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 the director of the CTP. 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 the director of the CTP and 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 the director of the CTP if student attendance, participation, and/or performance in your class is inappropriate.
Addressing Possible Challenges
While sharing the same diagnosis, students with ASD are individuals with differing strengths and concerns. If you are challenged by a student with ASD in your class, please contact the director of the CTP to discuss the situation. You may also find the following tips helpful:
Giving students with ASD to time to respond. While most of our students with ASD have a superior ability to acquire and retain information, the rate with which they process their thinking is relatively very slow. This means that 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. In addition, they may become very frustrated by their inability to communicate their ideas at the pace of their peers.
Providing students with ASD a heads-up on a request to provide insight about an idea discussed in class and checking back in for a response 10 to 15 minutes later is helpful. Alternatively, asking a student with ASD to write up his or her thinking about ideas discussed in class and to submit them to you after class can provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate engaged learning in your class.
Addressing 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). Our students with ASD present many symptoms of other disorders and impairments. Almost all of our students with ASD, for example, are also diagnosed with ADHD, and many are also diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety.
The presence of attention deficits in students with ASD is demonstrated by inattention, distraction, hyperactivity, impulsive comments and actions in classroom settings, an untimely appearance in class or submission of assignments, and/or by disorganized expressions of thoughts and ideas—verbally and in writing. Denial, depression, and/or anxiety may lead students with ASD to prevaricate about their absence from class or failure to turn in assignments.
Please communicate with the director of the CTP about any of these concerns so that she can attend to them with the student in one-on-one sessions. Students with ASD often fail to use the campus e-mail and Moodle systems, and the director of the CTP works one-on-one with students to check in on communications and assignments posted on these systems. The earlier she learns about a missed assignment, the more immediately she can address it.
Please do not take rude behavior personally; however, work directly with the student or with the director of the CTP and the student to address the issue head-on. Students with ASD do not intuitively grasp the meanings conveyed by others’ verbal communications and body language; they must figure out these meanings using reason. Direct description of missed cues and desired behaviors is very helpful. Professors often negotiate with students with ASD to limit or expand the number of times they participate in classroom discussion or when and where they receive graded papers and exams. Others work with the director of the CTP to create a plan of action to reduce undesired behaviors and create desired ones.
Helping students understand and answer questions in new disciplines. 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. 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 to 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 and may need help understanding them.
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.
Understanding 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.
Observing “restricted, repetitive adherence to patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.” Of all of the diagnostic criteria for ASD offered by both the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition, 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. Communication with the director of the CTP about these behaviors can help her help the student find other ways to center and focus on academic tasks.
Appreciating humor and imagination. Students with ASD tend to love 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 video gaming. It is worth noting that in all of these imaginary worlds, otherness is a norm. Students with ASD may have a more limited repertoire of personal experiences to apply or relate to the content of their classes and studies than their peers do. Consider allowing students with ASD to relate the relationships and situations they know from other contexts such as science or fantasy fiction to address academic tasks.
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 body 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.