Characteristics of ASD
Although every individual with an ASD is different, there are certain traits and characteristics associated with these conditions.
People with ASD may have many strengths, which include:
- Sustained and heightened attention to detail on topics of interest
- Good rote memory
- Forthrightness in communications
- Adherence to routines and rules when appropriate structure is in place.
People with ASD may also experience challenges due to the core characteristics of ASD and the secondary problems that are common in these conditions.
The three core characteristics of ASD are related to the social, communication, and behavioural areas.
The secondary problem areas include emotional, cognitive, sensory and motor difficulties.
Some other groups that may also have these problems are students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), students with specific learning difficulties and students with mental health problems.
Challenges faced by individuals with ASD
Social and communication
Many of the social difficulties that people with ASD have are related to their communication difficulties. People with ASD have a tendency to interpret literally what another person says, affecting the way students interpret instructions given out by staff. This may lead to misunderstandings which have a negative impact on the student-staff relationships, peer relationships and student learning outcomes.
“As well as difficulties with eye contact, non-verbal cues and understanding nuance”, students with ASD may experience communication difficulties such as:
- not wanting to communicate concerns to staff
- being unable to demonstrate knowledge in the particular form of assessment required by teaching staff
- preferring not to participate in group discussions and not to undertake group assignments due to communication challenges and high levels of anxiety.
Here are some examples of situations which staff have encountered when teaching tertiary students with an ASD.
Staff: The student was always anxious, always very literal. I asked him to dictate the work to me and he was horrified and said 'I would never presume to dictate to you'.
Staff: One time we were teaching how to plant seedlings. I told the student what to do but I hadn’t told him then to move on, so all he was doing was planting it, pulling it out, making a hole, planting again.
Staff: What is probably now a celebrated case of a student having completed assignment work but not handing it in and failing the course merely because the question was 'Have you done your assignment?' not 'Can you hand your assignment to me?'
Here are some situations that parents and tertiary students have faced.
Parent: Last year, he was doing an assignment and I said 'How's it going?' He said 'Oh, I've done question one, two and six'. I said 'Can you ask about this' and he said 'Oh well, you actually do it in a group but I'm doing it all on my own'. I said 'Well, no wonder you're finding it hard'. I said 'Have you explained to the lecturer that you find it hard to get into group?' He said 'No, I didn't think I needed to say that.'
Parent: My daughter often come [sic] to me recently and said that in particular with group activities or work requirements that have to be done, she gets extremely angry and upset and stressed when other students don’t contact her with work that has to be done, promptly.
Student: I don’t ask for help because it's embarrassing and I don’t want look like an idiot in front of everyone.
Student 1: I mean, I can write but when it comes to putting a sentence down, I find it difficult to be able to put words onto paper and an answer that they would probably find acceptable. Student 2: I have a similar problem, I can’t articulate my thoughts very well. I mean I can’t write them down, I can speak it and talk about it in very very knowledgeable [way]. I just can’t write about it.
Student: I've been known to send several emails to the same person or group of people in the one day. Even [when] someone in the group was sick initially I kept them in contact because I thought it was polite to keep them in the loop. I soon realised that the other members said 'best to keep us in the loop and just send the minutes to the sick student at this stage'.
Many ASD students have trouble being organised.
Student: I am really disorganised. I try to be organised but it’s this uphill impossible struggle. It’s a wharf [sic] of chaos. Everything is just so random, chaotic, and I’ll try to be organised but it’s not going to end up being organised. I’ll just try to make it not as disorganised. Trying to minimise the damage.
One of the key academic problems resulting from poor organisation is that students are unable to hand in assignments and undertake assessments on time.
Student: From a one to a ten scale for being organised, I am probably a two. I can get to class on time. But handing assignments in, I'm not that good because while everyone else has finished, I'm still struggling to even start sometimes.
Student: I'd say about six out of ten times I am able to hand in assessments on time...it's normally I don't really plan it out ahead of time.
Some students also find it hard to judge time.
Student: For me organising myself is difficult because I don’t know how long it takes to do things. So I think it’ll take a day but ends up taking four days. And then that displaces your whole plan.
Student: No, I can't even judge time. Like ten, twenty minutes ahead of time. No. It is not possible for me.
Students with an ASD have elevated levels of anxiety and are prone to becoming clinically depressed. One parent commented that ASD students operate 'on a level of anxiety that is equivalent to Year 12 students, all the time'. The stress and anxiety may come from a range of factors and some are listed below.
Classes and workload
a) Academic issues such as not understanding the lesson and being overwhelmed by the workload.
Student: I got a form that lets me get extensions because sometimes I freak out a bit. People can’t really see it. I just keep it inside.
b) Not being able to communicate with the academic staff.
Student: I’ve had a screaming fit in the middle of the corridor at the admin building. My particular lecturer walked away from me when I asked for help and I said, don’t you walk away. And I really lost it.
Routine and structure
c) Change in routine and transition into tertiary education; staff support can be a great help.
Staff member: When there was a stand-in teacher for two weeks only, I actually requested that that teacher come and meet the whole class, but I wouldn't normally do that. I made it as though it was something that happens that here's your teacher who you're going to have in two weeks' time. But I did that primarily because of that student that's on the spectrum to ease the anxiety and to also keep in mind that if a teacher was going to be away that I would consciously again have to have in the back of my mind, 'Well how's such and such going to cope with that?'.
Staff member: There does seem to be a common denominator that when they begin their first year, that is incredibly stressful and at the start of each year it is stressful, but that stress lessens over time. But certainly that first transitional period from wherever they've come from to university is quite extreme in some cases.
Co-morbid mental health conditions
d) Many students with an ASD have other co-morbid conditions including anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and clinical depression, which need to be considered in relation to accommodations made to support ASD students and interactions with them.
Parent 1: My daughter rebels or sometimes she would go into a deep dark depression and it’s quite common for Asperger’s to have depression with what they have as well. She’s on medication for that. Parent 2: So is mine.
Student: Overwhelm is my middle name. When you have OCD on top of ASD it’s just a nightmare. Every surface in the world is a scary thing and every day a process is an obstacle course of stress. Yeah everything is overwhelming. Getting out of bed is overwhelming. Going downstairs to breakfast is overwhelming.
Students with an ASD tend to prefer structure and routine in their daily lives. Students can experience difficulty focusing on many things at the same time, take longer to process information, and can be easily distracted.
This preference for structure includes the need for structure in academic settings, and the difficulty experienced when this structure is missing.
Student: I always assumed that uni would be just the same as school. When I got to uni, there was a lack of structure. It was okay for the first six months but on the second I was wasting my time away on computer games, not doing the work. I wasn’t getting the help I could have had. I think I just treated uni like school but less intense.
Student: I once failed an exam because there was a question on it which I thought ‘Well we didn’t learn that’. Do you know what I mean? And it was thrown in. Because it was out of the pattern and out of the structure of where I had to learn, it’s thrown me.
Structure aids coping
Structure enables students to cope with the demands of their courses. It assists them to comply with assessment requirements.
When some structure was in place, students were able to cope better.
Student: I was diagnosed very late in my life. In fact, I got through [institute’s] science, chemistry. Chemistry was very organised. It has exact outcomes, so that suited me and I was able to get through the material and finish the degree.
Student: When I did physiology at [institute] we had to prepare a big report on an experiment that we had done. Unlike all the other units we have done in science, this lecturer has said in the first week you need to do the introduction, next week you have to write up the method, the third week you do the results, and then the fourth week you prepare the discussion and then you have the whole report done. Interestingly for me I ended up getting the highest mark. And what it meant was for me that structure meant I can focus on one little bit and get that right.
Many ASD students have difficulty focusing on multiple things at one time. For example, some students find it difficult to listen to the teaching staff in lecture/class whilst writing down notes.
Student: That’s why I decided to get note takers. Problem is when I note take, I’m writing down what I heard last but not listening to what the teacher is saying now.
Student: My brain is unable to process multiple information at the same time. I can think about my own thoughts and what I need to say for the topic, but I can’t think about the person, what they are feeling, and what they need to hear.
Student: Problem is when I note take, I’m writing down what I heard last but not listening to what she’s saying now. Eventually, I decided to listen instead. Some of the stuff lecturers point out is not so important and if I dwell on those, it’s pretty bad. Last time, they’ll talk about what room I have to go [sic]. I’ll be thinking about that and they talk about what you have to do and I’ll still be thinking about the room. The note taker is quite good because they will write those points down as well.
For some students, it takes time to process new information.
Student: So my classmates came up with a logo in ten minutes, whereas I'll take fifteen just trying to brainstorm up ideas and then another twenty or twenty-five trying to put it all together, whereas they've got it flat in twenty.
Student: In lectures, it's too much information, too fast. You can't even see the information in order to write it down. You can't write it down fast enough.
People with ASD often have co-morbid attention difficulties. They are easily distracted and have difficulty shifting attention from one activity to another.
Student: Probably in exams, I find from past experience, in high school, was that it was very difficult for me to concentrate. I tend to notice things like the ceiling, or the examiner walking about, and that gets me distracted. And I can’t concentrate on the actual questions. So the time extensions and the rest breaks really help.
Student: While we've got this aspect where we can focus and be very focussed, your distraction level is also high. So the discipline that's required for anybody with an ASD to get through university is significantly higher.
Sensory and motor
People with an ASD are often highly sensitive to sensory stimuli. Theycan also experience difficulties with handwriting.
Sensitivity to sensory stimuli
Many ASD students are over- or under-sensitive to certain sensory stimuli. For example, some students cannot function well in noisy environments. This may impact the students’ ability to cope within tertiary education settings.
Parent: My son is very sensitive to noise. If he’s trying to study and there’s a bumble bee, he will get distracted. Quiet rooms are very, very much preferable, but not always possible. Walls without too many things, too many distractions is preferable because he gets distracted, which leads to anxiety.
Student: Special provisions for exams were made so I could be in a room on my own. I've got special ear phones which cut out all noise.
Students may use strategies to reduce the external stimuli, including not directly looking into the eyes of the other person while having a conversation.
Student: Those block out strategies can appear as though you're vacant and not taking it in. This can be quite distracting for lecturers and tutors because as a lecturer or tutor, you can be looking at someone and you can think 'oh that student's spaced out' when in actual fact they're reducing the stimuli.
Difficulty with handwriting
Some students with an ASD have difficulty with fine-motor skills and have slow or poor handwriting.
This may impact students in a number of different ways, including not being able to write class notes down fast enough, unable to complete exams in the time allowed, and the examiner not being able to read his/her handwriting.
Student: My hand writing is of really poor quality, so uni gave me a computer to type. I used to get marked down on that in high school because they weren’t able to read it.
Student: They’ve let me use a computer for typing for exams, which helps me massively because the handwriting is difficult, because I can always feel like I need to go back and swap things around.