In tenth grade, my friends suggested I volunteer with them at the Dunbar Community Center’s inclusive day program for children with and without autism. I understood that autism was a disorder, but, growing up, I heard many people mistake autism for ‘blindness’ and ‘deafness’ (those are different disabilities altogether). So, while I had zero experience working with individuals with autism, I was still very excited. And… I had a wonderful experience supporting children at the inclusive day program. They were an inspiration, and since then, my interest in working with individuals living with autism (and other disabilities) grew.
Next, volunteering for the Canucks Autism Network, helped me understand that there are mild to severe forms of autism; hence, the spectrum. As beautifully demonstrated by the picture below, different disorders are within the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Many individuals with ASD commonly share difficulty empathizing and communicating with other people. Also, individuals with ASD would strongly focus on limited activities and interests. I’ve volunteered with elementary and high school students with ASD, so it was natural that I became aware of the support services available to them. Recently, I’ve been curious about the instructional strategies that post-secondary schools recommend to academically support college students with ASD. I’d like to share with you the content of two research articles that presented strategies currently being recommended to post-secondary instructors. Neat, huh?
First, let me provide some context: Over the years, colleges have been accepting more students with ASD. Simply put, we’re getting better at identifying and diagnosing people with ASD at younger ages. Therefore, we have the opportunity to deliver more services earlier and throughout their life, so they may be eligible for a college-level education. While this sounds like progress to me, this is a concern for many post-secondary schools. As the population of students with ASD grows, many post-secondary schools and their faculty members feel the pressure to deliver positive educational experiences (McKeon & Alpern, 2013). Do they have enough effective support services for the increasing number of students with special needs? If so, for example, how are they helping new students with ASD ease into their new curriculum and post-secondary life?
According to McKeon & Alpern (2013), the post-secondary school environment is different from secondary schools in many ways. If students with ASD are not given the support to adapt to their new learning environment, they may demonstrate behavior such as anxiety, depression and withdrawal (McKeon & Alpern, 2013; VanBergeijk, Klin & Volkmar, 2008). While this reality may sound very disheartening, yes, there are ways to change these effects! Instructors and peers are here to help!
Here are some of the challenges, and the respective strategies that instructors and peers may use to help students with ASD do well in the classroom:
1. In general, colleges and post-secondary schools have higher expectations for college students. If the student, more so a student with ASD, is unable to adapt to the instructor’s teaching style, the cost is their focus and understanding of the course content. Individuals with ASD are dependent on structure. Knowing this, instructors may provide organizational help, which means providing specific instructions regarding their study materials (VanBergeijk et al., 2008). For example, instructors may choose to further discuss the class syllabus and the homework and project assignments with the student with ASD. When expectations in the classroom are made clear for these individuals, their focus and comprehension will increase, while feelings of anxiety will decrease. More importantly, changes to the class schedule must be announced ahead of time. Instructors may help students with ASD prepare for this by offering some one-on-one time to explain changes in routines (McKeon & Alpern, 2013).
2. Time management is a skill that students with ASD are still learning to do. The challenge of managing their time affects different aspects of their performance in school. For example, large assignments with time-crunching due dates may overwhelm students with ASD. Knowing this, instructors may choose to break down assignments into parts, such as when writing a research paper. This strategy may help train students with ASD visualize a calendar in their mind with or without a hard copy of a day planner. To further process different time schedules in their ‘mental calendar’, students with ASD may choose to use audible alarms. This kind of technology helps remind students when to attend class, when to study for a test and when to start preparing for class project (VanBergeijk et al., 2008).
3. In a class setting, students with ASD may be asked to look at the ‘bigger picture’ and understand ambiguous concepts in class. I think the articles implied that a challenge for students with ASD is to understand the ‘why’. Students with ASD are better at collecting details and facts, but there are different ways instructors may help students comprehend abstract ideas: Instructors may ask more specific questions to increase the students’ understanding of the ‘bigger picture’. Instructors may use visuals such as compare and contrast charts to explain the information. Another option is to use problem and solution charts to help students with ASD practice understanding different perspectives and alternative viewpoints (McKeon & Alpern, 2013).
4. Another common challenge with students with ASD is their ability cope with demands on their social skills. Students with ASD are concerned about their ability to get along with other people. They are still learning how to empathize and communicate with others. In some situations, classes evaluate students based on group projects, even if students with ASD have difficulty with social interactions (McKeon & Alpern, 2013; VanBergeijk et al., 2008). While it is important for students to develop some level of independence, it is also beneficial for them to learn how to effectively work with other people. Instructors and peers can make this easier for students with ASD by assigning peer mentors to reach out and keep students with ASD socially engaged. Instructors may even encourage groups to share information using online resources (McKeon & Alpern, 2013). Social skills groups may also teach students with ASD what is appropriate to say in different social situations (VanBergeijk et al., 2008).
So, I’ve only just scratched the surface. The strategies mentioned above are only a few. There are more methods that instructors are using to help students with ASD find success in the classroom. I encourage you to keep researching (as will I)!
This is CC, and I hope this helped you better understand the world we live in!
McKeon, B., & Alpern, C. S. (2013). Promoting academic engagement for college students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 26(4), 353-366. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1026894.pdf
VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: College and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1359-1370. doi: 10.1007/s10803-007-0524-8