SIP 10.11 Supporting Learning in Students with Autism: Strategies that Benefit all Students

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Professor in front of a classes, students in desks with backs to camera.We acknowledge that some individuals prefer being addressed as “autistic”, and others prefer “person with autism”. In this article, we use person-first language and not identify-first language.

Aaron is a bright 28-year-old with a diagnosis of autism. He wants to be a physicist. He always aces his math and science classes but doesn’t enjoy writing and languages. Large classes (more than a few people) make him anxious. He doesn’t learn well in lecture-based formats and doesn’t enjoy group activities in class. Aaron also fears approaching his professors when he has questions or needs help with the coursework. Because of these challenges, Aaron has not been successful in college. He has attended four universities in the past 8 years but  hasn’t been able to graduate. 

Students like Aaron are beginning to pursue higher education in large numbers in recent years. Many of them have advanced verbal abilities; they can read and write and often have excellent insight about their strengths and challenges in learning and communication. However, many students/young adults with autism experience high levels of anxiety, especially when faced with novel situations. They have challenges in interacting and communicating with others, understanding the “hidden rules” of classroom engagement, understanding non-verbal behaviors, processing information and regulating their emotions and behaviors. These challenges, combined with difficulties problem solving in social interactions, result in dropouts from college.

Higher education brings increased self-confidence, helps students with autism find jobs that meet their skill sets and helps them to gain financial independence and enjoy a better quality of life. To support students with autism in their higher-education experience, faculty members can adopt several strategies in their classrooms.

Take a SIP of this: supporting learning in students with autism

The strategies given below benefit not just students with autism but every learner in the classroom.

  1. Increased structure helps reduce anxiety. Have a consistent structure for your course in the course design on Blackboard Learn and in course delivery. For example, start each class with an agenda of topics and activities that will be covered in that class session. At the end of each class, let students know what assignments or homework is due that week and what topics will be covered in the subsequent class.
  2. Be proactive in reducing anxiety in the classroom. Practice taking short breaks (3-5 minutes) for every 30 minutes of class time. Most of us cannot sustain our attention for more than 20 minutes. Try deep-breathing exercises for a couple of minutes before class starts; you can also do this before exams.
  3. Allow students to participate and engage in class in multiple ways. For instance, students can write their question or comment on an index card and pass it to you instead of raising their hand and talking in front of everyone else in the classroom. Also see the Well for more ideas for multiple modes of engagement and other principles of Universal Design for Learning.
  4. Be explicit in giving directions. These include directions/instructions during class and directions for assignments. Avoid using figurative language and implied statements. For example, say, “I would like you to do this …” instead of “Most students have done this …”
  5. Use tables, graphic organizers or flowcharts whenever possible in the course content and course organization. These visual representations provide better clarity of your expectations and an understanding of next steps.
  6. Allow students sufficient time to respond and process the information taught in class. When you ask a question, wait at least 15 seconds for a response. Most students raise their hand to comment or ask a question on the 15th second.
  7. Build a sense of trust with the student from the first day of class. Be open and willing to listen to students, and the challenges they face in learning. Students who trust their professors, experience reduced anxiety in the classroom, and find it easier to approach the professor for help.
  8. Due to challenges in understanding the social rules of classroom engagement, a student with autism may be perceived as “disruptive” or “difficult” although they do not intend to disrupt the class. They may ask too many questions in class, monopolize a class discussion, or make frequent tangential comments. In most situations, the student understands when we communicate with him/her in a clear and respectful manner. For example, you can say, “I understand that it is very important for you to express your thoughts, but let us give X a chance to talk too.” You can also set a rule that each student can ask two questions/comment two times during class time, and additional comments can be written on an index card that you give them before the start of class.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: supporting learning in students with autism


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