Since the mid-2000’s, there has been a steady increase in the number of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) registered at the Paul Menton Centre, consistent with the finding that Ottawa has the second-highest concentration of such students in Ontario (Alcorn-MacKay, 2010).
While still in use, the term Asperger’s Syndrome does not appear in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), and is now subsumed under the broad category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Those diagnosed in the past with Asperger’s would now be identified as having Level 1 ASD (requiring minimal supports). A neurodevelopmental disorder usually identified in childhood, ASD is diagnosed and described based on two symptom dimensions: (1) Deficits in social communication/social interaction, and (2) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities.
Carleton students with ASD typically have many strengths. They are usually highly articulate, in speech and in writing. They tend to be attentive to detail, with strengths in rote memory and a systematic, logical approach to problem solving. They may have intense interests around a general theme (for example, mechanics or history) with more specific, related interests having varied since childhood (Stoddart, Burke and King, 2012), which can be highly motivating if they are in a related program. They are also likely to be straightforward, loyal and honest (McMahon-Coleman, 2016).
In addition to the two DSM-V symptom dimensions, students with ASD may experience excessive anxiety associated with everyday events. Many are hypersensitive to environmental stimuli, such as noise, harsh lighting and crowds. They may exhibit rigid, inflexible, rule-bound behaviour, and can experience profound anxiety in response to unfamiliar settings, unclear expectations, and (seemingly minor) changes (e.g. last-minute changes to course syllabus). Other observed areas of difficulty include time management and organization, concentration, fine motor skills (messy, effortful handwriting) and processing speed.
Many students with ASD struggle to participate in class discussions, presentations and group work. Grades may suffer because they do not intuitively grasp “the hidden curriculum” like their peers. To illustrate, some may lack awareness of the various types of postsecondary settings – like lectures, labs, and discussion groups – with distinct formats for teaching and learning and expectations for behaviour. They may generalize from the familiar, predominately reproductive learning culture of high school (memorise this and give it back) and be unprepared when required to analyse, critique, or apply knowledge. They may need to be taught explicitly that different academic fields apply different writing conventions, which vary further across assignment types (book report versus persuasive essay, for example), and benefit from access to models, scaffolded assignments (McMahon-Coleman, 2016) and clear written instructions.
Symptoms and characteristics of ASD may lead to false impressions; as a result, many students struggle to establish and maintain friendships. Some speak in a relatively monotone voice with limited eye contact and avoid social interactions. Such individuals may be perceived as aloof, uninterested “loners”. Others speak too loudly and out of context, with intense eye contact and a propensity to talk extensively about their own interests, giving the impression that they are impression that they are insensitive and self-centered. They may be unaware of “unwritten” social rules (e.g. personal space), or interpret language in a highly literal fashion (cannot detect sarcasm or “read between the lines”). Most can’t “do small talk”; nor do they readily interpret and express non-verbal social cues (facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures). Finally, students with ASD are far less likely to intuitively consider others’ perspectives -an aspect of the reciprocal nature of communication termed Theory of Mind (Baron-Cohen et al, 1985).
Typical Academic Accommodations are as follows:
- Extra time and a smaller location for tests and exams
- Access to a word processor for written tests and exams
- Recording software or recording pen for lectures
- Access to volunteer notetaking services
- Consideration for group work, presentations or participation1.
In some cases, a PMC Coordinator will encourage students with ASD to send their instructors a personalised Letter of Introduction explaining the impact of their disability and related strengths and challenges.
1 Students with ASD are expected to work to develop their skills in these areas, but individualized accommodations may be negotiated with instructors to allow them to perform to the best of their ability.
Gobbo, K. and Shmulsky, S. (2014) Faculty Experience With College Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Qualitative Study of Challenges and Solutions. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities, 29(1), 13-22
McKeon, B., Alpern, C. S., & Zager, D. (2013). Promoting academic engagement for college students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 26(4), 353-366.
Burgstahler, S. & Russo-Gleicher, R.J. (2015). Applying universal design to address the needs of postsecondary students on the autism spectrum. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 29, 199-212.
Alcorn Mackay, S. (2010). Identifying Trends and Supports for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder Transitioning into Postsecondary. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council Ontario.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Stoddart, K. P., Burke, L., and King, R. (2012). Asperger Syndrome in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide for Clinicians. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. and Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37-46