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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.