Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Creating an Online College Degree Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Since the early 1990’s, a surge in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses has occurred (e.g., Robertson & Ne’eman, 2008; Taylor, 2005). The reasons for this marked increase in ASD diagnoses remains controversial, but the reality of this increase has resulted in greater attention to effective educational interventions, early provision of interventions, and in turn the recent increase in individuals with ASDs pursuing postsecondary education (e.g., Robertson & Ne’eman, 2008; Taylor, 2005). An online college degree program offers flexibility and accessibility to those students who may lack important skills for successful participation in traditional on-site courses.

Planning for college

Unlike the typical accommodations and supports designed for students with learning disabilities that are generally commonplace within university settings, students with ASDs may require additional supports above and beyond what the school is familiar with (e.g., Smith, 2007; Taylor, 2005). For many students with ASDs in the college setting, additional prompting may be required to promote adherence to assignment deadlines and course attendance, concrete and specific instructions on assignments, adjustment to or alternatives for group based assignments, course lectures available in written form prior to lectures, and computer access for exam completion or note taking (Taylor, 2005; VanBergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008; Webb, Patterson, Syverud, & Seabrooks-Blackmore, 2008). Additionally, a review of the literature regarding the supports needed for students with ASDs suggest that a major barrier to pursuing and completing a program of study within a typical university setting revolves around the social interaction deficits of the disorder (e.g., Glennon, 2001). The use of computer-assisted accommodations and supports are commonly suggested in the research as mechanisms to allow students to access academic material if and when the social pressures of the typical environment prove to be untenable (i.e., online access to course materials; email and text chat options for participation; online options for courses [Taylor, 2005]). Taking these technology based accommodations one step further, it may be possible to open up postsecondary educational options for those students for whom the cognitive and social pressures of the typical college experience pose too great a barrier by creating a fully online, distance education bachelor degree program.

The use of computer-based instruction for individuals with autism has been well established as an effective tool in teaching a variety of skills (e.g., communication—Bosseler & Massaro, 2003; writing—Delano, 2007; social skills—Bernard-Opitz, Sriram, & Nakhoda-Sapuan, 2001). The success of computer mediated educational formats with individuals on the autism spectrum could be attributed to the consistency within programs that leads to greater predictability, as well as the ability of the student to learn at their own pace (e.g., Parsons et al., 2000; Swettenham, 1996). While college level courses offered through online formats would still necessitate the adherence to assignment deadlines, the student is able to repeatedly access and review learning materials such as video lectures or PowerPoint presentations that may have only been available once within traditional college classrooms (e.g., Meyen, Lian, & Tangen, 1998).

A fully online bachelor degree program specifically designed for students with ASDs would, by its very nature, address most of the specific concerns voiced in the literature regarding the strengths and needs of this target student population (see Andreon & Durocher, 2007; Smith, 2007; VanBergeijk et al., 2008). Difficulties in handwriting for students with ASDs are generally addressed by implementing supports such as note takers, laptops, or printed lecture notes (Broun, 2009; VanBergeijk et al., 2008). The online college program would be fully completed through the use of standard computer-based word-processing programs, alleviating any barriers to learning involved in manual handwriting tasks (e.g., Broun, 2009; Myhill, Samant, Klein, Kaplan, Reina, & Blanck, 2007). The need for physical environment accommodations in the classroom would also be ameliorated within the online program. Since the student would be capable of working from home, the accommodations for preferential seating, lighting adjustments, and the reduction of distractions during test taking could be controlled by the student to meet their particular needs at any particular time (Myhill et al., 2007; Oravec, 2003). Difficulties with time-management and organizational skills that are often addressed in the typical college classroom through adult prompting or relying on the course instructor’s ability to provide clear instructions and timelines, can be supported in the online classroom through platform design while simultaneously promoting independent functioning through the use of non-socially mediated stimuli (i.e., topic and assignment areas presented one at a time where assignments are visually broken down into smaller components; visual reminders on the screen for due dates [Klemes, Epstein, Zuker, Grinberg, & Ilovitch, 2006; Stromer, Kimball, Kinney, & Taylor, 2006]).

The literature on successful college transition and retention for students with ASDs emphasizes the need for intensive supports and accommodations related to the social environment of the college campus (Taylor, 2005; VanBergeijk et al., 2008). A great deal of the resources needed to support the successful completion of a college degree is related to this core deficit of ASDs (e.g., Collins, Hedrick, & Stumbo, 2007). Offering a fully online degree program would immediately tear down this very real barrier to the student’s realization of a college education. No longer would supports be necessary in the dorm, in the dining hall, at extracurricular activities, or in the lecture hall. The student would be free to access college-level courses without the social pressures of the typical college campus, much like the use of computers for writing tasks has eliminated the pressure of graphomotor difficulties in attending to the content of academic materials (Broun, 2009; Richardson, 2010).

A college or university program seeking to develop an online degree program for individuals with ASD must not only rely on the inherent characteristics of online learning and the general benefits provided by well-designed e-learning environments. Early and ongoing assessment of individual learning styles and learning needs at the onset of the program ensure that the necessity for individualization in instruction is not forgotten. This could be realized through a systematic learning strategy intervention program that assesses needs at the onset, designs personalized interventions and directly instructs the skill using behaviorally sound instructional techniques, evaluation of the learned techniques within course-specific contexts, and ongoing support and practice of the techniques until independent performance is observed (Allsopp, Minskoff, & Bolt, 2005). Training in evidence-based learning practices for individuals with ASD for faculty or the provision of highly skilled support staff to act as “mentors” for students will be needed and a systematic plan to fade these outside supports. It is feasible to utilize individuals with such expertise in applied behavior analysis (ABA) and ASDs as individual mentors as well as instructors for those courses or support programs that directly address the core deficits found in the disorder. The role of these mentor-instructors should include assessment of student strengths, needs, and learning styles as well as to act as a liaison between student and academic content course instructors (Carroll, Blumberg, & Petroff, 2008; Taylor, 2005). As the mentor’s role fades from direct support and instruction to evaluator and facilitator, the student should be able to demonstrate the self-advocacy and self-management skills necessary to seek out assistance when needed from these services (e.g., Wehmeyer, 1999).

As in any evidence-based intervention, ongoing assessment throughout the program is necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of the supports and accommodations that were put in place to address these needs. This can be realized through the use of the wealth of permanent product samples inherent in online learning environments (e.g., discussion forums, assignments, exam results). One promising mechanism to gather all of these course-work products would be the use of an electronic portfolio (e.g., Mason, Pegler, & Weller, 2004). The electronic portfolio (e-portfolio) requires that the student (or instructor) select samples from coursework throughout the semester. These work samples could be evaluated not only in terms of a summative assessment tool for each course, but as a means to evaluate the effectiveness of the individual supports and accommodations in place. Finally, attention must be given to assure the generalization of skills to real-world applications. Research has demonstrated that skills learned to mastery within virtual environments can generalize to real-world settings (e.g., Herrera, Jordan, & Vera, 2006; Hetzroni & Tannous, 2004). Providing intensive training based on real-world job or volunteer site contexts through virtual reality simulations could prepare the student for the expectations within their selected site.

By offering a fully online undergraduate program for students with ASDs, the social barrier to obtaining a college degree can be circumvented. While it is necessary that the program addresses the social needs of this student population, it can do so through carefully planned and proactive interventions designed for the individual student rather than reactive strategies implemented within the often chaotic social realm of the typical college campus. The technology is available. Effective computer-mediated interventions have been identified. Online education can create an academic environment that is at once stimulating and rigorous, but also individualized and supportive to the specific needs of the ASD population.

Chelsea Donlin has her MS in Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. To contact Chelsea, please call (845) 554-9695 or email


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VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: College and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1359-1370.

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