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Key Information: Autism

In line with our commitment to the social model of disability, the authors do not consider autism a disorder and we will therefore refer to Autism, students/people with autism, autistic students and the autistic spectrum (AS).   

People with autism often have accompanying learning difficulties but all individuals share the same common difficulty in making sense of the world around them.

Students with autistic spectrum disorders can experience a number of difficulties which may affect their studies.

People with autism generally experience three main areas of difficulty; these are known as the triad of impairments:

  • Social interaction – difficulty with social relationships, e.g. appearing aloof and indifferent to others.
  • Social communication – difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, e.g. not fully understanding the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice.
  • Imagination – difficulty in the development of interpersonal skills and imagination, e.g. having a limited range of imaginative abilities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively.

In addition to these three main areas, repetitive behaviour patterns and resistance to change in routine are often also characteristic.

Individuals may often interrupt inappropriately and be unable to interpret any cues that such interruptions are unwelcome. They may also appear non-compliant at times, as they often have difficulty taking direction and coping with negative feedback. Students with autism may often be perceived as being rude or arrogant – and it is important that academic staff are aware that the student has impaired communication and that any rudeness is unintentional. Tutorial participation may present problems for some students and allowances for these communication difficulties may be necessary.

Common issues associated 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 students 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.

However, it should be noted that not all students with autism will be the same and they will have differing strengths and face different challenges, just like other students. They are also likely to have developed different strategies as they mature.

For example, contrary to what some might think, many students with autism actually do enjoy working with others and they can make good team players. Students with autism can also work in groups. Research by Sturgess (2019) suggests some group working strengths of some students with autism as:

  • Enjoyment of social interaction, especially when it has a context. Many students with autism who might not like working with people they do not know are perfectly happy to work with friends and people they are comfortable with.
  • Where clear team roles exist that suit them, these can help them work to their strengths where they get to focus on the tasks they like.
  • They have high expectations of themselves and others, which can help keep other people in the group on task.
  • Working in groups helps them to work on their weaknesses (like time management), just as it does other students.

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