As the mother of a child with autism, I am acutely aware of the difficulties my son has in navigating the world.  He’s a good looking teen with wild shoulder length hair, a full beard and fashionably hip Ray Ban Wayfarer glasses.  Girls are aware of his good looks, but taken aback by his eccentricities, and turned off when he obsessively talks about music theory or a banjo technique completely out of context. 

Your student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may similarly look “normal” but his or her behavior is often perplexing if not downright annoying.  People with autism have come to show us that they are capable of overcoming their challenges, but they may need extra support and understanding.  What can instructors do to provide that support?

Here are few things for you to consider.

  1. People on the spectrum have “disordered” sensory perception.  This means sights, sounds, tastes and smells can be painful, and can feel hostile.  This may sound like hyperbole, but for your student on the spectrum, a strong cologne, a squeaky chair or two people giggling during class can set them on edge.  People on the spectrum often have heightened acuity and therefore are easily overstimulated.  This leads to a fight or flight response.  An overstimulated individual may need to leave your room for a break  which is a much better response than defensively arguing with you or others in the classroom.  Leaving is an excellent choice in this situation, so make sure your ASD student sits next to the door. 

  1. Receptive and expressive language are tricky for your ASD student.  It isn’t that they don’t listen to instructions.  It may be that they can’t understand you.  If you call from across the room, it may sound like this, “BLAH, wah, wah, mah, bah dah.”  (Sort of like the teacher in the Peanuts comic.) The best solution for this problem is to walk up to the front of your student directly(don’t sneak up on them), wait until you have her attention and then say, “Barb, could you please put your book away in order to take the test?”  This tells her exactly what to do and explains what is coming next.  This makes it so much easier to comply with your requests.  Asking your ASD student to sit in the front will support both of you. 

  1. People on the spectrum are concrete thinkers.  Idioms, puns, nuances, double entendres and sarcasm may be completely lost on your ASD student.   Be ready to state things in simple, clear language; be as literal as possible.  You may need to say clearly, “When you talk to yourself during class, it disrupts the other students.  What could you do differently?”  Help your student come up with strategies to manage the behavior.  And, of course, always do this one on one instead of in front of others.

  2. Students on the autism spectrum love rules, so if the strategy in #3 isn’t working, try creating concrete rules for everyone in the class which could stop a multitude of annoying behaviors.  For example, if your ASD student is disrupting, you may need to create a rule that states, “students must raise their hands and wait to be called on” or “you may ask four questions per class period.”  This will take some finesse, but if you set Norms for the group at the beginning, you can just add to them as you go.  I just added a new one that states “I will only call on you if I have finished talking.” It took care of a very annoying and quite rude interrupting problem.

  1. Your ASD student needs your help with social interactions.  It may appear that he isn’t participating in a small group, but in fact, it’s probably because he doesn’t know how to get started. Encourage other students to help him join in or sit with the group and help move the interaction along by showing the other students how to draw him out.  This is tricky, but you’ll have more continuity and better participation if you take the time to make this happen. 

Concrete thinking, limited language ability, poor social skills and difficulty with sensory input can all boil down to one thing in college:  anxiety.  Therefore the more you can help your ASD student eliminate anxiety the better.   Using the resources we have at NMC will also greatly support you in helping your ASD student:  Disability Services, Counseling, Student Success Center, the WRC, the Math Center, and Tutoring will all give your ASD student support.

Most importantly try to discover the cool “neuro-diversity” within your ASD student.  My son may have his quirks, but he doesn’t cheat, lie or judge other people, and that has been my experience with most students on the spectrum.  With your ASD student’s capacity for extraordinary focus and attention to detail, she could be an Einstein, Van Gogh or Mozart all of whom are now widely believed to have been autistic.

The best advice I can give is to decide that your ASD student is worth the effort.  You’ll be happy you did.

For more information see Ellen Notbolm’s book 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.