Dyslexia is the most common learning difficulty, and 6% of Finnish higher education students have been diagnosed with it (FSHS, KOTT, 2021).Dyslexia is defined as an impairment involving both reading and writing. A key characteristic in dyslexia is difficulty identifying and processing connections in phonologic (i.e. sound-related) information.
What does being on the autism spectrum mean?
Research shows that one percent of the population are on the autism spectrum. Being on the autism spectrum presents in quite different ways in different people, and the functional limitations caused by it also vary by individual. Many have specific features related to sensory regulation, e.g. hyper- or hyposensitivity to sound, light, touch, smell, taste and colours. In addition, individuals on the autism spectrum are often less stress resilient than a person that is not on the spectrum. Being on the autism spectrum is associated with many strengths, which may include good attention to detail or the ability to concentrate for a long time on topics of interest.
The diagnostic system for autism spectrum disorders is currently under reform. The previously used diagnosis Asperger Syndrome is no longer considered a separate diagnosis. This toolkit deals with autism spectrum disorders as one entity.
How can being on the autism spectrum affect studying?
The traits connected to autism spectrum disorders vary greatly depending on the individual, the environment and the situation. The disorder may not be readily apparent in a student’s behaviour unless the student brings it up.
For those on the autism spectrum, sensory information is relayed and interpreted in an anomalous manner. Many people with autism spectrum disorder have sensory defensiveness, causing noisy or echoing spaces such as cafeterias and lecture halls to seem disagreeable and a hindrance to concentration. Overload of the senses may also cause panic attacks, or else shutting down and turning inward with one’s own thoughts. Problems with executive function and concentration may make initiating tasks and bringing them to a conclusion difficult. The student may get hung up on a detail in an assignment if the assignment instructions are vague or contradictory.
Individuals on the autism spectrum may have challenges with stress resilience. For instance, schedule changes or unclear arrangements, unpredictability or new situations may be particularly burdensome for such students. Often, persons on the autism spectrum have a heightened need for routines and regularity. Adjusting to changes may be problematic due to the lack of flexibility in their set ways of thinking and acting. In some situations the affected person’s thinking may seem formulaic.
Often persons on the autism spectrum may face challenges in social interaction. Making contact may be hampered by their problems communicating and interpreting other people’s language. The problems include a tendency to understand other people’s remarks literally and difficulty recognising irony, sarcasm or differences of tone or connotation in a conversation. The student may also have trouble recognising and understanding messages conveyed through gestures, expressions and body language. Establishing and maintaining eye contact may also be problematic. In group situations, these obstacles may hinder the affected person from recognising the rules and conventions expected in various social situations, and cause them difficulty in beginning and maintaining a two-way conversation. The student may exhibit mild anomalies in their speech tone, oral expressions or body language.
Tips for student guidance
- Personal study counselling is very important for helping these students to progress smoothly in studies.
- When talking with the student, be clear and direct, but also calm and friendly. Make sure that the student has understood what you have had to say.
- Give the student sufficient room in the conversation. Pay attention to your physical distance and the student’s personal space. Also give room for silence, for it may mean the student is processing what you have said.
- Counselling should pay special attention to the following:
- Keeping to schedule and doing things on time, in an orderly sequence and in appropriate measure.
- Making realistic course choices in terms of content and sequence
- Making sure the student understands the structure of the studies and study modules.
- Additional support may be needed particularly at the start of studies or in times of change. To get started in studies, the student can be helped by having:
- a chance to get acquainted ahead of time with the school and its services, and with the classrooms and cafeterias, for example
- personal orientation information and guidance on where to receive services and support
- sufficient information about schedules, meeting locations and programmes of upcoming meetings, in order to prepare in advance. Clarifying the times and places of the above in a visual manner, e.g. campus maps and wayfinding guides may be useful.
- Daily routines can increase the students’ sense of security and help them get oriented towards studies. Students on the autism spectrum may find unclear situations and changes to routines particularly burdensome.
- Planning ahead for things and situations helps: it gives a sense of control and helps in avoiding many problems. This is why it good to provide clear information on upcoming assignments or new situations beforehand.
- When you talk with the student, do not focus on problems. Instead, try to identify the student’s strengths and how the student can contribute to learning situations. With students on the autism spectrum, it is important to focus on the good areas, and to find ways to compensate for their weaknesses to allow them to gain positive study experiences.
The student may not be aware of their need for support or the opportunities available. Offer support when you notice the student may need it or refer the student to another person with more knowledge on the issue at hand.
Pay attention to course practices
- You should provide a clear structure, timetable and requirements for the studies. Make sure that the information necessary for the student is precise, updated and readily available.
- The student may find course participation easier when you:
- give the lecture outline and written material beforehand
- ensure that your materials and instructions are clear and unambiguous
- communicate any changes to the student as early as possible
- when giving the lecture, talk clearly and calmly, avoid meandering
- give the student a chance to take notes by recording sound or video.
- The student may ask many questions in the lecture. If that disturbs you, you can talk to the student about it after the lecture, for instance. Explain to the student how and when they may contact you in case of any questions (during the break, after class, by email, during office hours etc.).
Best practices in teaching
- In lectures and small group teaching, one challenge for students on the autism spectrum is managing sensory overload.
- When arranging meetings, try to ensure that there are no distracting sensory stimuli in the room. These can be certain types of voices, noise, or flickering lights. Do not hesitate to ask the student about their needs in this respect. The university space booking system at booking.aalto.fi also gives you information on the features of the different rooms.
- Have a positive attitude towards special arrangements and devices or clothing that may help the student to manage sensory overload, for instance, having designated seats in classrooms, wearing caps, hoods, sunglasses, hearing protectors, or having stress toys at hand when listening to teaching.
- Make clear that any student who feels anxious or experiences overload can step of out the room without fear of criticism or punishment.
- You can reserve a suitable seat for the student by putting a ‘reserved’ note on it. Often seats towards the front of the hall or at the end of a row expose the student to less stimuli that may cause sensory overload; they also give the student a chance to leave the room discreetly if needed.
- As needed, you can think of alternatives for the student, for instance, replacing group work or in-class discussions with written assignments. You may give the student permission to leave the hall if loud chatter from pair discussions, for example, becomes too much of a strain for them.
- Encourage the student to ask for help from their friends in class. One-on-one discussions with an agreed-upon pair after the lecture may help the student to form a clearer picture of all the things learnt during the lecture.
Problems with group work?
- Students on the autism spectrum may not have challenges when studying together with others in class. However, they may have some special difficulties in group work that should be considered.
- Persons with autism spectrum disorder benefit from smaller groups or pair work, or they may work better with a pair that they already know.
- They may have difficulty making friends or acquaintances in a student group. The student may need help, for instance, in finding a group. That is why it is recommended that the teacher decide the groups (by lot or other means).
- The group including the student with autism spectrum disorder may need additional support to ensure that they can work together effectively. Offer additional guidance also to others in the group.
- A clear division of tasks and responsibilities within the group makes working together easier. Encourage clear and open communication within the group.
- Ask the student with autism spectrum disorder whether they wish to tell their fellow students about the disorder. Being open about the condition may make the affected student feel better or help other students to better understand the situation of the affected student. The student does, however, have a right not to tell others about their condition.
Best practices for examinations and evaluations
- When thinking about examination and evaluation practices, you should focus on minimising sensory stimuli and formulating exam questions clearly.
- If needed, offer the student extra time for the examination. The current Aalto policy allows the student to use one extra hour for an examination regardless of the length of the examination.
- A separate, quiet space and the possibility to walk about makes it easier for the student to focus on answering the examination questions and saves them from worrying about whether their behaviour, such as walking about, disturbs the other students.
- The student may also benefit from alternative ways of taking the exam, such as replacing a presentation with a one-on-one discussion or written assignment, or replacing a project assignment with independent work. However, routinely replacing group work assignments with alternative assignments is not necessarily in the student’s best interest. It is good for the student to practise functioning as part of a group.
- The student may benefit from individual guidance on exam time management (e.g. guidance on the time spent answering to each question).
- Make sure that the questions or assignments are unambiguous and clear. Of course, there are times when ambiguity and room for interpretation can be justified in exams, as long as you make sure they serve a pedagogical purpose.
- Give the student a chance to ask for advice if anything is unclear or ask for further instructions if they feel stuck because of ambiguous instructions.
Help with theses
- Tasks that require extensive independent planning, such as theses, may prove more challenging than everyday studying, which is scheduled and follows a routine.
- The student should choose a thesis topic that interests them and that has connections to their studies otherwise.
- The student should start working on the thesis as early as possible.
- Clear instructions and requirements help the student understand the structure of the thesis. Give the student clear and precise instructions on what they should submit to you and when.
- Break the thesis into smaller parts and help the student set up scheduled interim goals that have clear criteria.
- Help the student develop a routine which, in the case of theses, could mean writing 500 words per day or starting to work on the thesis every day at the same time.
- Give open and frequent feedback on the student’s progress. Remember to encourage and motivate the student to keep working.
Individual study arrangements
Visual-perceptual difficulties refer to difficulties with processing or making sense of visual or spatial information in one’s mind and to create images that support action. In practice, students with visual-perceptual difficulties may find it hard to find their way in the studying environment and find teaching spaces or complete assignments that require them to identify or assemble objects or understand dimensions and patterns.
Attention deficit and hyperactivity challenges may present in tasks requiring concentration or independent study. When diagnosed, attention deficit and hyperactivity challenges are referred to as ADHD.
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of neurobiological developmental disorders that affect how an individual communicates and interacts with others, and they sense and experience the surrounding world. The condition is life-long, stemming from anomalous development of the central nervous system.
Mental disorders here refer to particularly to depression, but also to bipolar disorder. Of mental disorders, particularly depression is common with young adults. Students should listen to themselves and remember to reserve sufficient time for recovering from the strain of studies.
Anxiety means a state where a person feels tense, restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and nervousness or stage fright are very common and natural phenomena among students.
A panic disorder refers to recurrent panic attacks, meaning sudden, very strong experiences of anxiety. Panic attacks may be isolated events or related to general anxiety. Panic attacks are rather common: about 10 to 15 per cent of people experience one in their lifetime.
Each Aalto student has a right to receive reasonable individual study arrangements for medical reasons. A medical reason may be dyslexia, a sensory impairment, mental health condition or learning difficulty. Individual study arrangements should not be seen as a reason to stop aiming for the set learning outcomes. Instead, they are a way of supporting the student in attaining the learning outcomes.
Examples of individual study arrangements include additional time for examinations (1 hour at Aalto), a private space or computer for examinations, or adjusted schedules.
Feedback, comments and questions on the individual study arrangements toolkit