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Home > About Autism > Research and Training > Centre for Practice Innovation > Share Magazine > Suggestions for Teaching University Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Suggestions for Teaching University Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Yvette Q. Getch, Associate Professor, Western Kentucky University

As the number of students with autism increase, they are making up a larger portion of students with disabilities on university and further education college campuses. Some researchers estimate that 1 or 2% of the higher education population has autism. Unfortunately, students with autism may find it difficult to be successful in the university classroom. For example, they may find it challenging to navigate the social and academic nuances of universities. Additionally, some students with autism tend to be rigid with routines and resist change, which is harder to maintain in the flexible (relative to high school) environment of the university campus. Furthermore, problems sustaining social interactions and building appropriate peer-based relationships may result in feelings of isolation and non-connectedness.

As a college professor, I believe that accessible and safe learning environments help facilitate learning. I resonated with what Kabie Brooks stated in the Autumn 2015 edition of SHARE Magazine, “All events should be accessible and inclusive; an event shouldn’t have to focus on a particular group of people to make an effort not to exclude.” Learning environments and college events should be accessible for ALL students but unfortunately staff rarely have training on how to create such an environment. Of course we must recognise that students with autism are not all the same. However, there are some basic things professors and instructors can do to increase the success of students with autism. I will share some of the things that I have found that improve the learning environment in my college classroom.


The importance of the sensory environment

While many instructors may think about the physical accessibility of the classroom, they may neglect the sensory environment. One of the most impactful conversations I had with a student with ASD who was struggling in a classroom was the reason they shared for their struggle. “I can’t pay attention in that class… The florescent light is flickering and buzzing. I can’t hear past the buzz and it is almost impossible for me to concentrate…” The solution to this problem proved simple. The student and I called building maintenance, put in a request, and they repaired the problem. While not all situations are this simple, creating a sensory environment that is more conducive to learning is important. Checking out the classroom ahead of time to note accessibility issues and facilitating a discussion the first day of class about sensory distractions can alleviate many issues for students with autism, and other disabilities.


Sharing advance information

Send out your syllabi early to students and invite students with disabilities to meet with you before the class begins. If possible, arrange the meeting in classroom where the class will be held. For many students with autism, navigating their way to class and examining the classroom may alleviate some anxiety and help pinpoint accessibility or sensory issues that need to be addressed before the first day of lessons.


Classroom discussions

Prepare students in your class and set expectations of behavior that demonstrates respect. The class syllabus is a great place to start. Include specific language about what is expected when communicating with others, especially if class discussion is going to take place. Set aside time during your first class to talk about what it means to have a safe environment and encourage students to chime in. Describe how students can disagree while being respectful of differing opinions. Lead by example.

Monitor discussion groups to ensure they are supportive of differences. Sometimes rotating membership is helpful – you might also assign roles during small

group discussions allowing students to take turns being the observer or scribe. Take into account the sensory needs of individuals. A small room with multiple discussions occurring simultaneously can be overwhelming for some students.

Also remember that some students find it difficult to engage in classroom discussions. If reluctant to speak, they might try using notecards for questions or discussion points. Alternatively, if a student is monopolising the conversation, intervene by using a directive approach such as “let others weigh in on the topic and then I’ll come back to you.”


Create a sense of community

I like to encourage students to get to know one another. I find that structured activities work best and that giving prior notice and explaining these activities ahead of time helps reduce anxiety for students. When students discover other students with similar interests it can create a common bond that can be utilised to create more comfortable groups and connections both inside and outside the classroom.

Making oneself available to students by e-mail, phone, and in-person gives them the option of interacting with you in the manner that is most comfortable and effective. Try to communicate frequently with students in a variety of ways and check for understanding of assignments and instructions.


Provide supportive instruction and teaching

All classes are different even if the content is similar. Using different modalities while teaching increases the likelihood that all students will be able to learn the material. However, be aware that too much visual or auditory input can be overwhelming or confusing for many students. Hands on activities can include group work, projects, field trips, etc. If you have prepared well and met with your students who have accommodation needs, these activities are more likely to meet their needs.

Students with autism may experience extreme anxiety over class presentations. I learned to tweak presentation assignment requirements and allow the students to embed video clips and/or voice overs so they are not required to stand in front of the class and deliver a presentation in person. These presentations were so effective and creative that I now provide that option to all students in my classes.


Responding to problems

If a student falls behind or misses assignments, be proactive and follow up with them. Share resources available on your campus and in your community if you sense they are struggling. For example, most university campuses have writing labs, tutoring services, counselling, and other supports for students. Because students with autism may have difficulty with organisation and communication with others, pro-actively making them aware of support services can facilitate success. If we do not recognise student struggles early, students may get so far behind that they become overwhelmed, overly stressed, and that can lead to failure.

Students with ASD are a part of the diverse college learning community. They bring unique perspectives as well as unique challenges. The best way to know what supports or needs students have is to ask the student. As a college professor, I credit much of the improvement in my teaching to what I have learned from students with autism and other neurodiversity. I have learned to become much more aware of accessibility in regard to sensory stimuli and executive functioning issues. The suggestions provided in this article are based on my own and other faculty members’ experiences, comments and feedback from students with autism, and information gleaned from the literature. My hope is that these suggestions will provide a foundation of supports and strategies to create learning environments that promote engagement, acceptance, and learning for all students but especially for students with autism.


Resources and Links

Vanbergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkman, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: College and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1359-1370.

White, S. W., Ollendick, T. H., & Bray, B. C. (2011). College students on the autism spectrum, Prevalence and associated problems. Autism. Advance online publication.

Jones, R. S. P. & Mandel, T.O. (2001). Social relationships and Asperger’s Syndrome: A qualitative analysis of first-hand accounts. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 5(1), 35-41. doi: 10.1177/146900470100500104

Ozonoff, S., Garcia, N., Clark, E., & Lainhart, J. E. (2005). MMPI-2 personality profiles of high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorders. Assessment, 12(1), 86-95. doi: 10.1177/1073191104273132