Case Study: Classroom Strategies to Support Students on the Spectrum

Hi, I’m Susan Woods. I’m a college transition expert, and this post is on UDL and autism in the college classroom. This is the first in a two-part series based on my experience of working with professors, students, and my disability services colleagues. I also speak from my own experience of teaching college students on the spectrum. Here, I’ll be writing from the perspective of a professor. “Joshua,” the student, is a persona representing a composite of common autistic characteristics that can be both strengths and weaknesses. However, these traits may create challenges for the student and the instructor as they work to achieve their goals. This post explores effective teaching strategies and approaches that can occur through collaboration. Part two focuses on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and teaching strategies for diverse learners.

“Everyone Teaches and Everyone Learns.”

Greetings! My name is Luisa, and I’m a Computer Science instructor at a community college. “Everyone teaches and everyone learns” is my new teaching philosophy, and I’d like to share why. Recently I had an autistic student named “Joshua” in my classes. I realized I needed some pedagogical tools and strategies to help me achieve my goal of supporting all students in the classroom. Particularly, I needed support around students who might struggle with conventional expectations and approaches.

Joshua was a highly engaged, intelligent, and articulate student. On the first day of class, he shared his accommodation letter with me, issued by the college’s Disabilities Services Office. His accommodations included: extended time for tests and quizzes, taking tests/quizzes in a distraction reduced test environment, receiving copies of class notes, as well as access to weekly “check-in” support services with staff in Disability Services.

These kinds of “technical” considerations, such as extended test-taking time or scheduling a weekly check-in, were easy to implement. After a few classes, I discovered that the trickier part of supporting Joshua was how to help him navigate in-class situations. That led me to reach out to the staff in Disability Services about how to best support Joshua. The challenges that I saw were:

In his attempts to participate, he could, at times, bring in comments that were off topic or focused only on his intense areas of interest.

He was often unsure about boundaries and what constitutes personal space.

He tended to work best independently; group work could present challenges.

He also could become anxious and overwhelmed when expected to multi-task (listen and take notes) and when he was unable to predict or anticipate change and new events.

Joshua agreed that it would be helpful to collaborate with me and the Disability Services staff, so we began by meeting to discuss some of the challenges above, and we came up with some simple, effective steps we could take together:

We agreed upon some discrete cues, signals, and prompts that I could use to assist Joshua with communication and to redirect him when his enthusiasm led him to focus intensely on a topic or begin to monopolize a conversation.

Joshua also scheduled a weekly appointment with a trusted disability services staff to practice some strategies for effective group work. The disability staff indicated that this could involve scripting and role play. These strategies encompass practice, feedback, instruction, and positive reinforcement. Other focuses in the weekly support meetings could include: helping Joshua to understand the barriers he may face in group communications (such as noise, speed and multiple conversations) and to strategize ways that he may participate in a different way. Disability Staff meetings could also include helping Joshua to understand his “social interaction” style. They might also practice self-advocacy skills to use in social settings.

Joshua was fortunate to have trusted and regular support in the community. He agreed to confer with his therapist/pragmatics coach, and signed a release which allowed disability services staff to consult with his counselor to share some effective “coaching” strategies that could be utilized on campus.

We reviewed and discussed Joshua’s approved accommodations and other support on campus (college counseling center, health and wellness programming). I encouraged him to utilize the note taking and distraction-reduced test taking accommodations, as well as campus programming which could be useful for stress reduction (meditation, yoga, fitness center, student activities) to help to mitigate some of the anxiety he might have experienced.

Joshua and I scheduled a weekly office hours meeting, to use at his discretion. The meetings provided him with 1:1 conference time to continue some of the conversations or topics that he would like to explore outside of the classroom time.

I observed the group dynamics in the class and developed intentional pairing for group work, which provided Joshua with a partner or group who had the maturity, insight and respect for his communication style and special areas of interest.

My advice to faculty when working with a student who may present with some of the challenges that Joshua faced is to consider a collaborative approach. Involving Joshua and disability staff, as well as availing myself of training, was highly effective. This is important: do not to put off meaningful conversations and action. The dynamics in the classroom will likely not improve as the semester continues. Be proactive and work with the student and your colleagues to address these challenges sooner.

For more information about UDL, consider Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Supporting All STEM Learners. CAST is also an excellent resource for UDL.

Do you have questions for me about how best to support students on the spectrum in the classroom? Let me know in the comments.

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Susan Woods, M. Ed, recently retired as Associate Dean of Student Support Services at Middlesex Community College after 27 years. Susan managed the college’s Disability Support Services, supporting 1000 students with documented disabilities, as well as alternative and grant funded support programs. Susan has regularly provided training and workshops to faculty and staff on creating welcoming and inclusive environments and universal design for instruction. Her work now focuses on professional development and training to high school personnel and families to help support the successful transition to college for students with disabilities. Her professional development website is www.susanbwoods.com.

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