Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC)
Students with Autism Spectrum Conditions are significantly less likely to complete their degree than matched peers who are neuro-typical (1). There are a number of interacting academic, social and wellbeing factors that lead to this rate of withdrawal, including finding university environments overwhelming at a sensory level, social isolation and lack of belonging, self-efficacy and self-esteem, difficulties with executive functions, a need to develop social and self-management skills, exclusion, bullying and difficulties understanding context (2-7). However, with appropriate support, students with ASC can succeed both academically and socially (8).
For many students with ASC, the interaction between their wellbeing, social environment and academic learning plays a key role in either their persistence and success or underperformance and withdrawal. Research has shown that loneliness, isolation and a lack of a sense of belonging can reduce academic learning and performance, particularly for students with ASC (7, 9, 10). Given that students with ASC can find social situations and interactions more difficult to navigate, this creates a higher barrier for them (3).
These social challenges are made more complicated at university, where the environment is less structured than in secondary education, requiring additional ability to manage time and structure activity (11). If students feel unable to manage these challenges, it can create additional practical problems to manage and undermine students’ sense of competence, self-belief and identity as a student. In turn this can lead to lowered mood and increased anxiety (7).
Each individual’s ASC is experienced and expressed differently. There are no absolute rules of support that will apply in the case of every student with ASC. An inclusive curriculum can generally help all students to learn more and benefit their wellbeing. However, there are some common factors that are worth considering in relation to students with ASC.
Many students with ASC have difficulty processing lots of sensory stimuli at the same time and can become overwhelmed and anxious if they encounter excessive noise, large crowds or high levels of visual stimuli (17, 2). Maintaining a calm learning space and allowing students to take time out from group learning activities can help students maintain a sense of control, focus on learning and feel safe.
Cooperative learning (e.g., small group projects and group discussions). Problems navigating social interactions and situations can make group work an anxiety-provoking task (12). Students with ASC may struggle to perceive social cues (e.g., personal spaces, lack of understanding of changes in subject of discussion, lack of understanding of classroom social norms) and their lack of social understanding can have a negative impact upon their learning and sense of belonging (13). Students with ASC may also be more likely to find it difficult to understand their appropriate role within group work. Providing specific operating rules for group work and training all students to understand how to use co-operative learning, is beneficial for all students, but has particular benefits for students with ASC.
Executive function determines an individual’s ability to set goals, manage practical tasks, respond to multiple sets of incoming data and achieve aims. For students with ASC, difficulties with executive function can make it more difficult to manage time, plan study habits, create and maintain learning and revision strategies, evaluate progress, manage multiple tasks and maintain concentration (4, 7, 12, 13). Problems with cognitive functioning can exhibit with lapses in concentration and inability to perform instructions (14). A lack of regular structure can undermine wellbeing and academic performance in all students, but many students with ASC particularly benefit from being able to maintain regular routines. Helping students with ASC to set and maintain healthy routines, which benefit their learning in a structured way, can support both their wellbeing and learning (12, 15).
Some students with ASC can find it more difficult to interpret ambiguity and to move between concrete and abstract thinking. Some students report difficulties with following a text when it is assumed that the reader will automatically fill in the context or when they are required to adopt a different point of view (6). Some students with ASC can also find it more difficult to apply learning from one example to another or to learn via metaphorical examples (13). Benefit can be gained from ensuring tasks and assignment questions are not ambiguous, that instruction uses a range of approaches and providing stepped guidance for more complex tasks. Providing individually tailored academic accommodations (such as receiving more time for completion of assignments, more structured teaching) are of paramount importance to support the learning experience and wellbeing of autistic students (7). Many recommendations that benefit students with ASC overlap with the best approaches to complex tasks for all: making education more inclusive to students with ASC can result in better education for all students.
- Students with ASC can face additional barriers to their learning and wellbeing such as difficulties with social interactions and sensory sensitivity, understanding explicit context, responding to ambiguity, managing practical demands and lack of belonging.
- In HE, where learning is less structured than in secondary education, issues with time-management, organisation and scheduling can arise, which can exacerbate mental health issues by increasing levels of anxiety and depression. These issues, in turn, have negative effect on academic achievement and students’ feelings of inclusivity and belonging
- It is important to understand the specific issues that each individual with ASC experiences.
- Providing individually tailored academic accommodations is of paramount importance to support the learning experience, academic attainment, and wellbeing of students with ASC.
- Many recommendations overlap with the best approaches to complex tasks: making education more inclusive to autistic students will result in better education as a whole.
Academic accommodations can significantly benefit the learning experience of students with ASC and can support feelings of inclusivity within the classroom.
- Receiving more time for completion of assignments and more structured teaching are of paramount importance to support the learning experience and wellbeing for students with ASC. Benefit can be gained from providing students with digitalised learning material in advance and in alternative formats (6, 8). It can also help if learning materials avoid the use of idioms and figurative language (16)
- Accommodations for issues with cooperative learning: educators could make group work less anxiety-provoking by carefully forming learning groups, and it might be necessary to provide students with individually tailored tasks (12, 16).
- Accommodations to facilitate critical thinking: learning tasks could be broken down into smaller components, which could reduce stress for both neurotypical and students with ASC (13). Additionally, educators could provide students with a balanced presentation of abstract ideas and concrete concepts (12). When possible, role plays could be implemented in order to encourage students to explore the perspectives of others (12).
- Accommodations for issues with explicit context and guidelines: provide students with clear explanations of what is expected in assignments/examinations (e.g., be very specific, sometimes specify about lack of strict rules, explain general approach in tackling a problem). When specific guidelines are provided to perform a task, these should be followed by examples and they should make clear what the student is supposed to learn from the example (6)
- Accommodations for issues with sensory processing: students can be supported by reducing the amount of sensory stimulation (e.g., dimming bright lights, reducing loud noises, reducing the volume of videos and sound effects, provide subtitles where needed). Additionally, academics could allow students to wear appliances that reduce sensory stimulation (e.g., sunglasses, noise cancelling headphones) (7).
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