Module: Autism Spectrum Disorder (Page 3 of 10)


  1. Definition
  2. Manifestation
  3. Institutional Accommodations
  4. Assistive Technology Accommodations
  5. Teaching Strategies—
    What Can Faculty Do?
    1. Specific Strategies per Disability
    2. General Strategies
    3. Shaping the Environment
  6. Learning Strategies—
    What Can Students do?
  7. Resources
  8. Feedback


According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Autism Fact Sheet, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is:

“a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD, while other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Although ASD varies significantly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group. Experts estimate that 1 out of 88 children age 8 will have an ASD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 30, 2012). Males are four times more likely to have an ASD than females.”


Impaired Communication and Social Interaction exhibited by:

  • Marked impairment in verbal and nonverbal communication such as eye to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction; may manifest in poor communication skills with faculty, difficulty expressing oneself and one’s needs, inability to effectively participate in group or oral assignments, may unintentionally make inappropriate comments. May be perceived as rude by those who are unaware of the nature of ASD.
  • Impaired ability or inability to interpret figurative communication.
  • Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to age level; difficulty communicating with peers in school, leisure activities, and group settings.
  • Lack of social and emotional reciprocity; lack of interest in peers; lack of engagement in topics others are interested in; aloofness.

Adjustment and Repetitive Behaviors exhibited by:

  • Inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines and ritual with an inability to adapt and/or cope with changes in routine such as class schedule, class expectations, and class assignments. May manifest in extreme anxiety and problem behaviors.
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor mannerisms (hand or finger flapping, twisting or complex whole body movements); may manifest with interruptions to class lectures, difficulty sitting for long periods of time, reactions to stressful information/situation.
  • Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects; may manifest in person getting “stuck” on a topic or object and needing cues to move on.

Other Characteristics:

  • Commonly experience unbalanced sensory information. May include difficulty functioning effectively in busy, high stimuli environments; painful sensitivity to touch, textures, smells, sounds, tastes; and/or, obliviousness to extreme cold or pain.
  • Difficulty with organization and time management.
  • May be easily stressed or annoyed.

Manifestation Specific to Academia

Students with an ASD diagnosis may have significantly more difficulty than the average student in the following areas:

  • Adjusting to changes in routines, environments and people
  • Maintaining focus: screening out environmental stimuli
  • Maintaining focus: ability to “see the big picture” (as opposed to getting fixated on details)
  • Auditory learning
  • Approaching authority figures and peers
  • Effectively communicating with faculty and peers
  • Working effectively in groups
  • Engaging in a broad range of topics
  • Expressing personal needs and wants
  • Participating in activities or events
  • Developing and maintaining friendships
  • Identifying and using campus resources
  • Managing time, meeting deadlines
  • Organization and task/assignment completion
  • Behaving according to appropriate classroom etiquette
  • Interpreting social and emotional cues
  • Interpreting figurative communication such as irony and metaphor
  • Producing legible hand writing

Institutional Accommodations

  • Alternative format - text books and print materials can be formatted into an alternative format
  • Alternative testing arrangements - extra time; less distracting environment; provision of a reader/scribe; and use of a computer, including adaptive software and hardware.  
  • Note taking support 
  • Priority registration

Assistive Technology Accommodations

Teaching Strategies—What Can Faculty do?

Specific Strategies

Allow small, frequent breaks.
Provide clear written assignment instructions, including deadlines.
Provide notice of changes to the class routine or classroom environment.
If there is a change in the classroom environment, class assignments, class schedule or any other change in routine; give the student advance notice so as to allow time for him/her to prepare for and become accustomed to the change in advance.
Reinforce directions and key course content visually.
Allow student to take test(s) in a different location with fewer distractions.
The Disability Service Office will assist students in providing alternative arrangements.
Break assignments into small, manageable pieces.
Allow assignments to be turned in via email.
Take into consideration the student’s lack of ability to interpret social and emotional cues.
Because students with an ASD interpret information very literally, they often have difficulty interpreting sarcasm, idioms, metaphors, irony, jokes, voice tone and body language. If using these modes of communication try to reframe the information for the student by using an alternative, more literal and precise type of explanation.
Consider providing an alternative way to complete group assignments.

General Strategies

Provide Accessible Course Materials
Ensure that all curriculum materials (syllabus, notes, presentations, assignments, etc.) are available in an accessible format that can be used and manipulated by a computer (Word, HTML, RTF, PDF, etc.). To learn how to create accessible materials, see Training Modules and Tutorials on this website.
Plan Ahead
Select textbooks and materials needed for the semester as early as possible.  Students with disabilities will need time to take class materials to the Disability Service Office for conversion to an alternative format.
Provide Structure
Provide a syllabus and class assignments with clearly delineated expectations and due dates.
Provide Guided Notes on the Web
Prior to lectures, provide students with consistent, structured notes that are in an accessible format. Since students with disabilities sometimes have more difficulty than others in processing new information (especially while simultaneously trying to take notes), having notes ahead of time will increase students’ ability to follow along during class and more effectively process course content. If it is not acceptable for all students to have lecture notes ahead of time, make alternative arrangements for students with disabilities such as emailing lecture notes to the student(s) or setting up an office mailbox where the student(s) can receive notes ahead of time.
Provide Multiple Methods of Presentation
Present information and ideas in multiple ways in order to address different learning styles.
Engage students in multiple ways of learning
Incorporate active teaching/learning methods where possible. For example, problem-based learning activities, community projects, in-class activities and discussions, etc.
Encourage Multiple Methods of Expression
Offer more than one way for students to demonstrate what they have learned in class. For example, students can be given a choice between taking a test, writing a paper, giving an oral presentation, producing a video, etc. Additionally, keep in mind that some students may have difficulty working in a group. Alternative ways of completing a group assignment may need to be considered.
Repeat or paraphrase questions and responses so that the whole class can hear.
This is especially important in large classrooms and when a microphone is used during live and taped presentations.
Highlight Key Points
Provide an overview when introducing a new topic, and highlight key points in a variety of ways throughout class lessons and in written materials. Use visual, verbal and interactive cues for added emphasis. This helps students know what to expect and what is most important, thus improving their ability to achieve the learning objectives.
Summarize Key Points
Summarizing key points at the end of each class will increase the student’s ability to process and integrate new information.
Chunk Information
Break large amounts of information or instructions into smaller segments (“chunking”).
Provide Study Aids
Provide study questions, study guides, and opportunities for questions and answers to help students review and clarify essential course content.
Allow the use of digital recorders
Provide students the opportunity to process and review class material at their own pace, both after class and later during the semester. Review of material in this manner is especially helpful in preparation for mid-term and final exams.
Engage with Students who Self Advocate
Team up with students with disabilities (who disclose their accommodation needs) to determine a plan that is effective for all involved.

Shaping the Environment

Decrease classroom distractions
Decrease any excessive visual and/or auditory distractions in the learning environment.
Consider seating and positioning
Encourage the student to sit in the front of the class, away from doors, air conditioning units, windows, or any other possible sources of distraction.
Create a calming environment
If possible, turn off fluorescent lights and provide natural lighting. Decrease extraneous distracting stimuli. Maintain routine whenever possible such as consistently placing course materials in the same location.

Learning Strategies—What Can the Student do?

Advocate for self
Connect with the disability service office to learn about available services and supports. Communicate with instructors about personal learning style and any individual accommodations that are being requested. Students should also be encouraged to read the ACCESS Self-Advocacy Handbook for College Students with Disabilities, available on this website.
Find and use time management tools/strategies
Examples include devices such as an electronic or handheld planner/organizer, use of a timer, reminder messages, checklists, etc.
Use a computer to complete class assignments
Especially if hand writing is difficult to read.
Request receipt of class notes and PowerPoint presentations prior to class
Bring snacks, a water bottle or small squeezable object
Use to reduce fidgeting and maintain focus.
Take small frequent breaks
Self-monitor and take breaks as needed. Discuss this with professors at the start of the semester in order to make sure that it is acceptable and will not be perceived as rude behavior.
Take breaks between classes and consider a smaller course load
Build a peer support network
Seek the peer support of other students with disabilities. Check with the Disability Service Office to find out about peer support groups. Seek out classmates (who are respectful of your learning needs) to study with.
Consider a peer mentor
A peer mentor can assist with class notes, assignment clarification and deadline reminders.

Resources — Autism Spectrum Disorder

Example resource
P.O. Box 188
Crosswicks, NJ   08515-0188

General Disability Resources

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
ADA Home Page (U.S. Department of Justice)
ERIC Digest
Overview of ADA, IDEA, and Section 504
Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI)
Workshops, publications, and resources about computer access for people with disabilities
University of Washington - Disability-Related Resources on the Internet
A comprehensive list of Web sites and discussion lists related to disability.
Faculty Room
The Faculty Room is a site for faculty and administrators at postsecondary institutions to learn about how to create classroom environments and activities that maximize the learning of all students, including those with disabilities. This page is specific to faculty rights.
PACER Center – Champions for Children with Disabilities
ADA Q& A: Section 504 & Postsecondary Education
U.S Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights
Three documents by the Office of Civil Rights describing the rights of wounded warriors to a postsecondary education under the new GI Bill:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),
Office of Civil Rights (OCR)
Discrimination on the Basis of Disability
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

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Autism Spectrum Disorder
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