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Summary: Autism

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What do we mean by Autism?

The National Autistic Society (NAS) defines Autism as:

“…a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others…Autism is a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties but being autistic will affect them in different ways.”


In considering the student experience we first need to accept that this will differ from individual to individual and at the same time vary depending on the context where the student may find themselves. However, common issues facing students with autism include:

  • Social interaction, particularly in new or unfamiliar environments
  • Communication issues – verbal and non-verbal
  • Difficulty with managing uncertainty and lack of clarity
  • Following special interests or hyper-focus. This can take them off topic.
  • Understanding the perspectives of others – Theory of Mind.
  • Rigid thinking and fixed behaviours
  • Sensory issues – processing and over-stimulation
  • Social anxiety and other mental health issues such as ticks and stimming.

In the academic environment these may be characterised by challenges with:

  • General organisation, time-keeping and attendance.
  • Participation in student life such as social activities.
  • Research and reading where perfectionism, distraction and hyper-focus may all present difficulties.
  • Accessing learning and support within online learning.
  • Composition, referencing and proof-reading.
  • Anxiety over preparing for and sitting exams and timed assessments, particularly in busy environments.
  • Unfamiliar environments and processes when on placements or field trips. 
  • Face to face learning including note-taking and participation.

Points for Reflection

  • What, if anything, might tutors do to support students with autism when they first arrive at University?
  • How might you create the environment within which students with autism feel comfortable disclosing the anxieties and difficulties they face?
  • What changes to your teaching could you introduce to support students with autism in playing a full part in your course?
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