Teaching students on the autism spectrum

Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) can affect the way a person communicates and relates to others. Though individual characteristics vary greatly, in order for there to be a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, an individual will experience traits in the following three areas:

Social communication – people with Asperger syndrome can often be very fluent in their speech, but find it difficult to make conversation and small talk, and may seem to lack interest in what someone else is saying. They may be quite literal in their understanding of spoken language, but struggle with metaphors and sarcasm.

Social interaction – many people with Asperger syndrome do want to be sociable, but find it hard to understand the social rules that other people take for granted, or to read the thoughts and feelings of others through non-verbal signals or facial expressions. Group environments can be particularly difficult and they can find it hard to make friends.

Social imagination (imaginative thought and flexible thinking) – people with Asperger syndrome often find it hard to think in abstract ways and may find it hard to cope with change. Changes to timetables, and when things don’t go according to plan can cause stress and anxiety.

People with Asperger syndrome can also develop a particular and pervasive interest. This can be useful in higher education, of course. They also often have a love of routines and may have difficulty dealing with unexpected change. Many people on the autism spectrum can have difficulties with sensory processing and get overwhelmed by too much sensory information; for example, they may feel uncomfortable in a large lecture room, filled with chatting students. Too much sensory information can prevent the student from processing what they are being taught.

Understanding Student Behaviors

Behavior Possible Cause May be interpreted as
Mimics or recites back what professor says Needs time and repetition to process information Not taking speaker seriously
Talks too much Compensates for receptive skills Overestimation of functioning
Has odd speaking habits Pragmatic language deficits Inappropriate or rude
Does not respond to facial expressions, tone Difficulty with processing nonverbal signals Miscues in meetings and assignments
Does not recognize you Limited facial recognition Aloof, rude
Does not shift topics on cue Does not automatically catch on Self-absorbed, uninterested
Lays head on desk Sensory overload Rude, sleeping

Table adapted from Wolf, L., Brown, J., & Bork, R. (2009). Students with Asperger syndrome: A guide for college personnel. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publications. p. 59.

Recommendations for Faculty

  • Try to understand the challenges and needs of your student. Include an invitation both in the syllabus and orally on the first day of class to meet individually very early in the semester.
  • Make sure you provide the accommodations that the student is guaranteed. For example, when poor fine-motor coordination results in extremely poor handwriting, use of a laptop during class or exams might be required. Processing challenges might mean providing extra time on exams.
  • Use a portion of the first class meeting to teach your specific course organization (structure of the syllabus, frequent class format, where assignments will be posted, etc.).
  • Be explicit as possible about your classroom “rules” related to what to call you, technology use, what good class participation looks like, attendance, etc. and reinforce these expectations. Consider working out a nonverbal signal with the student for times when he or she is not attending to the expectations.
  • To insure clarity, try to be consistent in your communication format – e.g. where you write in-class assignments, where you post the homework assignment – and if possible, communicate in multiple ways (both orally and in writing on Moodle, email, the board, or handouts).
  • Use different colors or graphic organizers (e.g. charts) as ways to enhance the understanding and recall of all students.
  • Give verbal cues at the beginning of class previewing what will be done and a review statement at the end of class about what students learned.
  • Review project due dates frequently.
  • Provide frequent assessments of performance; chunk or scaffold work on larger projects in order to provide formative feedback.
  • Be clear about expectations for grading (e.g. you might use rubrics), and if possible, share with all students copies of earlier versions of exams so they understand the format they will encounter.
  • When there is group work, help students understand what effective behaviors are in that context. You might model good interactions and/or assign roles so that (all) students understand what the various functions of group members are.
  • Encourage opportunities for information sharing and participation through on-line methods in addition to face-to-face.
  • Because many students with ASD find changes from routine (and surprises) difficult to deal with, when change is inevitable (e.g. a due date, a room change, a guest instructor, a field trip, etc.) try to alert the students as soon as possible. To prevent obsessive worrying, try to allay fears of the unknown by providing clear and specific information about what will happen.
  • Be willing to meet again later during the semester – e.g. before a big assignment is due to make sure the student understands what s/he has to complete or if an unexpected challenge has arisen.
  • Recognize that students with ASD may have difficulty with metaphors, irony, abstract concepts, or any language that is not literal. (Providing glossaries of terms and acronyms can be useful to them.)
  • If students with ASD are unmotivated about certain parts of the course (due to their having a particular interest in other parts), try to set concrete, realistic goals to assist motivation (e.g. “If you want to become an engineer, you must complete all parts of the course, even the essays”). Firm expectations should be set for what work must be completed and the quality of work produced. When it is possible, giving assignments with some choices may provide opportunities for students to leverage their particular interests and strengths.
  • Be calm, predictable, and matter-of-fact in interactions – while also indicating compassion and patience.
  • Be alert to changes in behavior that might indicate depression, high stress, or a mental health crisis. Just as students with ASD have difficulty perceiving the feelings of others, they are often unable to assess their own emotions and seek comfort from others. So it is helpful for others to watch for signs such as greater levels of disorganization, inattentiveness, isolation, chronic fatigue, crying, suicidal remarks, etc.
  • Recognize that you may find that the writings of students with ASD to be repetitious, flit from one subject to the next, and/or make obscure references. This may be because they struggle understanding the difference between general ideas and personal ideas.
  • Protect the student from being bullied, teased or excluded.


You may notice that many of these suggestions help all students, not just those with a disability – while others are intended to specifically assist the learning of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Regarding assessments: You are not expected to lower standards for learning to accommodate a student with a disability, but rather to give him/her a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what s/he learned.


Description from:

  • SUNY Fredonia Counseling Center, “Supporting Students with Asperger Syndrome in Higher Education.”
  • National Autistic Society, “Guidelines for teaching students with Asperger syndrome in further education colleges”

Recommendations synthesized from: