Faculty Tips for Students Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Holding Students Enrolled in the College Transition Program (CTP) to the Same Standards as Regularly Admitted Students
Students are invited to enroll in the CTP after a careful selection process conducted by the Office of Admissions and then by members of the LOC’s professional academic staff. This process is designed to ensure that students who are accepted to participate in the CTP can meet the same challenging academic and social standards Westminster College holds for regularly admitted students. A diagnosis of ASD is not an acceptable excuse for missing class, preparing for class, failing to turn in assignments in a timely manner, participating in small group work, or taking examinations at regularly scheduled times.
Students diagnosed with ASD are responsible for working with members of the LOC’s professional academic staff to meet the same challenging academic and social standards Westminster College holds for regularly admitted students. Please communicate with students’ advisor in the LOC, if student attendance, participation, and/or performance in your class is inappropriate.
Addressing Challenges Shared by Students Diagnosed with ASD
Students who are enrolled in Westminster’s College Transition Program (CTP) are diagnosed with ASD and agree that they tend to demonstrate similar challenges. The one-on-one work of members of the LOC’s professional academic staff with them is designed to address the challenges they often share:
Superior intelligence combined with a relatively slow rate of processing. While most of our students with ASD have superior to very superior verbal IQs, the rate at which they process information is relatively very slow. This means that the average ability of students to understand and communicate verbal information and acquire knowledge is beyond that of the top 16 percent of the population; however, the average ability of students to process information is average to low average. Scores of working memory and perceptual reasoning are also relatively low. In brief, these are very bright students who take a very long time to think and communicate about what they are learning. For this reason, our students with ASD may not immediately answer when called upon in class and take many hours to complete an exam that other students complete in 50 minutes. They may also pause for long periods of time before responding in conversations with their peers.
Difficulty in socializing. While some of our students with ASD are extroverted (energized by being around others with whom they have shared interests), many are introverted (drained by socializing). Our students with ASD often find it difficult to relate to the content of their non-ASD peers’ conversations, struggle to sit and participate in the give-and-take of small groups, miss sarcasm and take what others say literally, experience difficulty with body space (i.e., they maintain a personal bubble or impinge on others’ body space, as in “glomping”), find it hard to read others’ expressions, and seem oblivious to body language, especially when it is subtle.
An example provided by a student with ASD of a situation in which it is difficult for him to gauge subtle body language is when he is engaged in conversation with a young woman and cannot tell whether or not she is interested or her expression is saying “get me the hell out of here.” Male students with ASD unanimously agree that their anxiety about missing social cues is most significant in trying to determine whether or not members of the opposite sex are interested or not interested in them.
While some of our students seem impervious to others in many ways, all of them have suffered the pain of social rejection and many have experienced bullying at various times in their lives. The research literature has suggested that people with ASD do not have empathy; however, the depth of feeling related by students with ASD about their experiences of being rejected and bullied by others, sense of injustice when they observe others to be hurting or struggling, love for members of their families and animals, and true affection for others does not substantiate the idea that they do not have feelings.
It is important to note that research into the social and communication difficulties of people with ASD suggests that they lack empathy within the context of Theory of Mind (ToM), or “the ability to recognize and understand thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions of other people in order to make sense of their behavior and predict what they are going to do next.” Researchers suggest that people with ASD use “intellectual analysis, rote learning and memory rather than … immediate and intuitive [understanding]” when assessing what others are thinking and feeling. By “a lack of empathy,” researchers suggest that people with ASD “do not intuitively understand that other people have minds that may contain an entirely different view of the world to their and they cannot ‘get into’ another person’s head.”
Researchers have posited that “understanding other people involves reading their behavior in terms of their intentions and desires” and that “thinking about your own (or someone’s else’s) intentions to act requires mentalising,” which is also dependent on mirror neurons. According to this body of research, mirror neurons “are activated when you move, and also when you see someone else moving. This means we unconsciously mimic the actions of others, and thus share, to some extent, their experience …. [Further,] in order to mirror another’s action, the sight of the action must ‘resonate’ with a motor program that the brain has already learned.” Not only do mirror neurons allow us to mirror others’ movements, but they “also allow us to know what another person is feeling, without having to think about it.” Researchers suggest that areas of the brain associated with mirror neuron activity are significantly impaired in people with ASD.
While it is apparent that people with ASD experience difficulty in understanding and communicating with others, scientific investigations of the neural systems and neurotransmitters that could cause social impairment in people with autism have not identified a single cause of this difficulty. Indeed, five decades of research have identified a number of problems with the nature of the research. This body of research has also proposed structural and functional problems in many different areas of the brains of people with autism. In addition, this research has proposed genetically based problems at the cellular level in people with autism—in the creation and death of neurons, in the cells that support and protect neural structures and functions, and in the levels of neurotransmitters available to support the organization and functioning of different parts of the brain.
Whether or not a person with ASD is able to mind-read, students with ASD, like other students, struggle to move beyond identifying “what” to grasping and conveying “how” and “why.” Whether they grasp the “how” and “why” through intuition, intellect, observation, or other means, the ability to do so is essential to students’ social and academic success at the college level. Difficulties with this ability occur in much of our work with students with ASD. First we work to identify who, what, when and where X is occurring—whether X occurs in a social situation or within the context of a text. Then, we work figure out how and why X is occurring based on past experiences, context cues, and outside resources. Along the way, we assess the relative significance of our findings to ourselves and others. In the context of social situations, we identify boundaries, appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and expected future behaviors and relevant supports for those behaviors. In the context of academic texts, we outline an explanation of our findings. For example, a student with ASD, wrote a thesis statement for an English paper describing a writer as “quintessentially existential.” The student provided numerous examples from the text of characters in conflicts, in interpersonal relationships, and in dilemmas that were existential in nature; however, the student did not provide any explanation of how or why these conflicts, interpersonal relationships, and dilemmas were existential in nature. Our work then focused on identifying how and why each example was existential.
Students with ASD, like their non-ASD peers, are often unaware that papers, like other social communications, are governed by social and discipline-specific rules such as those offered by MLA, CMS, and APA. Each of the rules should be pointed out as mistakes are made and an opportunity given to repair the mistake. In addition, students with ASD do not readily grasp some of the emotional and social nuances suggested by authors.
Difficulties in pragmatics and prosody. While many of our students with ASD can sound very pedantic and have incredible vocabularies, they tend to be very literal and experience difficulty understanding the phrasing of questions (i.e., what is being asked of them when responding to essay questions and paper assignments), particularly when those questions are posed in disciplines that are new to them. It is very important to check in with a student with ASD to make sure that he or she is thinking about or considering exactly what he or she has been asked to think about or consider. This is especially important when students are writing papers or responding to essay questions on exams. Consistent with Gillberg’s (1991) diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome, our students often demonstrate speech peculiarities such as odd or lyrical voice characteristics.
Difficulties with executive functions (i.e., organization, time management, prioritizing, breaking tasks down into parts and recombining them, transitioning from task to task, maintaining focus, and completing tasks). Students with ASD often resemble students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Indeed, researchers have identified genetic, neurologic, and behavioral similarities in ASD and ADHD, however, a diagnosis of ASD currently precludes a diagnosis of ADHD. It is estimated that about 75% of people diagnosed with ASD meet the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD as well, and it is anticipated that this statistic will be substantiated by research conducted after the publication of DSM-V.
The presence of attention deficits in students with ASD is demonstrated by inattention, distraction, hyperactivity, and/or impulsive comments and actions in classroom settings. It is also demonstrated by an untimely appearance in class or submission of assignments and by disorganized expressions of thoughts and ideas—verbally and in writing. Interestingly, many students with ASD share that they lose an orientation to time when showering. They relate as much as an hour or more will pass while showering, and they have no idea that they were in the shower beyond a few minutes.
Difficulties with transitions, change, and disciplinary methodology that is new to them. During the first few weeks of transition to college life as freshmen, students with ASD often appear confused, overwhelmed, lost, over-stimulated or over-excited, inattentive, distracted, and/or exhausted. All of their familiar routines are lost as they try to negotiate a new physical and social environment without the oversight of their parents. Without the comfortable predictability of their homes and high schools and/or someone to oversee what, when, and/or how they eat, sleep, wash, take meds, engage in video games, and otherwise conduct their lives, they are easily distracted by the desire to immediately gratify wants in the moment or quietly withdraw in an attempt to center. Students with ASD like sameness, patterns and routines and often need help in reestablishing predictable daily and weekly schedules of activity, and self-care routines in college.
Sensitivity to sounds, tastes, smells, sights, and tactile sensations. Students with ASD can have specific preferences for clothing, foods, sensations, and patterns of behaviors that others are not easily aware of, and they can be very sensitive to sounds or lights that others simply do not hear or see. A student with ASD, for example, may leave a classroom setting because the video-feed is too loud or because he or she is bothered by the pulsating flicker of a fluorescent overhead light. To compensate for sound and light sensitivities, students with ASD may wear sunglasses or ear plugs on campus. Tight clothing may provide a sense of comfort or discomfort. Food preferences may have to do with smell, texture, or appearance. For one student with ASD, for example, different food items cannot touch other food items on his plate. If catsup gets into his cottage cheese, he may be unable to eat anything on his plate. A student with ASD’s fixation on patterns and routine may compete with logic on Trayless Tuesdays, when trays are unavailable in the dining hall. The student’s thinking may be that without a tray he cannot carry all of the plates, cups/glasses, dining utensils, and food items he is used to carrying at one time to a dining hall table. Since he eats alone, he is concerned that during multiple trips back and forth to the dining hall table, someone could take his place and/or mess with his food. To resolve this issue, he may opt to go without a basic necessity so that he can afford to eat his Tuesday meals at a local restaurant.
“Restricted, repetitive adherence to patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.” Of all of the diagnostic criteria for ASD offered by both DSM-IV and DSM-V, our students with ASD agree that rigid adherence to “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities” is a trait they share with one another. This characteristic is exemplified by pacing or walking and talking to self to process the events of the day, lip smacking or hand twitching, or viewing a video program that would not seem age- or gender-appropriate but references enough geek fantasy icons to fascinate.
Our students with ASD often demonstrate compulsive, rigid, or obsessed behaviors; they describe the need to “keep sticking to one thing or an array of things in some way and not letting go.” This behavior may be manifested by compulsively checking on something, keeping rigid schedules, “eating the same things for breakfast for ten years (e.g., peanut butter toast), or reading the same novels at the same time every year.” Often these behaviors are an important kinetic way for students with ASD to soothe, center, or “reset” themselves. Sometimes these behaviors, combined with a narrow range of interests, occur to exclusion of other activities such as studying.
- A love of imaginary worlds filled with archetypal imagery that engage superheroes in playing with or bending rules as they combat good and evil. Many of our students with ASD love Anime and actively participate in the Anime Club. They also enjoy fantasy fiction and even formed another College Transition Workshop group devoted to sharing their work writing fantasy fiction, short stories, and graphic novels. It is worth noting that in all of these imaginary worlds, otherness is a norm.
Enrollment in the Academic Survival Skills Workshop
All freshmen students who are enrolled in the LDP and CTP will enroll in the Academic Survival Skills Workshop, which is designed to assist them in reading and writing across the disciplines and understanding and working through mathematical problems. The workshop is linked to coursework, which provides an immediate context for developing and refining the academic skills needed to navigate the requirements of the college’s core curriculum.
Enrollment in College Transition Workshop
Students who are diagnosed with ASD share similar characteristics that directly impact their academic and social success in Westminster College’s living and learning community and can also directly impact the living and learning communities of students’ peers. These characteristics include: strong verbal reasoning ability, slow processing speed, socially awkward behaviors, sensory hypersensitivity, motor clumsiness, obsessive compulsive tendencies, anxiety, depression and difficulties with executive skill functions such as attention, organization, and time management and with semantic and pragmatic aspects of language. The College Transition Workshop provides opportunities for students with ASD to become acquainted with one another through a range of activities and to discuss and examine shared experiences, interests, and challenges. The workshop is often the first safe and entertaining social group to which many of the students belong.
Extended Time Testing for Students Diagnosed with ASD
The Tomnitz Family Learning Opportunities Center (LOC) provides a proctored site for extended time testing for all students enrolled in the LDP and CTP and for all students who present their eligibility for accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act using:
Abbreviated Request and LOC Testing Agreement Form.
Students who are diagnosed with ASD may request that professional academic members read test items and student responses to ensure that students are answering the questions they are asked. Students are also provided with restricted access to a computer and quiet testing rooms.
Testing Protocol for Students Diagnosed with ASD
Members of the LOC staff monitor all examinations to ensure that students observe Westminster College’s Honor Code. Students cannot bring personal computers, backpacks, handbags, books, cell phones, wallets, notes or other materials to the testing site. Students may be asked to reveal the contents of their pockets and shoes and to eliminate writing on their skin to ensure obeisance of the Honor Code. Students may not access computers without permission or exit the examination environment to use the restroom, eat or ask questions.
Members of the faculty, professional academic staff, and student boy are required to uphold the Honor Code and to report violations to the Academic Honor Commission without exemption.
Student responsibilities in obtaining extended time testing, computer access, a reader, and dictation include:
- Upholding Westminster College’s Honor Code by honestly completing examinations and reporting dishonesty to members of the LOC staff.
- Communicating all of their testing needs to members of the faculty in a timely manner. Likewise, members of the faculty will deliver examinations and instructions to Rikka Brown and/or other members of the LOC staff in a timely manner.
- Communicating and scheduling needed testing accommodations with members of the LOC’s staff to ensure their availability during the examination. All communicated and scheduled examinations are updated and posted in the LOC by Rikka Brown.
- Refraining from talking or attending to basic needs during the examination.
- Communicating their questions about test items directly to faculty members after the examination.
- Scheduling extended time testing accommodations with members of the faculty so that they do not negatively impact attendance in their other classes.
- Beginning and completing examinations as approved by relevant members of the faculty.
Note: It is standard practice in the LOC that students may begin taking but not complete their examinations before regularly scheduled examination times. This practice preserves the integrity of the Honor Code and is often necessary for students who require more than 50 minutes to complete a 50-minute examination; the practice allows students to attend class immediately following the examination and to complete examinations before 4:30 p.m. to ensure the availability of proctoring.
Students who require the provision of class notes in accordance with the access plans they develop with members of the LOC’s professional academic staff prepare and submit the following form to Rikka Brown at the beginning of every semester: Request for Note Taker Accommodation. Members of the professional academic staff will then obtain photocopies of the notes of capable peers and provide them to students only for the dates on which students attend class.
This information was written by Tirza Kroeker, Director of the College Transition Program at Westminster College. Permission to reprint can be obtained by a request e-mailed to: Tirza.Kroeker@westminster-mo.edu.