Supporting students with ASD

Fifty-six per cent of Australians have a post-secondary qualification (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). However, people with a high-functioning ASD are less likely to achieve a post-school qualification, with many having poor outcomes.

A UK study found there are fewer people with high-functioning ASD who have a post-secondary qualification than expected.

According to USA research, less than 40 per cent of people with ASD attend post-secondary education and very few receive a degree.

The failure to succeed in post-secondary education results in negative financial and personal costs for people with ASD and their families.

Education is an important component of obtaining future employment and is therefore a key to reducing the associated costs to communities, families and individuals.

One per cent of students may have an ASD

In the coming years, tertiary institutions may expect to enrol more students who have an ASD.

Preliminary estimates indicate the prevalence of ASDs in university students may be as high as the current rate of ASD in the general population (approximately one per cent).

Meeting the needs of this growing student body will be extremely challenging if tertiary institutions do not understand the support needs of these students.

Providing appropriate support

Provision by staff of appropriate support for ASD students is invaluable to the future of these students.

As a staff member who is currently working, or who may soon work with ASD students, it is important for you to build your knowledge about ASD, understand how ASD impacts upon your students, and identify strategies for working with these students. And where necessary, make reasonable adjustments to support them.

Equity

Providing for students with an ASD is, fundamentally, an issue of equity.

ASD is a chronic, life-long disorder, and like other students with temporary or chronic conditions (e.g. visual impairment) ASD students may require one or more of a range of supports to assist them to reach their potential within the post-secondary education setting.

Many of the strategies that you will encounter here will also be valuable for other students in your classes, including students with ADHD, specific learning difficulties, or mental health problems.

Transition to tertiary education

Students with an ASD who are diagnosed before starting tertiary education have typically had a lot of support from family and teachers in high school. These students will be accustomed to a high level of support and may experience difficulties without similar support in the tertiary education environment. Other students may enter tertiary education without a formal diagnosis, and life may break down in the less structured tertiary setting, leading to an eventual diagnosis.

When students transition into university or TAFE, where there are not as many support structures, the transition period can be extremely challenging.

TAFE and university

TAFE and university are adult learning environments, although student ages can range from fifteen to eighty. Students are expected to be independent learners and complete a lot more work, often in shorter time periods, than at secondary school. There are different methods of delivering course content, including classrooms, lectures, online, flexible delivery, off campus, and hands-on training.

Studying at university and TAFE can be particularly challenging for ASD students due to the characteristics of these environments, which are quite different from secondary schools, i.e.:

  • attendance at lectures is not compulsory
  • self-directed studying is expected
  • lectures often have hundreds of students
  • different teaching methods are used
  • no hand-holding for students is provided
  • there are no 9 am to 3 pm daily routines
  • there is less interaction with teaching staff
  • there are few practice-runs
  • there is an expectation of independent learning.

Transition support

Rather than make assumptions about the impact of students' diagnoses on their learning, educators and disability support liaison officers need to ask ASD students what assistance or accommodations they need.

A good place to begin is to collect up-to-date information on the individual as a whole. Getting to know the individual with an ASD who is beginning the post-secondary transition process is the foundation for developing a successful transition plan. This includes understanding their background, the skills they already have and the skills they need to acquire.

Tailoring the transition support

Students at the same institution and with similar diagnoses may have very different needs, depending on the following factors:

  1. type or extent of impairment
  2. previous education experience
  3. skills and strategies that they have learned
  4. course nature and requirements
  5. teaching format and learning environment
  6. level and field of study.

More importantly, as with any disability, it is the implications of the condition, and the social context of the disability, that are important, rather than the 'diagnosis' in itself.

The essential components of effective transition planning include:

  • student involvement in their own transition planning
  • parent and family involvement in transition planning
  • a good fit between student and choice of university/TAFE and courses
  • a meaningful curriculum
  • student-orientated and outcome-based goals.

Appropriate support

While there is a set of core difficulties that lead to a diagnosis of ASD, all people with ASD are individuals and there is inherent variability in their personalities, behaviour and needs.

The label 'ASD' may imply a uniformity which belies the variations in the individual manifestations of the condition, and the huge differences in strategies best able to deal with it.

We should not assume that there is a single approach to assisting all students with an ASD.

Individual differences and providing tailored support

The apparent heterogeneity is due to a number of factors such as:

  • variability in the severity of the core symptoms
  • individual differences in intellectual ability (some students may be gifted)
  • diagnosis at different stages of development (some in preschool or school or even in the tertiary setting)
  • different interventions and supports prior to entering TAFE or university
  • varied levels and types of support from family (the majority are likely to still be living at home)
  • co-morbid psychological disorders (many have anxiety or depression)
  • differing biological bases for the presenting condition.

Staff should be aware about the diversity in presentation of ASD among affected students. The support needs of these students are thus often complex and highly idiosyncratic and may be at odds with the student's apparent capability.

Therefore, a tailored approach that specifically targets the particular issues faced by each ASD student is necessary.

Strategies for staff

This section contains a collection of issues that staff may encounter in supporting students with an ASD, and some strategies to assist.

Regular contact

Initiating and maintaining regular contact with a student with an ASD can be extremely helpful. Sometimes a student will approach only a familiar member of staff, rather than the relevant teaching staff for a particular subject or course.

If you are a teacher and you find there is an ASD student in your class, it is advisable to arrange a meeting with the student. This will allow you to get to know the student and vice versa, and help you to understand the student's needs and arrange potential support strategies.

Be explicit in communication

Individuals with ASD have the tendency to interpret literally what other people say. Hence it will be very helpful to ASD students if all communication (both oral and written) is clear and concise, using unambiguous language.

Care should be taken in the use of figurative language which might be taken literally, such as irony, metaphor or hyperbole. This will not only improve communications with your ASD students, but also international students, students with specific learning difficulties, and students with mental health problems.

Make sure instructions do not use unnecessarily obscure language and explicitly tell students to come back to you if they have any concerns or questions.

Assignment specifications, exam questions, and instructions should also be clear and unambiguous, with the opportunity to clarify with you or an invigilator explicitly stated at the outset.

No surprises and planning ahead

Many individuals with an ASD prefer to follow routines and do not like surprises. A sudden unexpected change in a schedule may cause anxiety.

It will be beneficial for students when you can plan ahead and give warnings to students ahead of time when plans change. These strategies will benefit other students as well.

Examples might be:

  • providing the class with course information prior to the first day of class; providing online lecture/class material a few days prior to class
  • a clear statement of assessment procedures at the beginning of the course or unit
  • notifying students well ahead of time of any room/time changes.

Disruptive behaviour

The ASD student in your class may display unusual behaviour, such as making disruptive noises or asking an unreasonable number of questions.

If the student's behaviour affects other students and disturbs the class, you may want to speak to someone from the disability support service in your institution and they may be able to work on the issue with the student and yourself.

Absenteeism

Monitoring the class attendance of any student known to have an ASD may permit effective corrective action in a timely manner.

There may be various reasons for absenteeism. Some may be very easily resolved, e.g., student not being able to find the classroom, or student unaware of attendance requirements. Others may be more difficult to deal with, for instance an ASD student experiencing high anxiety, or being unable to cope due to feelings of being overwhelmed, etc.

In these circumstances, it is best to contact someone from the disability support service who may help determine the cause of the absenteeism, directly support the student and make specific remedial suggestions to you.

Assessments and coursework

Many ASD students find it difficult to hand in coursework on time and this may have negative consequences if it is not recognised early enough.

There may be numerous factors which cause late submission of coursework. These may include the fact that the student:

  • is unsure how to start the work and does not understand the questions
  • is overwhelmed by the work and hence does not attempt to start the work
  • cannot get the coursework to the quality expected by himself/herself
  • has completed the assessment work however the assessment instructions did not explicitly state to hand in the work, where to submit etc., hence the student does not hand it in on time

There are a few things that can be done to address these issues:

  • Make sure coursework instructions are clear and unambiguous.
  • Ensure all assessment requirements are listed at the commencement of study.
  • Ensure that the ASD student is fully briefed.
  • Act as soon as deadlines are missed; this could involve speaking to the student or contacting the student's disability support liaison officer.
  • Find out why the student is missing deadlines.

While some of these issues are easy to tackle, the disability support liaison officer may be able to help with the more difficult ones.

Exams

Enabling students with disabilities to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities in an exam environment can be a complex issue.

Some students with an ASD find exams extremely challenging. Again, similar to the late submission of coursework, there may be numerous factors which make exams unfairly demanding for students with an ASD, including:

  • slow handwriting
  • misunderstandings and problems interpreting the exam questions
  • distractions during examination, e.g., surrounding noises
  • fears and anxieties making examinations unreasonably stressful.

In many circumstances, reasonable adjustments can be made to the exam environment and content. Please read about reasonable adjustments to see examples of possible adjustments that have been suggested or put into practice.

Group work

Many ASD students find group work extremely challenging due to their difficulties in communication and social skills.

Students may experience real anxiety about having to work within a group, particularly when working with previously unknown students.

If it is possible, it will be helpful to assign one or two familiar faces to the ASD student's group. If this is not possible, it may be useful to consider assigning specific roles or tasks to group members so that the student with an ASD knows exactly what is expected of him/her.

Tutorials

Make sure tutors are aware of which students in the class have ASDs (if allowed under your disability agreement with the student).

It may be a good idea to personally introduce the relevant staff member to the student and encourage him/her to become familiar with the student.

Seek help

If you have not already done so, it will be worthwhile identifying the point-of-contact at your tertiary institute who is responsible for providing assistance for ASD students. This person could be a disability support liaison officer or someone from the student support services.

Adjustments

Disability Discrimination Act 1992

The Disability Standards for Education (2005) were formulated under the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) [PDF 171 KB]

The Standard states the obligations of education and training providers to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access and participate in education and training on the same basis as those without disability.

The Standards provide for reasonable adjustments and alternative assessment arrangements to allow students with disabilities equal access to academic courses and activities.

Providing reasonable adjustments

A reasonable adjustment is a measure or action which enables a student with a disability to participate in education and training on the same basis as other students.

An alternative assessment is an adjustment or alteration to the standard format of an assessment.

Examples of reasonable adjustments and alternative assessments provided to students by Victorian higher education institutions are listed in the table below.

If you have not already done so, please check with the disability support service at your institution for the types of adjustments that may be provided to students with disabilities, as this may differ between institutions.

While some students with ASDs may independently initiate discussions with academic staff, the disability support liaison officers may attend the meeting with academic staff to facilitate discussion of appropriate adjustments for the particular student. In some cases disability support may send you a letter stating what reasonable adjustments the student requires.

Examples of reasonable adjustments and alternative assessments

Functional impacts on academic performanceReasonable adjustmentsAlternative assessment arrangements

Sensory and motor:

  • Light sensitivity
  • Noise sensitivity
  • Irritation to certain environments
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills such as handwriting
  • Short breaks during classes to help manage the condition
  • Provide a learning environment which minimises the impacts of environmental effects e.g. lighting
  • Note taker for taking class notes
  • Flexible arrangements for field placements with extra consultation with field supervisor
  • For exams, provide extra writing time or use of computer to type answers

Cognitive:

  • Easily distracted
  • Miscomprehension due to literal interpretation
  • Difficulty comprehending certain communication styles (verbal and gesture)
  • Difficulties with new  tasks or unplanned changes
  • All communication (oral and written) to be clear and concise using non-figurative and unambiguous language e.g., no metaphor
  • Paraphrase communications
  • One-on-one catch-up with lecturers
  • Copies of overheads and formal lecture notes provided few days prior to class
  • Audio recording of lectures or classes
  • Short breaks during class to help manage the condition
  • Digital audio recorder for non-audio-recorded teaching space
  • Special exam conditions for exams and in-class tests (written, practical and laboratory). For example, separate room for exam
  • Extra reading time with access to clarification of exam content
  • Extra writing time
  • One exam per day

Behavioural:

  • Poor organisational skills
  • Obsessive or repetitive routines
  • Referral to specialist department within the tertiary institution to assist with organisational skills  and study planning
  • Extensions as negotiated with academic staff and relevant support staff when condition is impacting

Social/interpersonal:

  • Abrupt or intrusive communication style
  • Difficulties with group work
  • Difficulties initiating or responding appropriately in communication with others (academics and fellow students)
 
  • Assigning roles and responsibilities to students within the group
  • Individual assignment as alternative to group assignments where the academic integrity of the course is not impacted

Emotional:

  • Anxiety and depression
Referral to counselling  serviceReferral to counselling  service
  • Many lectures in tertiary settings are now automatically recorded and placed online. It may be helpful to make sure that a student with an ASD is aware of this and is able to access this information independently.

Transition to tertiary education

Supporting students during the transition period.

Appropriate support

How to provide appropriate support to students with an ASD.

Strategies for staff

More about strategies for working with ASD students.

Reasonable adjustments

Details of reasonable adjustments that may be provided to ASD students.