Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

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Creating a More Inclusive Space for Our Students on the Autism Spectrum

By Jennifer Hall, PhD, CETLOE and Department of English

In the US, April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance month. This month is set aside to encourage awareness and acceptance of friends, family, colleagues, and other community members on the autism spectrum. To honor this month, I’d like to  share some ideas on developing an inclusive environment for our students with autism.   

With an estimated 500,000 students on the autism spectrum joining US college classrooms by 2030, it’s pretty fair to say that you’ve probably already taught a student on the spectrum in one of your classes. (Jackson 2018)  If you have taught a student on the spectrum, you might have noticed that your student needed support in areas related to communication and social interaction. These supports are vital for students on the spectrum. As an autistic University of Florida sophomore, Haley Moss, explains, “College is supposed to be a time filled with discovery, education, friendship, independence, and so many other elements that it could easily be overwhelming or confusing to a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).” (Moss, 2014) For many students on the autism spectrum, College-related anxiety is more dire: “More than 75 percent of college students on the spectrum report feeling left out or isolated and about half have suicidal thoughts.” (Borrell, 2018)

Certainly, instructors can’t address all of the needs of our autistic student community alone, but we can adapt our teaching strategies to design course experiences that are less overwhelming. Before we begin discussing strategies, it’s important to remember that since many autistic college students don’t struggle with completing their classwork,  they may not qualify for (or seek out) traditional learning supports, such as extended time. Because of this, autistic students on the who might benefit from other sorts of classroom accommodations often go unrecognized, and their needs go unmet. With careful design, though, faculty can develop autism friendly courses to meet the needs of autistic students even if those students aren’t eligible for traditional accommodations. In fact, there are a number of ideas you might consider incorporating in your classes that would help ALL of your students, but that would be particularly supportive of those on the autism spectrum.

1. Create a safe space for learning. As always, we encourage you to speak openly with your students about resources available for accommodation and to direct them to the Office of Access and Accommodation for support if their needs are undocumented. We also encourage you to sign sign up for our Design For All MOT offered every semester, and check out some of our webinars on teaching strategies for students with accessibility needs. 

Assignment choice can be particularly helpful for autistic students. It is a component of Universal Design for Learning that addresses student learning difference. The basic idea behind assignment choice is that you allow students to express their learning using formats they’re comfortable with. For example, if you have a student who has mastered documentary film making, consider allowing that student to make a documentary about a topic you’re discussing in class rather than write a term paper, if a research paper isn’t one of your stated learning outcomes. Or if you have a student who wants to be a journalist, consider having them write news articles about an issue related to class.

In the case of students on the autism spectrum, you might have an alternative assignment ready if your course contains a big group project. Some students on the autism spectrum are confident enough to share their status with their classmates, like GSU student Na’Dya Reed did in her class: “I told them I was autistic, and I had very high anxiety. I was nervous about working with other people. It’s something I let people know so they are aware of it” (Davis, 2020). Other students, though, might not be confident enough or inclined to share their diagnosis, and even if they did, they still might experience extreme stress at working on a group project. That’s not to say that the university should eliminate all group projects or that students shouldn’t experience group work. But, when you prepare extended group assignments, you might consider whether your course deals with team building as a central learning outcome in the course. If not, then having an optional, individual assignment for students on the autism spectrum might reduce stress and prevent them from becoming so overwhelmed by the social component of the assignment that they can’t focus on completing the work to their full ability.

Likewise, unless you’re teaching a speech class or another class that has verbal presentation skills as part of the course learning objectives, consider allowing students to submit written or recorded work instead of presenting in front of the class. While it may be true that formal presentations help build some students’ confidence, for a student on the autism spectrum, the stress involved in verbally presenting material might derail the demonstration of their learning and undermine your learning objective.

2. Recognize communication differences. If a student is quiet in class or doesn’t make eye contact, don’t assume the worst (i.e. that they aren’t prepared or that they’re not engaged). Autistic people tend to process sensory information differently, so an autistic student may feel overwhelmed by the classroom experience and not appear engaged, even if they are profoundly engaged. The classroom is a chaotic place full of movement and noise, after all. Things some students might tune out, like buzzing florescent lights, classmates opening chips, or a loudly-lecturing professor, can be overwhelming for some students on the spectrum. Instead of thinking of the quiet student as unengaged, you might think of that student as overwhelmed and trying his best to focus in the midst of a cacophony. You’d probably be pretty quiet, too, if you were experiencing what your student experiences.

However, differences related to communication and social interaction manifest in a variety of ways, some of which defy assumptions about students on the autism spectrum. For example, communication and social interaction differences might very well present in one student as introversion but another student might talk excessively, unintentionally interrupting the flow of discussion or dominating a conversation. She might try to answer every question or even completely change the subject to something that is important to her in the moment. If she knows a great deal about a subject, she might want to share her knowledge at an inconvenient time.

Of course our entire student community includes both quiet and boisterous students, so in asking you to recognize communication differences, we’re asking you to stretch your thinking about student behavior. Rather than imagining that the quiet, boisterous, or interrupting students are expressing behavioral problems, instead consider that they might be communicating in a manner that reflects the way they process the world around them.  

3. Allow for breaks. As faculty, I know it can feel personal when a student gets up and leaves in the middle of class, but the truth is, unless they warn us in advance we never know WHY they’re leaving. It probably has nothing to do with what’s happening in class at any given moment. In the case of a student on the autism spectrum, as Moss points out above, everything about college is overwhelming. A student who is overwhelmed by the cacophony of the classroom experience may just need to take a moment. As someone who has taught at GSU for 20 years, I know it can be really distracting when a student gets up in the middle of class to steps outside, especially in some of the packed classrooms in Sparks, but keep in mind that getting up and leaving class under those circumstances is probably pretty anxiety inducing for the student as well, so if a student steps out, it’s probably for a pretty good reason.

We encourage you to allow space for them to take a break. If you feel you need to keep the door locked, please don’t make a big deal out of their leaving or having to let them back in. We never know what our students are going through, and for a student who is trying to avoid a meltdown (a response to sensory overload some autistic people experience), drawing attention to their distress by chastising them or leaving them locked out of class only magnifies their struggle.

 

4. Embrace Structure and Clarity. Many autistic students rely on structure to help them stay engaged and to prevent overload. Predictability can help cut down on cognitive overload for all students, so consider designing your instruction to be predictable. For example, you may structure every class as follows:

  • Attendance/Announcements
  • Recap
  • Overview of daily learning objectives
  • Lecture
  • Discussion/Practice
  • Lecture
  • Group work/Practice
  • Exit ticket

Of course, this structure wouldn’t apply to all disciplines or situations, but if you create a structure for your classes and attempt to follow that structure for all of your classes, you could reduce cognitive overload. Rather than wonder “where is she going with this?” or “what’s next?” your students could focus on what’s REALLY important, the learning.

Make your expectations clear for the course and all of the individual assignments. Offer clearly defined learning outcomes and rubrics to help reduce stress and help your students prioritize. As Kathy DeOrnellas points out, “Many students with ASD have difficulty conceptualizing their progress in a course and are surprised by their final grades” (DeOrnellas, 2015), so consider offering mid-term reports and if you use iCollege, keep your gradebook up-to-date so that they can follow along and make sure their understanding of their progress matches yours.  

For more information on making your class more inclusive for students on the autism spectrum, and indeed for all of your students, we encourage you to look into Universal Design for Learning and to participate in our new MOT: Design For All.

Finally, in honor of “nothing about us without us,” I’d like to encourage any members of our community who are on the autism spectrum to help me revise this as needed. Please email me at jenniferhall@gsu.edu to suggest revisions.

 

Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Borrell, B. (2018, May 24). How colleges can prepare for students with autism. Spectrum. https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/colleges-can-prepare-students-autism/.

Davis, M. (2020, December 10). Empowering Expression. Georgia State News Hub.       https://news.gsu.edu/magazine/empowering-expression.

DeOrnellas, K. (2015, April 17). Teaching College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/teaching-college-students-with-autism-spectrum-disorders/.

Jackson, Scott LJ, Logan Hart, and Fred R. Volkmar. “Preface: Special issue—college experiences for students with autism spectrum disorder.” (2018): 639-642.

Moss, H. (2014). A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders : The Stuff Nobody Tells You About! Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

 

 

 

jenniferhall • March 29, 2023


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