Monday, October 31, 2016


Serving the Spectrum

This one is a shameless call for help.

I’ve heard multiple professors over the last few years say that the number of students in their classes who appear to be on the autism spectrum seems to be climbing.  But most professors have no training in ways to work with students on the spectrum.  With the number of affected students apparently climbing, the gap between what most of us are prepared for and what we need to be able to do keeps growing.

Students on the spectrum are part of the community, and deserve every chance to succeed.  But I’m concerned -- and the professors I’ve heard from share my concern -- that some of our standard pedagogical practices aren’t well designed to meet their needs.

I have no illusions about turning everyone into a psychologist or counselor.  That’s not the point.  But I’m guessing that a few basic adjustments, if they became common practice, would make a meaningful difference.  The problem is that I don’t know what those basic adjustments are.

Here’s where I turn to my wise and worldly readers for help.

Two questions.

First, are there resources for first-level professional development for college faculty at scale?  In other words, are there relatively straightforward techniques that work across disciplines to help college faculty work more effectively with students on the spectrum?  Again, anything that requires every professor to become an expert is a non-starter; I’m looking for some basics that might be helpful.  I’m thinking here of something akin to Universal Design for Learning.  Yes, it’s possible to become an expert in UDL, but it’s also possible to adopt a few basics -- caption your videos, leave the bottom third of a screen blank when using PowerPoint, don’t rely exclusively on color-coding -- that prevent unnecessary frustration.  Anyone who teaches can adopt those practices and make life easier for everyone.  Are there analagous practices to benefit students on the spectrum?

Second, and related, are there generally respected resources to draw upon?  Again, I’m not looking to make everyone an expert.  But if we can address some of the low-hanging fruit upfront, we can free up resources for more intensive interventions for the students who need it.

My goal here is to help faculty help their students, without easier blowing the budget wide open or expecting everyone to be a superhero.

Any help my readers can provide would be appreciated.  Thanks!

Lots of good ideas here: In short - it's not simply academic areas that are difficult, but areas that reach beyond the classroom, things like executive function and social function. Many people on the spectrum take longer to process language, benefit from clear, concise instructions that break down assignments into smaller steps, and value consistency (because they're thrown off when a routine isn't followed far more than neurotypical students). Use multiple means of transmitting information, and be willing to consider different forms for assignments (will a written report substitute for an oral presentation? etc.), and be aware of and willing to adjust, if possible, the classroom atmosphere to help with sensory issues. Most of these will benefit students in general. But I think there's a reason to provide wrap-around support that supplements academic support, because the disappearance of structures and supports that assisted the autistic student in K-12 makes it all that much harder for him/her to succeed, regardless of academic ability.

I've developed some training at my U for TAs and faculty on working with students with disability accommodations and students on the spectrum and those with learning disabilities in particular; considering there's really no formal pedagogical training commonly done for people in higher ed, it's good to think about the very basics. I hope this situation improves by the time my 6 year old autistic son goes (I hope) to college - he's very bright, and like so many others in similar positions, deserves to be able to develop his potential.
Western KY University is also home to the Kelly Autism Program, designed to support students on the spectrum. I would think that if you contacted that program, they would be happy to advise you. I have taught a number of KAP students in my English classes. They have generally done well, although many hit the wall in our research paper class. They do well at memorization and following directions, but developing their own argument-centered research paper is often difficult for many KAP students. I agree: breaking the assignment into smaller segments with step-by-step assistance seems to help many of those students. Here's a link:
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A friend of mine (who happens to live in New Jersey) suggests as an institutional resource the agency his wife works for, the Arc of New Jersey. (They have personal experience with the issues, btw.)
Concentric, thank you for that link. My younger son is in high school but is getting very little support or understanding. His usual coping mechanism is to leave class abruptly and find solitude. We have had great difficulty convincing administration that this is not merely bad behaviour. The poor boy has a high IQ and a college graduate level vocabulary, so he appears just as a smart eccentric kid.
I shall print that out and distribute it at school..
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