After several months of silence while I’ve been focusing on trying to finish my book, this posting reports on some of the points that were raised at a training session I attended at Roehampton recently entitled ‘Students with Asperger Syndrome in Higher Education’ and run by a representative from the Prospects Employment Service which is part of The National Autistic Society. When I'm able finally to devote myself to autism and mythology, I'll reflect on how the strategies that were suggested might feed into my research.
The abstract for the paper at the Learning and Teaching conference that I included as my previous posting noted rather generally that ‘during the past decade or so, an increasing number of students with disabilities have entered higher education, including those with Asperger syndrome’. The training session provided some statistics that gives a more precise picture and if anything strengthens the point that we made in the workshop. In 2003, autism spectrum disorder was added to the disability section of the UCAS form. That year, 165 applicants disclosed that they were on the spectrum, of whom 139 were offered places. In 2008, the numbers rose to 851 applicants, with 706 offered places. That these five years could have seen this c.400pc increase indicates how aware teachers in HE need be about the difficulties experienced by students with AS and how vital it is that we seek strategies to help facilitate their learning. There are no statistics available on the subject choices of students with Autism, unfortunately, but Humanities subjects can be quite a popular choice.
Each autistic student will have particular needs and challenges. That said, there are several strategies worth considering which mostly involve taking a ‘back to basics’ approach (which might benefit some of our neurotypical students as well?). People with AS may have particular strengths which can be harnessed when they are given the right support, which include attention to detail, a methodological approach, accuracy, reliability, good motivation. People with AS are often of average or above average intelligence.
Communication and social interaction
Characteristics/Areas of impairment: People with AS are not born with an ability to communicate so this is something they are continually learning to do; with communication skills not innate as they are in neurotypical people, there are challenges in e.g. reading body language, eye contact, facial expressions as well as unwritten rules of interaction/cues of how to act appropriately and process info. They may find it hard to know what to say or do in social situations which can make group work difficult. Another tendency is to interrupt to talk over conversations. They might display repetitive behaviour often associated with high anxiety manifested in e.g. asking the same questions week after week which is done to seek reassurance and not because they have forgotten the information. People with AS may experience heightened sensory reactions and could be distracted by e.g. noise outside the classroom, an air conditioning system or the sound of the AV console. Some students with AS come to University to develop social relationships.
Strategies: Use multiple forms of communication, e.g. ppt with ppt slides as a handout. Be explicit in communicating information – students with AS may take things said literally and for instance not understand sarcasm. Make clear at the start of a course what the acceptable modes of behaviour are – e.g. whether it is acceptable to ask questions; whether students may interrupt the lecturer. For group work, provide step-by-step instructions and offer structured discussions; tutor should divide students into groups rather than letting students take initiative. Neurotypical students might sometimes ostracise a student with AS or else take advantage of their motivation or reliability. Be flexible over assessments, e.g. allowing students with AS to give oral presentations directly to the tutor rather than to the whole group.
‘Theory of mind’/social imagination
Impairments: Difficulty with reading other people’s feelings or gauging what people are thinking or feeling. Challenges with coping with situations that require initiative or judgement; difficulties over organising and planning; they might find it hard to see outside the ‘now’
Strategies: Provide direction with anything that requires initiative e.g. when to start and assignment; devise weekly timetables; perhaps send phone or email reminders.
Flexibility of thought
Impairments: Abstract thinking can be difficult, e.g. understanding essay questions. People with AS will find analogies difficult to understand as well as hypothetical questions.
Strategies: Help students to understand that there is no one correct answer to an essay. Lecturers very often use analogies to help students make sense of a particular event, concept etc. These stressed these can be missed by people with an AS yet other students, e.g. those with dyslexia, may find them useful. Rather than seeking to omit analogies, a suggested strategy was to make clear when an analogy was being used via an introductory phrase of the ‘now I’m going to make an analogy’ kind.
Dealing with anxiety
Impairments: People with AS often experience high anxiety and sometimes, linked with this, depression
Strategies: As well as providing verbal information on aspects of the course, write down what is required. Perhaps ask the student to repeat back what you have told them. Be strict where it may benefit the student – e.g. make clear that information will be provided only a set no. of times. In encouraging students to develop a timetable, find ways to account for breaks or interruptions. Make clear the purpose of any assignment and set out what the student is expected to do in order to complete it. Provide structure by giving notes on lecture topics in advance. Give feedback immediately on e.g. inappropriate behaviour, but avoid negatives – don’t tell a student with AS not to do something but find a positive action to place stress upon. Stay fresh with the student each time there is a change in a routine.