Cognitive

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.

Structure

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.

Multi-tasking

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.

Information processing

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.

Distractions

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.