Changing Perspectives About Students Who Have Autism

When it comes to working with autistic college students, a change in perspective can make all the difference in how educators approach their classroom.

“When a student is in K-12, the primary focus is on the deficits, or what the student isn’t doing well,” says Sara Sanders Gardner, Program Director of The Autism Spectrum Navigators Program at Bellevue College in Washington and STS Editorial Board Member. Continuous focus on the negative is problematic. Gardner’s advice to students in her program is to “use your strengths to find ways around barriers.” As a college instructor, Gardner also encourages her peers to focus on students’ strengths and use them to move through or over barriers. When students who have autism are encouraged for their strengths, focus is taken away from their areas of struggle and they are more likely to succeed.

Use your strengths to find ways around barriers.

At Bellevue College, professional development for faculty focuses on something called “Cultural Responsiveness Training.” Instead of trying to change the student, Gardner tries to reshape how teachers and classmates react to the student’s behavior. “The first step is understanding the autistic culture behind the behavior, or, the barriers the student is facing,” says Gardner. Once you know the “why,” you can either broaden your range of acceptable behaviors–flapping, for example–or, you can support the student in finding ways around barriers, such as why they are coming late to class.

For instance, a student who is bursting with curiosity may raise their hand nonstop during class, crowding out participation from other students and disrupting the flow of instruction. To address this, an instructor can come up with a way for the student to monitor their impulsive responses by putting a limit on the number of times they can raise their hand and asking them to keep count, or visually cuing the student to stop hand-raising. To help students understand these limits, Gardner suggests posing a math problem: for example, she sometimes points out that if 30 students raised their hands ten times in a 50-minute long class, there wouldn’t be enough lecture time. The exercise transforms a rule that might feel arbitrary or restricting into a logical and fair request. Included in this would be how the instructor responds in front of classmates: the instructor’s response informs the class how to respond to the student, so the instructor should be careful to be respectful, and verbalize appreciation for the enthusiastic student’s participation, while at the same time setting boundaries for the entire class. The instructor can also ask for further information to be shared after class, letting the student know that they value the student’s contribution.

The right tools and techniques can help college faculty shift their focus from “disability” to “ability.” At a recent roundtable discussion at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, New York, faculty expressed concerns about how to handle students who cause distractions in class or who have difficulty participating in group work.

Theresa Revans-McMenimon, Westchester’s  Counselor/Specialist for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and STS Editorial Board Member, advised faculty to encourage students to utilize accommodations offered through the Office of Disability Services. For example, students may be able to use audio recorders to assist with note-taking skills. Or, if they need to leave the classroom due to anxiety, the recorder will pick up the part of the lecture they missed. She also suggests that faculty may want to use substitute assignments as accommodations for students, or consider alternate formats for exams and quizzes. For example, the student can provide an oral presentation to the faculty in their office if speaking publicly in class is too overwhelming. In other words, faculty awareness and knowledge of autism is key to helping students reach their full potential.

Catherine Taylor, the Disability Services Counselor at University of Hawaii, Maui College in Kahului says that the most important thing is for educators to understand autism and Autism-spectrum conditions.

Professional development on the nature of autism, autism-spectrum conditions, and the behavioral components that often accompany such diagnoses will help educators be more effective with all of their students, not just those with autism. Taylor encourages teachers to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) components into their pedagogy when possible, utilizing more flexible learning environments to accommodate individual learning styles.

UDL aims at meeting the individual needs of every student in the classroom. For example, instead of assigning a written essay to the class, a teacher incorporating UDL might give options: writing an essay, creating a video, drawing a comic strip, or producing an audio recording. The students are all learning the same topic, but they can choose what method works best for their learning needs. “We just need to hit the right notes,” Taylor says. With the right strategies, educators can reach a diverse community of learners, and let their true abilities shine.

Are you a professor or instructor who has seen positive results of implementing these kinds of strategies into your classrooms? We’d love to hear more about your success stories, or any issues you’re still struggling to tackle.

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Andrea Kolodziej is a Production Coordinator at Award Productions. She manages production shoots and multiple video projects for clients across the country. Andrea has tackled all angles of the production field including video editing, script writing, social media, camera work, web design, and more. She started her production career working as an intern at NBC daytime television and developed her core skills working as an Associate Producer at Pellet Media. She was also a former core member of the Stairway to STEM team and was highly involved in the development of STS. Before her production career began, Andrea spent many years caring for her special needs sister and worked as a therapist and 1-1 paraprofessional for autistic students.

Andrea is passionate about helping others and inspiring through creativity. In her spare time, she is an avid traveler and a freelance photographer.

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