Working with Students with Autism

What is autism?

Autism is a spectrum disorder. Students with  Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) display a wide variety of behaviors and each student is unique. The information presented here will primarily focus with ASD in a collegiate setting.

ASD is generally diagnosed by a licensed practitioner that focuses on challenges presented below:

  • Limitations with social interactions
  • Limitations with communication
  • Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities.
  • Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years:
    • social interaction,
    • language as used in social communication,
    • symbolic or imaginative play.

Students with autism and college

A longitudinal study from the Office of Special Education Programs (2015) explored post-secondary and social experiences.

  •     Less than 20% with ASD reported interacting with a friend once weekly.
  •     40% belonged to community or social group of some kind.
  •     For most, over 75% of social interactions with family members and paid caregivers.
  •     Few students with autism (approximately 25%) attend any kind of post-secondary educational institution, but in most recent years, this is closer to 40%.
  •     Less than 25% of those who attend earn a degree within 6 years.

Recent studies suggests the most common reasons for a person with ASD to drop out are:

  • Failure to develop friendships and "fit in" with peers.
  • Failure to navigate social environment and not-obvious expectations (Barnard-Brak, Lechtenberger, & Lan, 2018).

Some characteristic behaviors that may cause difficulties:


  • It is not unusual for individuals with autism to have "rules."
    • Rather than respond to a fluid environment, they may respond by following rigid "rules".
    • "I always do math problems in order." or "I don't erase wrong answers; I cross them out."
  • The advantage is that if a positive and adaptive rule is learned, it tends to stick.
    • Find ways to teach desirable skills as rules.
    • "I always write my assignments in my planner before I leave class."


  • Students with ASD may often complete tasks and transitions in a stereotyped and repetitive way
  • Difficulty handling surprises
  • Difficulty with changes in routines
  • Predictability and stability are important


  • Students with ASD struggle to identify non-verbal cues.
    • Misunderstand facial expression and body language
    • Tend to interpret language based only on its literal meaning
  • Sarcasm, inference, and slang may often confuse and frustrate individuals with autism.

Difficulty generalizing skills

  • Students with ASD often appear to "forget" skills in new settings.
  • Do not easily recognize when previously learned skill can be used in novel situations.

Difficulty Distinguishing Important Things in Overstimulating Environment

"My hearing is like having a hearing aid with the volume control stuck on "super loud." It is like an open microphone that picks up everything. I have two choices: turn the microphone on and get deluged with sound or shut it off." –Temple Grandin (College Professor with Autism)

Students with autism may struggle to distinguish important from trivial in external environment.

It can be overwhelming to know what to pay attention to, both during interpersonal interactions and class work.

What this means for you

  • Standard accommodations and supports may not always be enough.
    • Difficulties may be less likely to be academic
    • Social/environmental supports could be needed
  • May need help making sense of complex "hidden curriculum" of college environment.

How this may present itself in your classroom:

  • Difficulty with group work/projects
  • Uncommon social behavior (too many questions, not responding to questions)
  • "Extreme" reactions to minor disruptions
  • Anxiety across even simple situations
  • Failure to complete activities or assignments if confused


Suggestions for Professors and Staff Working with Students with Autism

Easing Change

  • Create an the environment that is predictable or routine.
  • Explain any necessary changes with as much advance notice as possible.
  • Explain at the beginning of the class or meeting if it will not always be possible to predict all the changes that might occur, so they can be prepared for such an occurrence.
  • When you must make a change, explain it very clearly by making a new timetable to work from, documenting the change on paper and explaining why it is happening, etc.

Dealing with Group Projects

  • Whenever possible, try to offer an alternative approach that the student can select on an individual basis.
  • Avoid having students self-select into groups. Instead try to place the student with others who you believe will be understanding and tolerant. Keeping in mind never to disclose information regarding a student's disability or accommodations with other students.
  • When the student must be in a group, be sure to clarify your expectations, both academic and behavioral, to individuals within the group and be the mediator should any conflicts arise.
  • If a conflict arises, explain to the student, in a literal way, what effect they had on others, why the conflict arose, and how to behave appropriately in a group setting (e.g. time spent talking, equal work from individuals, hearing everyone’s opinion, etc.)

Preparing for Test-Taking Ahead of Time

  • Provide as much detail about the test as possible. The format, type of questions, date, time, duration and location should all be clearly communicated, preferably be in the syllabus, or printed out for them.
  • Suggest to the student that they consider using testing accommodations with SAS and remind them to schedule their test in advance, and to contact their specialist if they have questions.
  • When possible, be specific in pinpointing the test structure and what topics and modules will be tested. Consider providing a review sheet so they know specifically what needs to be studied, and the structure that the test will be on.
  • When developing the test give very clear, literal, step-by-step instructions.

Help with Homework and Assignments

  • Try to choose books and materials that can be accessed digitally (SAS can work with students to obtain eBooks).
  • As a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach, write down the instructions for assignments in the form of handouts.
  • Explain the purpose behind assignments and how the student will benefit from completing them.
  • Don’t base too much of the final grade on one end project. SAS may suggest an accommodation for a student that has faculty break the assignments down to make smaller sections that can be handed in for revisions.
  • Help the student to develop concrete, clear goals, which that they can outline in steps and try to put to a timetable (Refer students to the Writing Center or to their SAS Specialist who can offer support to the student).
  • Teach students methods to help them learn course material (e.g., time management skills, organization, note-taking strategies, over-learning the material, refer student to the Tutoring Center as a resource).

Lecture and general classroom suggestions

  • Use a Learning Management System (LMS) product such as Blackboard or Brightspace to post materials (e.g. handouts, slides, assignments) ahead of time.
  • Make the classroom atmosphere one of tolerance and understanding for differences.
  • Allow students to choose where to sit. If the class is long or there are distractions, let them move around or briefly leave (This may show up as a Classroom Accommodation: Breaks during class).
  • Unless the course mandates it, don’t use activities that require a lot of physical effort. To compensate for physical activities such as taking notes quickly, allow them the use of a word processor, recorder, or a note taker. (This may show up as a Classroom Accommodation: Use of Laptop and/or Recording device in Class).
  • Be thorough and use a variety of methods to teach (e.g. visuals, models, technology, demonstrations, supplemental materials).
  • Be literal in your statements, and when others speak in non-literal, less straightforward ways (e.g. metaphors, sarcasm, sayings), restate or interpret what they say.
  • Make your instruction straightforward and predictable, and eliminate unnecessary complexities (e.g., explicitly point out important topics, create rubrics).
  • Don’t single the student out (e.g., when you are interpreting another person’s comments, don’t state that you are doing it for a particular student).
  • Recommend to the student that they schedule an individual meeting during office hours to monitor how well they are understanding the assignments and lectures.
  • Don’t take it personally if the student engages in unusual classroom behavior that you find disruptive. It is most likely unintentional and can be resolved by discussing it with the student and advising them on how to behave. Please have these conversations in private and not in front of peers.

Helping with Outside Problems

  • Academic performances and classroom occurrences can be indicative of outside problems. Pay attention to these behaviors, recognize possible problems and discuss them with the student.
  • If a student comes to you with a problem and you are uncomfortable or unable to deal with it, refer them to Counseling and Psychiatry Services (CAPS), CARE or SAS.
  • If they are having an interpersonal problem, explain to them in literal, clear and concrete language what behavior is appropriate in different situations and how to interpret the reasons.


Additional Resources:

Working with students with ASD overview.pdf

Accommodate learners with ASD in a clinical setting.pdf

Accommodating disabilities when enforcing the student code of conduct.pdf

Understand autism meltdowns and share strategies to minimize, manage occurrences.pdf