Autism 

     Autism is characterized by persistent difficulties in “social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts” (Baron-Cohen, 2017; American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p.31), which includes difficulties in “social reciprocity [(i.e., reduced sharing of interests, emotions], nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction [(i.e., eye contact, body language)], and skills in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships [(i.e., adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts)]” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p.50). In addition to having different strategies regarding social communication, an individual with autism may present “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities [ranging from persistent motor movements, use of objects or speech, to hyper- or hypoactivity to sensory input.].” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p.50). Those self-stimulating behaviors, also called stimming, when non-disturbing, should not be forbidden, mocked, or criticized as they allow one to relieve tension. Easily overwhelmed by sensory information, individuals with autism need to regulate sensory input during the day to avoid exhaustion or meltdowns. Autism can result in struggles with executive functions related to planning, time management, and task initiation: individuals with autism need more rigid structure and routine, and thus experience increased difficulty in organization due to a lack of flexibility. Moreover, autism may alter one’s capacity to learn through social interactions or in settings with peers.

     For students, having autism means having the feeling of being wired differently: in addition to having different ways to process information or communicate, things that seem natural for others, especially implicit rules such as nonverbal communication and expectations of what is socially acceptable, can be very difficult. Note that many adults with autism “without an intellectual or language disability learn to suppress repetitive behavior in public” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p.57) and instead use “compensation strategies and coping mechanisms” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p.57). This, however, can increase one’s stress and fatigue due to the pressure and efforts required to present a “socially acceptable façade” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p.57).

 

Shutdowns & Meltdowns – How can you help? 

     When a student with autism is subjected to sensory overload, stress build-up, or a general excess of stimulants, they may experience a shutdown or a meltdown. The signs associated with those experiences are often misinterpreted as signs of disinterest, intentional defiance, or threat. This is particularly challenging as the student’s situation and reactions are misunderstood while they cannot express their needs and experience intense distress. Signs of shutdown can be subtle as the person stops responding to their environment but does not show stimming in an obvious manner. During a shutdown, a person with autism may stop masking (aka stop displaying a neurotypical façade, i.e., facial expressions, body language), stop responding to people and stimuli, start crying/shaking, sit completely still in a closed-off position, or be unable to speak. If the person gets “stuck” in a loop, the best is to contact someone they trust (i.e., checking the emergency contact on their phone from their phone’s locked screen, getting the people they are with).

     A meltdown can look like: screaming/crying, very noticeable stims (i.e., vocal stims, punching), or self-harm behavior (i.e., biting oneself). When recognizing those signs, one can help in different ways. Firstly by identifying the meltdown’s cause and removing it as one can feel unsafe because of something or someone in their environment. To determine the situation’s cause, one can be attentive to cues from the person’s behavior (i.e., covering their ears or nose or closing their eyes). When a meltdown is caused by emotional distress, there might not be an obvious trigger in the person’s environment. In general, it is best not to touch someone experiencing a meltdown. If necessary/applicable, ask the person before touching them.

     In some cases, it is helpful to provide a non-invasive stimulus that can help distract or calm the person, such as a sweater, blanket, glass of water, or an object. The person may have their own support tools such as noise-canceling headphones, a specific object, or an app on their phone and need help to access it. In addition, it is important to ask very little to nothing from the person. If applicable, one should give clear and specific instructions rather than asking open questions, which can be perceived as overwhelming. Statements such as “I am getting you to a calm and quiet space” and “You can take all the time you need to recover” are reassuring.

     Most importantly, in order not to worsen the crisis, others should not try to restrain the person from stimming, though its intensity can increase. If stimming becomes a serious danger to the person’s surroundings or themselves, one may calmly and safely resort to restraining them for security matters. However, it should be done with precautions, without yelling or other agitating behavior to not further overwhelm the person experiencing a meltdown. 

In class

Situation
What is happening when the issue arises?

A lecture involves sitting still and focusing  for a long period of time. 

The lecturer uses a video as an interactive support for the class. The video does not have English (or the student’s native language) subtitles.

- Class discussion (in-person or online)

- Graded participation 

The lecturer asks a question and quickly launches a discussion. 

This also applies in “first come first served” situations (i.e., to pick partners for group work or a date for a presentation). 

Long lectures with few/short breaks (>1h30)

Too many visual stimulants during a lecture or presentation (overly full PowerPoint, board, screen).

Notes taking

Group work in class. There is a lot of sensory input (i.e., movements, loud discussion / noises).

Intense sensory stimulus in the class that came without warning (i.e., loud or threatening sounds (i.e., screams, music, applause), bright lights or flashing lights, emotionally heavy stimuli (i.e.,. depiction of violence) overwhelming smells or unwanted touch

The lecturer wants or expects the student to do something, but does not make it explicit (nonverbal communication). They misinterpret signs of confusion for signs of lying, disinterest, defiance or arrogance. 

Guest lecture

Issue
Why is the situation challenging?

Possible accommodation
How can the situation be made more accessible?

It is difficult for students with ASD to concentrate on the lecture without engaging in another task.

- Sensory input regulation by engaging in stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour - quiet fidget toys or doodling. 

Note: Self-stimulatory behaviour is different from distracting behavior such as texting.

Autism can affect auditory processing abilities, which can sometimes make it difficult to understand what is being said.

- Students can watch the video again when at home. However, they may still miss small parts of the content, even after rewatching and miss out on the class discussion about the material.

 

- Use of alternative sources to prepare for class or to use afterward (if possible provided by the lecturer).

Students with ASD have deficits in social interactions and communication. They may not be able to  determine when to speak (thus stay quiet or speak out of turn), and need more time to formulate a response (thus not be able to contribute on time).

- Alternative to discussion or participation assessment (i.e., use of the canvas discussion board, short written assignment)

In-person class:

- Defining the discussion structure (writing questions or keywords on the whiteboard or PowerPoint. 

 

- The lecturer/discussion leader can pace the discussion, check in with those who have not spoken at the end of the discussion, and ask for further comments. 

Online class: 

- Use of the chat to contribute.

 

- Typed answers can be considered towards participation grade. 

Students may not have the time to process the question or gather their thoughts and are unable to contribute on time. 

The students unwillingly end up with the “last pick”. 

- Giving a few minutes for reflection, especially for “first come first served situations” and making sure all students are ready. 

- Online sign-ups introduced in-class with a reminder in canvas announcements.

 

- Writing down the question on the board or the PowerPoint.

 

- Writing down the discussion’s main points on the board.

Some students with ASD may not be able to stay still for more than 30 minutes without losing attention. This leads them to miss out on the rest of the class’s content. 

- Letting students know how long the class will be during course registration. 

- Allowing students to stand up in class.

 

Use of coping mechanisms (i.e., stimming, doodling).

Sensory overload is exhausting for students and may lead them to miss out on the class’ content. 

- Limiting visual data on a slide.

- Organization of the board/screen

Some students cannot take notes as it causes them to miss part of a discussion or follow the class. This is problematic to study later on. 

- Use of the PowerPoint. 

 

- Online: recording the class.

Students with ASD can be easily overwhelmed and then cannot contribute to their group’s work. Some might think they are taking the position of a free rider.  

- The group of the student can go work in a project room. 

 

Ideally, the lecturer booked a room prior to the class so that there is no time loss looking for one or moving to the room because it is far from the classroom. 

These stimuli can cause psychological and physical discomfort, and trigger a meltdown or a shutdown. 

- Giving a warning if the stimulus is unavoidable for the purposes of the lecture. 

 

- Discussing the setting beforehand with the student. 

 

- Use of alternatives if possible.

Students with ASD might take significantly longer than most people to understand what people want when they do not express themselves explicitly, and often misunderstand or do not understand it at all. It is very stressful, confusing and uncomfortable. 

- The lecturer should make their expectations clear and explicit and should not assume negatively of the student who is doing their best to understand and solve the situation.

The new lecturer is not aware of the student’s disability and might not be considerate enough during their lecture. 

- Letting the lecturer know about the student’s disability in advance. 

- Giving time to the student with a disability to introduce themselves. 

Deadlines & Assignments

Situation
What is happening when the issue arises?

Issue
Why is the situation challenging?

Possible accommodation
How can the situation be made more accessible?

Many deadlines in the same week

Autism leads to difficulties related to sensory dysfunction associated with planning, organization, and time management. A week with many deadlines can cause high levels of stress, fatigue, and meltdowns.

Clarity from lecturers is essential:

- Mentioning whether the time of the deadline is essential.

- Mentioning leniency (i.e., handing in an assignment an hour after the deadline is OK) (if applicable).

- Clarifying in which situations an extension would be possible/what is required to request it.

 

- Avoiding vagueness as much as possible: phrasing such as ‘if you hand it in a day late you’ll probably be fine” takes away the pressure that helps meeting deadlines without taking away the stress that makes deadlines like this mentally taxing. 

 

- At the beginning of the semester, giving the option to move deadlines during the period to avoid overlap with other classes.

​New information about an assignment given very close to the deadline.

Students with ASD might need more time to plan and organise their work. Therefore, they may not be left with sufficient time to adjust their schedule and plan the steps of their assignments properly.

- Give a full description of the assignment early, including the material needed, so that students can prepare (at the beginning of the semester, or at least a month in advance).

- Avoid last minute changes.  

- Proactivity from students: ask for information in advance.

- In cases where this occurs, use of an extension. 

Assignment that are very open to interpretation, or involve many steps/components

Students are confused about what is expected from them, do not know where to begin, or find it difficult to organise the steps of the assignment.

- Additional discussion with the lecturer.

- Giving prompts or more specific instructions when needed.

- Communication with other students.

Written form  

For some students, writing down is incredibly more difficult than expressing themselves vocally.  

- Some assessments such as weekly responses, or less substantial essays could be completed in a non-written form (completely or partially), such as audio or video recordings.

Ableist grading criteria: assessment of communication skills, eye contact, and body language (used in interpretation of appropriateness, engagement, focus, fast reaction times, or improvisation skills). 

Students with ASD may struggle with those criteria though it does not affect the quality of their work’s content. Some focus best when looking away from people's faces, while fidgeting, or seemingly being focused on another task (e.g. doodling).

Masking autistic traits can be highly distracting for students and lower their work’s quality as they focus more on their behavior than the assignment. 

- Use alternative grading criteria / avoid the use of grading criteria based on those skills for students with ASD.

- If possible / necessary, give students with ASD an alternative assignment. 

Examinations

Situation
What is happening when the issue arises?

Issue
Why is the situation challenging?

Possible accommodation
How can the situation be made more accessible?

Examinations – Distractions & Time loss 

Beside the examination students are supposed to complete, there are a lot of sources of distraction in one’s environment (in-class and at home) which lead them to unwillingly lose time. This adds stress to a situation already challenging and may negatively impact their performance in cases where they are not given proper accommodations. 

- Extra time relieves some of the pressure for students as it can help make up for some of the time loss caused by a distraction. 

 

- Use of noise-cancelling headphones.

Long exams (>1h30)

Staying concentrated for a long time is difficult, sitting still, and staying quiet to complete the exam is problematic.

- Extra time may give students time to refocus.

 

- Being able to walk out of the classroom for a few minutes (accompanied if required).