Individuals with autism spectrum disorders are entering college in increasing numbers (USDOE, 2011). These students may benefit from the many opportunities enjoyed by non-disabled college students, but they may also find college much more challenging. Disability services mandated by ADA such as preferential seating, notes provided, tape-recorded lectures, alternate setting, and extended time for exams may be helpful (Andreon & Durocher, 2007). These accommodations may not provide enough support for students on the spectrum, however, as these individuals can be challenged in many areas.
Autism is associated with difficulties in sensory processing and executive functioning, as well as learning differences and language and social skills deficits (Andreon & Durocher, 2007). Each individual with autism presents with a variety of challenges across these areas, and has a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. This means that to the greatest extent possible, support must be customized to individual needs to best help college students on the spectrum. The ongoing proliferation of technological advancements makes such individualization increasingly possible. See Mull & Sitlington, 2003 for a review of literature on the use of technology to support postsecondary students with disabilities – and remember that technology has come a long way in the past 10 years.
One key support is to provide choices in content delivery. If students are presented with a variety of learning experiences, they can choose their most effective strategies. Traditional college teaching strategies often involve assigning readings and then lecturing on selected aspects of the readings – or on entirely different material. Students with autism who are limited in their abilities to process different types of information could miss out on a lot with this strategy. Even simple information like instructions for assignments and teacher and peer introductions may be difficult to process. Often, this information is only shared verbally, so students who struggle with auditory processing are at a disadvantage. Providing written as well as verbal instructions may be the best solution for these students.
Choice of assessments can also be helpful to students with autism. Some express their knowledge and demonstrate mastery of material verbally, while others do better in writing. Some students with autism can be extremely anxious about tests, or lack certain test-taking abilities like staying on task or managing their time, making testing an ineffective way to truly assess their learning.
Offering choices can involve a tremendous amount of extra work for the instructor to prepare and update content and assessments in different formats and modalities. Choices should be offered carefully, because some students on the autism spectrum are resistant to being treated “differently.” And alternative assessments need to be equivalent, fair, and meaningful.
Technology can help overcome the challenges of incorporating choice strategies into classes. Alternative forms of content delivery do not need to be fancy, they just need to be made available to students who need them.
- Choose textbooks available in both audio and text formats. If a book doesn’t have an audio format but can be read on an e-reader, there may be the option to convert to audio.
- Encourage students to create their own audio content for later listening by allowing them to record lectures and class activities with smart phones.
- Record classes and make them available to students for repeat listening and viewing by posting them to YouTube, on public or private channels.
- Make lecture notes and PowerPoints available for students who rely on written formats for most of their learning. Cloud services such as Dropbox and Google Drive provide multiple access points so students can customize their experience.
Choices of assessment can be offered by providing flexibility in the format of deliverables.
- Allow students to demonstrate their understanding of content verbally. Services such as Audioboo allow for free recording and sharing so that students can submit audio essays to fulfill certain assignments.
- Give students who struggle with long writing assignments the option of producing a PowerPoint or Prezi that highlights and describes the important information in an outline format.
- Software such as Dragon can be helpful for students who have difficulty getting started writing, but can talk about the subject more easily. This application allows students to speak into a microphone and converts their speech to text that they can then edit into a written product.
- Offer more frequent, lower-stakes tests to alleviate test anxiety. Offering a weekly five-question quiz is much less stressful for most students than one 50-question exam at the end of a 10-week semester.
- Explore alternative formats for quizzes such as SurveyMonkey links and smart phone polling apps such as Poll Everywhere, which may also be less stressful for students.
Another important way to support college students with autism is to apply the principles of shaping, or the process of gradually shifting expectations to maintain a consistent level of success, ultimately resulting in the establishment of new skill sets. Instructors can apply shaping at the college level by providing frequent assessment, clear and specific feedback, opportunities to revise work based on feedback, and assignments that build in complexity.
These strategies can be time-consuming for teachers and are often based on written feedback, which can be difficult or confusing for students. Once again, technology provides solutions.
- Offer frequent online quizzes that can be automatically graded. Most colleges have a learning management system, or LMS, in which instructors (even of face-to-face courses) can set up question banks and offer quizzes that provide immediate feedback without instructor intervention. Though time-intensive to set up, this proves extremely efficient in the long run.
- Set up gradebooks in the LMS to provide students with continuous feedback on their progress. In the absence of a LMS, share spreadsheets through Google Drive or Dropbox to keep students updated on their grades and progress.
- Utilize screencasting and recording programs such as Audioboo and Screencast-O-Matic to deliver audio feedback for students who are stronger listeners than readers.
Students with autism benefit from flexibility, especially when confronting social challenges. Instructors can change the way group and partner work is handled, but eliminating collaborative experiences for students with autism is not a good solution long-term. Instead, instructors can take advantage of the plethora of technological options now available for social networking. Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail are just a few ways in which students with autism can more comfortably interact and work with peers in a variety of ways – real time, asynchronous, and at-a-distance – and often serve as a bridge to more spontaneous, face-to-face interactions.
Finally, students with autism are often more successful when their learning environment is simplified. This includes being consistent, limiting changes or surprises, clearly broadcasting all expectations (in both audio and text formats), and using stable patterns. For example, having work always due on the same day of the week; providing reminders; and using consistent visual supports (such as notes on yellow paper and assignments on green) are simple ways to support students with autism.
Once again, technology provides helpful methods for adopting these strategies.
- Word processing and presentation programs allow teachers to reuse templates throughout a course for consistency.
- Students with autism can be encouraged to use technology to provide automatic prompts and reminders for themselves, by setting calendar alerts on their smart phones, and teachers can use programs like Remind 101 to send out text messages to the class to keep everyone on track.
- Clip art and photographs available online can be used as icons and symbols as additional visual supports.
While there are challenges for students with autism spectrum disorders who enter college, there are also many solutions that can easily be implemented by instructors using available technology. The strategies described in this article are all used in The Sage Colleges’ Achieve Degree program, which is a true bachelor’s degree designed specifically for students on the autism spectrum. The Achieve Degree is a fully online program, but these suggestions are equally applicable in traditional face-to-face or hybrid settings. Students with autism in any college program can be more successful given the proper support, and technology solutions have made those supports more easily available.
To learn more about the Achieve Degree online bachelor’s program at Sage, visit www.sage.edu/achieve, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (855) 509-6607.
Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279.
Mull, C. A., & Sitlington, P. L. (2003). The role of technology in the transition to postsecondary education of students with learning disabilities: A review of the literature. The Journal of Special Education, 37(1), 26-32.
USDOE. (2011). http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html