Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Conditions

What is Asperger Syndrome?

Asperger syndrome (AS) is a complex developmental condition which falls within the autism spectrum. AS is associated with differences in:

  • Communication
  • Social performance
  • Flexibility of thought
  • Sensory perception

Each individual with the label of Asperger syndrome will experience the condition differently, necessitating individually tailored support.

Non-academic learning may cause greater issues than the academic side of university life; for example, not understanding the social rules and difficulties in managing the practicalities of being at university may lead to a student becoming vulnerable to social isolation. Students with AS are not unsocial but may not have the social skills for establishing and maintaining relationships. Students may have difficulty in thinking through problems and finding solutions.

It is worth noting that not all students with the label of Asperger syndrome will have embraced the diagnosis. Some may choose not to access any services or support that is specifically tailored to meet the needs of students with Asperger syndrome or disabled students generally. Some may have other conditions which they may be more likely to disclose, due to the perception of stigma associated with Asperger syndrome. It is therefore important not to make assumptions and to respect a studentĀ“s wish to disclose or therwise.

How might university impact upon a student with Asperger syndrome and how can they be supported?

Below are some specific examples of barriers to learning which may be encountered by a student with Asperger syndrome, alongside some potential adjustments which could be made to overcome them. These are solely intended to provide an overview of the nature and scope of requirements which staff may encounter, and to demonstrate some of the ways that a disadvantage incurred by a disability could be alleviated or removed. Above all else, it is important to note that staff being receptive and sympathetic to a studentĀ“s requirements is paramount, and where appropriate an ongoing dialogue should be maintained with him or her regarding these as the support needs may change over the course of the programme.

Learning Environment

Students with AS may rely more heavily on routines than other students and anxiety may be caused by an unpredictable or confusing environment, therefore it is important to give advance notice of any changes to the location, arrangement or timings of taught sessions and ensuring that this information is clarified e .g. when a room change is made, having a post it note on the original room door which directs students to the new location, is a simple but effective strategy that would help everyone.

Students with AS may have heightened sensory sensitivities and experience sensory overload. This may make some areas within university unbearable. Students with AS may be less likely to filter out background noise or may hear it at a greater intensity than others. You may need to consider carefully arrangements outside of the standard teaching environment.

Respect any need for routine e.g. the student may need to sit in the same seat at every lecture.

Delivery of teaching and learning

For some students with AS knowing what happens when, for how long and in what order will create predictability and reduce anxiety. It is helpful to clearly outline sessions and let students know in advance if there are going to be any changes to the module content or lecture order.

Students with AS are likely to have information processing differences. There may be delayed processing of verbal information and so providing handouts in advance of taught sessions may be beneficial to allow time for preparation and therefore more engagement with the information given. Students may also be recommended note taking support or the use of a digital voice recorder to record lectures due to difficulty with listening and note taking simultaneously. When presenting information (both written and verbally) ensure your language is clear and unambiguous to avoid misunderstanding of the information - be aware of the possibility for literal interpretations. Do not rely on non-verbal information (such as body language) to communicate intentions as this may lead to misinformation, a lack of clarity and to confusion.

Provide clear guidance to the whole group about when and how to ask questions during a session. It may also be necessary to provide time at the end of a taught session to clarify information.

Some students with AS may will need additional support for group work. Prior to organising groups have a discussion with the student about who they would feel most comfortable to work with. Working with a small group of students is likely to be more successful in helping a student to engage with the work. Assigning clear roles within the group will make expectations more concrete. If group work becomes a barrier to learning it may be necessary to consider the need to devise an alternative method of working to group work.

Ensure clear guidance is given regarding the appropriate member of staff to approach for various aspects of the course. Keeping the same personal tutor throughout the course is helpful in ensuring consistency and familiarity.

Assessments and coursework

The cognitive abilities of organising, planning and managing time are likely to be affected making coursework, examinations and personal study more of a challenge. Students with AS may find it hard to know when and what to study and for how long. They may be unable to accurately estimate how long a task will take and so not leave enough time to complete work. A student may be supported with their organisation and planning by being recommended a Support and Guidance Mentor. The Mentor may work with the student to develop a timetable to help the student to plan their time more effectively.

Making choices without any structure may be more difficult for a student with AS, for example choosing from a series of essay questions may be problematic. It may be necessary to give direct guidance about what is expected of the student at this level of study and to assist a student to break down options for choosing an assignment question.

Detail is likely to be important. A student may get lost in the detail and need to be directed to the key points. It may be helpful to provide straightforward assignment briefs to avoid developing ideas in the wrong direction.

In the run up to exams giving a student with AS access to past papers and practical questions in advance will allow him/her to be familiar with the structure of an exam paper and what is expected. Student may need direct guidance about what is expected of them at this level of study. It is helpful to clearly point out what the weightings of questions, assignments, and homework tasks are and to ensure instructions are clear.

Many adjustments can be made to examinations in order to ensure that students with AS are not disadvantaged. Appropriate adjustments include but are not limited to: extra time, use of a computer, individual accommodation, rest break, prompts and language modification.

When marking work, providing feedback is essential. Students with AS are also given the option of affixing a sticker to any assessed work which they complete. These stickers do not activate differential marking: they are solely intended to indicate to staff members that as a result of such a diagnosis a particular student would benefit from more detailed formative feedback, highlighting areas which could be improved. Ensure all feedback is clear and direct as a student may not read between the lines as to why an assignment has not reached a certain level.