10 Things for Autistic Students to Remember When Choosing College Classes

Autism and choosing college classes. What are the important considerations? We’re not going to lie: there’s a lot to think about! Contributor and STEM grad student Patrick Dwyer walks you through the steps. 

1. Your Registration Date

The last thing you want to do is miss your registration date and find yourself hopelessly far down the waitlist of a course you need to take! As soon as you find out when you can register, note that exact date and time in your calendar and/or schedule. Then you should figure out a plan for how you are going to choose which classes to take before the registration date, so that all you will have to do on registration day is, at the exact time registration opens, log into whatever online system your college uses, and select the appropriate classes. Humans are biased to underestimate how long it takes us to do things (Buehler, Griffin, & Ross, 1994), so don’t wait until the last minute to choose!

2. Your Goals and Program Requirements

I hope this is also obvious, but you do need to take certain classes in order to graduate with a college degree. It’s kind of how college works. Conveniently, most colleges keep a list of each program’s requirements in the same place as the list of classes that are being offered: the academic calendar. Now, you may not have chosen your program yet (and, in my opinion, waiting a couple of years to choose a major can be a good idea, since you should probably see how you enjoy different fields before committing to a decision that will shape your future career). However, even if you haven’t made a final decision about your major, you should check the requirements of the different options that you are considering and choosing your classes accordingly. You should also keep a very close eye on the classes you’ll have to take in the more distant future, because they might have prerequisites you should be taking now.

3. Your Workload

How many classes can you take? Remember, college can be a lot more work than high school, and sometimes you’ll find that all your classes will have exams or assignments due in the same week or two. Plus, you might have a job or volunteer commitment (in fact, you probably should have one), which takes even more time. I know autistic people who have started college assuming they could easily take a full load of five courses per semester, but who got completely overwhelmed. Trying to take too many classes at once can cause people to drop out of college. So please, if you can, start gently. I urge you to go check if your college’s disability office will allow you to take a reduced courseload. Then see if your financial situation can afford a reduced load. I only took two courses in my first semester, and then I increased to four in my second semester after I realized that the workload was manageable for me..

4. Sensory Escapes

Do you have sensory sensitivities that might become issues in your classes, or while you are navigating between classes? (I have a list of common sensory issues if that’s at all helpful to you.) If you do, you might want to think about how you are going to regulate the sensory inputs. If your strategies fail, do you need an escape route?

5. The Time of Day

Are you a morning person? Do you work better in the afternoon? Are you on medications that affect you differently over the course of the day? Choose your classes to suit your needs.

6. Breaks Between Classes

You might not want to schedule all your classes back-to-back. Here are some reasons why you might want to include breaks in your schedule:

The location of your classes and transportation to/between them. College campuses can be big and difficult to navigate! When you are selecting classes, check where they are going to be taught. If you are looking at two classes with only a few minutes between them, will you have enough time to get from one to the other?

Extra time on tests. Do you get extra time on tests as an academic accommodation? If the answer to that question is yes, you will need to make sure there is enough time after your classes for you to finish writing exams at your campus’ disability office (or whatever location your college uses for extended test taking).

Meal breaks. If you’re looking at classes scheduled around mealtimes, think about how you’re going to get food. Please don’t force yourself to try focusing on a lecture while being distracted by your own hunger. Is there enough free time between your classes to go and find something to eat? Or are you someone who is comfortable with bringing a meal in your backpack and gobbling it down in the few minutes between your classes?

Recreation breaks. Can you concentrate for long periods without interruption, or will you need to build little breaks into your schedule? It’s important to be honest with yourself when you’re building your course schedule. If you are someone who has no trouble sitting through four classes in a row, please don’t let me stop you, but if you are going to need a break, build one in.

7. The Balance of Your Classes Over the Week

 Sometimes it’s possible to choose classes in a way that concentrates them on a few days of the week, while leaving another day or two free. Alternatively, you might be able to choose classes in a way that spreads the load out evenly over the week. (And yes, sometimes you will have very specific requirements that don’t allow you such control. Sorry.) But if you can choose how your classes are distributed, think about which pattern is best for you. Would it be helpful to have some days where you could study without the interruption of classes, or go off-campus to a job or something? Or would it be easier for you to manage if your week has a more balanced, even tempo? Different people have different preferences.

8. Tutorials and Lab Sections

Some classes will require you to register for both a main class session and a tutorial/lab section, but this fact may not be explained very well in your college’s academic calendar.  However, if you notice that one or several sections of a given class in the calendar have a large student capacity, and that there are also a bunch of other sections of the same class with a much smaller student capacity, then you’re probably looking at a class with labs or tutorials.

9. The Course Instructor and Material

This is important! There’s a lot of variability in how college instructors teach, and you should think about whether each instructor is a good fit for you. You should also think about whether course structure and material will work with your learning style. There are several ways you can do this:

Look your professors up on www.ratemyprofessors.com/. But don’t just focus on the overall rating. There’s good evidence that students’ perceptions about the quality of their instructors are not necessarily the best way of rating instructors’ performance (Falkoff, 2018). It’s also important to remember that most of your peers will be neurotypical, and their perceptions of an instructor’s quality might be different from your own. Instead of looking at the overall score, look at students’ comments about the instructor and think about whether the comments reflect an instructor who can work with your learning style. Also, check if the comments are related to the class you are planning to take: some might be about the instructor’s performance in a different class.

Word of mouth. If you have acquaintances in your program – even just people you sit with in class – consider asking them what they think of a given instructor. Based on my observations, I think it’s fair to say that complaining about instructors is one of students’ favourite activities! Again, whether the student likes the instructor may not be the best indicator of whether the instructor will be a good fit with your learning style, but talking to someone in person can give you the opportunity to ask questions and seek clarifications about their experience.

The disability office. I suppose this may or may not work, depending on the culture of your college, your relationship with the advisors at your disability office, and the degree to which your disability office is in direct contact with course instructors. However, it might be helpful to ask if your advisors have any knowledge of how instructors have supported students with disabilities in the past.

Archived course syllabi. It’s quite likely that you will be able to find last year’s syllabus online somewhere. Google it and find out! (If that doesn’t work, you might also find some student group that keeps copies of archived syllabi, or you might be able to ask a friend who took the class before.) It’s true that instructors – especially young instructors – do change the structure of their classes from year to year, so you can’t assume that everything will be constant and unchanging. However, looking at old syllabi can give you a general sense of what material might be covered in a class, whether the workload will be manageable, and whether the assignments are likely to suit your learning style.

10. The Availability of Academic Advising

I strongly recommend speaking to an academic advisor before you make a final decision about your course selections. Sometimes it can be difficult to reach the advisors – at my undergraduate school, we had to show up and wait in line just to make an appointment! – but knowing all the rules is the advisors’ job, so they may point out things that you’ve overlooked. You don’t want to show up unprepared, though. Come in to meet your academic advisor with a tentative list of courses picked out, and have some backups options listed as well. That will allow your advisor to give you very precise feedback about whether your plan is appropriate or not. Ideally, you want the advisor to confirm that you’re doing everything correctly – but it’s very easy to overlook some minor rule or regulation, so it’s important to always check.

What do you think? Are these steps helpful? Is there something I’ve left out in relation to autism and choosing college classes?  Please, join the conversation – post a comment below!

References and Further Reading

Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (1994). Exploring the ‘planning fallacy’: Why people underestimate their task completion times. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(3), 366-381. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/biases/67_J_Personality_and_Social_Psychology_366,_1994.pdf

Falkoff, M. (2018, April 25). Why we must stop relying on student ratings of teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Must-Stop-Relying-on/243213

Willey, L. H. (1999). Pretending to be normal: Living with Asperger’s syndrome. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.  [Appendix II contains information about choosing classes.]

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Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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