Faculty Tips For Effectively Teaching Students Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder


The following was taken from an article written by Tirza Kroeker, Director of the College Transition Program at Westminster College, 2014. Permission was obtained to reprint with edits. Kroeker, Tirza. “Faculty Tips for Students Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).” Westminster College, 2014.

Giving students with ASD time to respond

While most students with ASD have a superior ability to acquire and retain information, the rate with which they process information can range from relatively slow to very slow. This means that students with ASD may not immediately answer when called upon in class and take many hours to complete an exam that other students complete in 50 minutes. They may also pause for long periods of time before responding in conversations with their peers. In addition, they may become frustrated by their inability to communicate their ideas at the same pace as their peers.

HOW FACULTY CAN HELP: Providing students with ASD a heads-up on a request to provide insight about an idea discussed in class and checking back in for a response 10 to 15 minutes later is helpful. Alternatively, asking a student with ASD to write his or her thoughts or ideas discussed in class and to submit these to you after class can provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate engaged learning in your class. 


Addressing difficulties with executive functions 

(i.e., organization, time management, prioritizing, breaking tasks down into parts and recombining them, transitioning from task to task, maintaining focus, and completing tasks).

Students with ASD can present many symptoms of other disorders and impairments such as attention deficit disorder, depression or anxiety. These secondary problems can make processing information, organizing oneself, or prioritizing even more difficult. The presence of attention deficits in students with ASD is demonstrated by inattention, distraction, hyperactivity, impulsive comments and actions in classroom settings, an untimely appearance in class or late submission of assignments. They may also express ideas in a disorganized fashion, verbally and/or in writing.


HOW FACULTY CAN HELP: Please do not take rude behavior personally; however, work directly with the student to address the issue in a positive, proactive manner. Students need to learn important study, class, and work habits. The best way to do this is to either meet with the student, express your concern and how it impacts the student in the present and future, directly state the expected behavior, and problem solve about alternative strategies. It is helpful to listen to the student with ASD in order to learn more about his/her perspective, strengths, and difficulties. Faculty are encouraged seek help from professionals on campus who have knowledge of ASD. Faculty can also refer the student to resources on campus where he/she can obtain support with specific skill development.


Helping students understand and answer questions in new disciplines

Students with ASD, like other students, struggle to move beyond identifying the "what" of course content to grasping and conveying the "how" and "why." Whether they grasp the "how" and "why" through intuition, intellect, observation, or other means, the ability to do so is essential to students' social and academic success at the college level. Many students with ASD are strong visual learners. They benefit from seeing and doing vs just hearing information. They often benefit from using visual rubrics, graphic organizers, and other visual tools to learn the connection between ideas.

Students with ASD, like their non-ASD peers, are often unaware that papers, like other social communications, are governed by social and discipline-specific rules such as those offered by MLA, CMS, and APA. In addition, students with ASD do not readily grasp some of the emotional and social nuances suggested by authors and may need help understanding these concepts.

While many students with ASD can sound pedantic and have incredible vocabularies, they tend to be very literal and experience difficulty understanding the phrasing of questions (i.e., what is being asked of them when responding to essay questions and paper assignments), particularly when those questions are posed in disciplines that are new to them.


HOW FACULTY CAN HELP: Faculty can be clear in their writing expectations. Providing students with resources to learn more about the format used for writing in the discipline is very helpful. Some may benefit from working with a tutor, the writing common, or being referred to other supports on campus (such as the speech and language clinic where written language is addressed)


Understanding sensitivity to sounds, tastes, smells, sights, and tactile sensations

Students with ASD can have specific preferences for clothing, foods, sensations, and patterns of behaviors that do not bother others. They can be very sensitive to sounds or lights that others simply do not hear or see. Food preferences may have to do with smell, texture, or appearance. A student with ASD's fixation on patterns and routine may compete with logic. A student with ASD, for example, may leave a classroom setting because the video-feed is too loud or because he or she is bothered by the pulsating flicker of a fluorescent overhead light. Tight clothing may provide a sense of comfort or discomfort. For one student with ASD, for example, different food items cannot touch other food items on his plate. If ketchup gets into his cottage cheese, he may be unable to eat anything on his plate. And this may be difficult for the student to put aside in order to move on with other important tasks of the day.


HOW FACULTY CAN HELP:  If you notice that a student appears annoyed, ask to meet with him/her and ask about your observation. Work with the student to make a plan to compensate for sensitivities that do not disrupt the flow for the rest of the class. For example, to assist with management of sound and light sensitivities, allow students with ASD to wear sunglasses or ear plugs during class. Faculty can seek out support from others on campus with expertise in this area.


Observing "restricted, repetitive adherence to patterns of behavior, interests, and activities" 

One of the hallmark features of ASD is the rigid adherence to "restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities". When events are novel or familiar events change, students with ASD can become disorganized, irritable, and confused. Some students are able to manage this better than others; yet all are in the process of learning how to better manage this. As a result, in order to calm themselves students may begin to rock, pace, or walk and talk to self, focus on a particular topic, recite film dialogs, lip smack, or hand twitch, fixate on a video program, or rely on an object that would not seem age- or gender-appropriate.


Some students with ASD demonstrate compulsive, rigid, or obsessed behaviors and may be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in addition to ASD. These students often report the need to "keep sticking to one thing or an array of things in some way and not letting go." This behavior may be manifested by compulsively checking on something, keeping rigid schedules, "eating the same things for breakfast for ten years (e.g., peanut butter toast), or reading the same novels at the same time every year." Often these behaviors are an important kinetic way for students with ASD to soothe, center, or "reset" him/herself. Sometimes these behaviors, combined with a narrow range of interests, occur to exclusion of other activities such as studying.


HOW FACULTY CAN HELP: Being aware that change can be very stressful for students with ASD is an important start. Speaking with the student about his/her signals that he/she is stressed is important as well. While such behavior should not interfere with effective teaching for the class as a whole, students with ASD need to have an outlet. Allowing the student with ASD to leave the room, sit in an area where he/she feels comfortable helps. Faculty are encouraged to seek assistance with this from experts on campus as well.


Appreciating humor and imagination 

Students with ASD tend to love imaginary worlds filled with archetypal imagery that engage superheroes in playing with or bending rules as they combat good and evil. Many of students with ASD love Anime and actively participate in the Anime Club. They also enjoy fantasy fiction and video gaming. It is worth noting that in all of these imaginary worlds, otherness is a norm. Students with ASD may have a more limited repertoire of personal experiences to apply or relate to the content of their classes and studies than their peers do.


HOW FACULTY CAN HELP: Consider allowing students with ASD to relate the relationships and situations they know from other contexts such as science or fantasy fiction to address academic tasks. Use these topics as an avenue for establishing an effective teaching relationship with the student. If the topic is so prevalent that the student persistent talking about it disrupts the flow of the class, meet with the student to discuss this directly in a positive, proactive manner. Work with the student to create a plan for how, when, and how often he/she will refer to the topic. Provide the student with feedback on how he/she is doing with his/her plan.