Autism spectrum disorders
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurobiological developmental disorder. The disorder affects how an individual communicates and interacts with others, and how he or she senses and experiences the surrounding world. The condition is life-long, stemming from anomalous development of the central nervous system.
The syndrome presents in quite different ways in different people, and the functional limitations attending it also vary by individual. Some individuals with autism spectrum disorder are able to live quite independently; others may require substantial support throughout their lives. Some individuals have specific features related to sensory regulation, e.g. hyper- or hyposensitivity to sound, light, touch, smell, taste and colours. As a group, autism spectrum persons are particularly sensitive to stress. Strengths may also be associated with the autism spectrum, e.g. attention to detail, powers of concentration on subjects found to be interesting, and a strong sense of right and wrong.
One percent of the population has autism spectrum disorder, according to various studies. The diagnostic system for classifying autism spectrum is currently being renewed. In future, Asperger syndrome may no longer be its own diagnosis, but included as a part of the autism spectrum. This toolkit covers both diagnoses as a combined subject.
What is Asperger syndrome?
Asperger syndrome (AS) is a neurobiological disorder of the central nervous system. AS may hinder one’s social interaction and cause rigid patterns in thinking and behaviour. Asperger is included as an autism spectrum disorder. Its prevalence is four times greater in men than in women. Its symptoms may vary greatly – from mild effects to complete immobilisation – depending on the individual, the environment and the situation. Asperger may not be readily apparent in a student’s behaviour. Students themselves may need to inform the teacher of the condition, if they want to do so.
For individuals with Asperger, sensory information is relayed and interpreted in an unusual manner. Many people with AS have great hypersensitivity of the senses, which makes noisy or echoing spaces such as cafeterias and lecture halls seem disagreeable and an obstacle to concentration. Sensory overload may also cause panic attacks, or sometimes a shutting down and becoming withdrawn and introspective. Self-directed activities and concentration may also be difficult. Initiating tasks and bringing them to a conclusion may be difficult. The student may get hung up on a detail in an assignment if the assignment instructions are vague or contradictory.
Asperger-affected individuals may have various kinds of challengeswith ability to handle stress. Factors that cause stress for Asperger-affected students may be different from those that typically cause stress for other students. Preparing for an exam does not necessarily burden a student excessively, but a small change in schedule or ambiguities in the order or arrangements may create great feelings of stress. New or unanticipated situations are particularly burdensome for such students. Persons with Asperger have a heightened need for rules and routines, and 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 inflexible, and constrained.
Typical symptoms include difficulties in social interaction. Most Asperger-affected students want to have friends and be part of a community. Making contact, however, is hampered by 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 his or her speech tone, oral expressions or body language.
In the new diagnostic system, Asperger syndrome is no longer a diagnosis in its own right, but included in autism spectrum disorder. This toolkit deals with Asperger syndrome according to the old diagnostic system.
Tips for student guidance
- Personal study guidance is very important for helping students to progress smoothly in studies.
- When in discussion with the student, be clear, direct and unwavering, but also calm and friendly. Make sure that the student really understands what you are saying.
- 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.
- Study guidance should pay special attention to the following:
- Keep to the schedule and do things on time, in an orderly progression and in appropriate measure.
- When the student is choosing courses, help him/her to be realistic in terms of the course content and skill level.
- Make sure the student understands the structure of the studies and study modules.
- Additional support is needed particularly at the start of studies or when a situation is changing. 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 a programme 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.
- Building daily routines can increase the students’ sense of security and help them get oriented towards studies, as changes in routine and ambiguous situations can be very stressful.
- Preparing for upcoming matters and situations in advance can increase the student’s sense of being able to manage his/her affairs, and this can prevent many other problems. Provide enough clear information beforehand about upcoming tasks and new situations.
- Things that go without saying for many are good to deal with explicitly with AS-affected students, for such knowledge (based on social cues, etc.) easily remains beyond their ken.
- When you talk with the student, do not focus only on the difficulties, but also try to identify the student’s strengths and how he/she can contribute to the learning situation. Many students with autism spectrum disorder are very dedicated to and concentrated on the area of study they have chosen; they may have an eye for detail and high morale. 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.
Course arrangements on the right track?
- Usually a person with autism spectrum disorder needs a clear structure and schedule, and expressly stated requirements. 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. Students have the right to make such recordings for their own use, but not to publish them without permission. A practice for making such recordings should be arranged, however, between the teacher and the student.
- The student may need to ask many questions in the lecture. If that disturbs you, talk to the student about it and agree on how and when he or she may contact you in case of any questions (during the break, after class, by email, during office hours etc.).
Learning in lectures
- In lectures and small group teaching, one challenge for students on the autism spectrum is managing sensory overload. You can help them manage the situation in many ways:
- 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 his or her 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 during teaching 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 him or her.
- Encourage the student to ask for help from his or her 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?
- While having autism spectrum disorder does not mean that the student is unable to study in a group, students on the autism spectrum 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 may work better with a pair that they already know.
- They may have difficulty making friends or acquaintances in a student group. Help the student in finding a group for group work assignments or decide the groups yourself (e.g. by lot).
- The group including the student with autism spectrum disorder may need additional support to ensure that they can work together effectively and without conflicts. Offer additional guidance also to others in the group.
- A clear division of tasks and responsibilities within the group makes cooperation easier. Encourage clear and open communication in the group.
- Ask the student with autism spectrum disorder whether he or she wishes tell his or her fellow students about the disorder. While the student has a right not to tell others about his/her condition, discussing the situation openly is usually a good idea and may make the student feel better. At the same time, you should ensure that the other students get enough information on the condition.
Best practices in exams and evaluation
- 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. It alsosaves him or her from worrying about whether his or her 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 he/she feels stuck because of ambiguous instructions.
Help with theses
- Tasks that require extensive independent planning, such as theses, often prove more challenging than everyday studying.
- The student should choose a thesis topic that interests him or her and that has connections to his or her 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 he or she 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 e.g. 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.
For more information, see:
Finnish Association for Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (page in Finnish) https://www.autismiliitto.fi/autismikirjo
National Autistic Society of the UK:
Autism & Uni project:hthttp://www.autism-uni.org/overview/
Individual study arrangements
In Finnish higher education, 4.4% of students have been diagnosed as having dyslexia (Finnish Student Health Service 2016). Reading is slow for people with dyslexia due to difficulties in perceiving and mentally processing the sounds of words and text.
Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder may present in students as a difficulty concentrating, making mistakes of ‘carelessness’ , or encountering hurdles to independent study.
Of mental disorders, particularly depression is common with young adults. With mental disorders, it is important to listen to one’s own feelings and remember to reserve sufficient time for recovering from the strain of studies.
Anxiety means a state where a person is feeling restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and performance anxiety are very common and natural phenomena. Anxiety disorders refer to situations where feelings of anxiety are long-term and disproportionate to the situation.