrum Disoders

  • Difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues
  • Minimal expression of emotion in speech
  • Withdrawal from other people and difficulty sustaining conversations
  • Difficulty developing peer relationships
  • Difficulty seeing the overall picture
  • May be bluntly honest
  • Difficulty understanding figures of speech
  • Can be over stimulated by sound, crowds, lights, smells
  • Inside feelings do not always match outside behavior
  • Difficulty recognizing faces out of the usual setting


Suggestions For Working With Students With ASD


  • Provide advance notice of topics to be discussed
  • Provide advance notice of meetings or changes in schedules
  • Allow written responses in lieu of verbal responses


  • Help student develop checklists for assignments
  • Reduce auditory/sensory distractions
  • Facilitate discussions around prioritizing tasks
  • Provide written instructions

Social Dynamics

  • Review classroom policies and expectations
  • Provide concrete examples to explain appropriate behavior and “rules” of the classroom

“If you’ve met one person with autism – you’ve met one person with autism.” Stephen Shore

For more information, see Working with Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.