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Students with Autism: Online Resources & Support

Whether just starting kindergarten or making their way to college, students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face a number of unique challenges. If you, a friend, or a loved one has ASD, use this guide to find academic resources, social support, and expert tips for school success.

Two sets of hands holding up the Autism ribbon.

School poses challenges for all students at one point or another, but for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), challenges can be more frequent and have significant impacts on academic and social development.

According to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, an estimated 1 in 54 children in the U.S. are autistic. However, many schools and educators are not equipped to support these students as they work their way through the school system and into adult life. Around 45% of autistic students enroll in college, making early preparation in primary and secondary school—and continued support through college—crucial to student success and autonomy.

This guide breaks down some of the most significant factors that impact students with ASD, and provides support tips and resources for elementary, middle, high school, and postsecondary institutions and educators. Also get unique expert insights from autistic doctoral student and autism researcher, Patrick Dwyer, on navigating school with ASD and effective ways to support autistic students.

How Autism Spectrum Disorder Can Affect Learning

School poses unique challenges for all students, but certain characteristics of autism can make learning more difficult for students with ASD. ASD is indeed a spectrum, and its facets can manifest differently in each student and impact them to vastly different degrees throughout their lives. Getting familiar with ASD can help students, teachers, and parents understand effective ways to approach academic and social learning in school.

Adaptability

Adaptability means taking responsibility for daily tasks and performing them independently, even when circumstances vary. The inability to react and respond to change can impede this performance, and make social interaction and self-advocacy more difficult. Students with ASD may struggle with adaptability, even high functioning, high IQ students.

How this affects learning in K-12 students with ASD

Adaptive skills typically aren’t taught until autistic students reach adolescence, which limits their opportunities to develop essential skills in responsibility, accountability, social interaction, and appropriate response to the unexpected. Adaptive skills become increasingly important as autistic students progress through the school system, so starting early can make transitions less stressful.

How this affects learning in college students with ASD

In college, many students experience increased independence and must adapt to new challenges. Important information may not be explicitly stated, for instance, and students must be able to create logical sequences to solve problems. Collaborating with others and navigating complicated social cues are also critical adaptive skills in college that, if underdeveloped, can severely inhibit learning and mental health.

Focus

Focus affects students with ASD in two primary ways: narrow focus and difficulty paying attention. Students may focus their attention very strongly on a few things that grab their interest, or they may be disengaged and unfocused on people, tasks, and topics outside of their specific interests.

How this affects learning in K-12 students with ASD

Both academic and social success can hinge on a student’s ability to pay attention to their surroundings, peers, and teachers. Those who struggle to engage in lessons may get very little academic benefit from being in school. Similarly, by not engaging with peers in an expected neurotypical way, autistic students may struggle socially.

How this affects learning in college students with ASD

College may be an exciting time for autistic students who have focused interests that can be explored through a degree program. However, students may struggle to pay attention when the subject does not interest them. Joint attention, like listening to a lecture while taking notes, is also a common expectation and challenge for college students with ASD.

Language Development

Common language development issues among autistic students are language delays, atypical language production, and social or conversational language challenges. Reading and writing skills are also often impacted by language development issues.

How this affects learning in K-12 students with ASD

In lower grade levels, language development may not be as prohibitive, as many activities are visual or involve movement, not just spoken and written language. However, as students move into upper primary grades and into the secondary school systems, lectures and essays become more common, which can be a barrier for students with ASD.

How this affects learning in college students with ASD

Similar to the impact on upper secondary students, college students with ASD may find difficulty with the lecture- and essay-based structure of many college classes and programs. Students who go into more hands-on programs like computer science may excel in their major classes but have a tougher time in general ed or core classes.

Motor Skills

Some autistic students can have problems with both fine and gross motor skills. While tasks like clicking a mouse or standing without wavering might not pose an issue, walking quickly between classes or writing legibly can be daily challenges.

How this affects learning in K-12 students with ASD

Activities that involve writing by hand may be particularly difficult for students with ASD. As students get older, inhibited motor skills may impact a student’s ability to take notes effectively, carry textbooks, participate in lab-based work, or get to class on time.

How this affects learning in college students with ASD

In college, students with ASD can often type their notes or use a note taking service. However, students may still struggle with lab work, navigating campus quickly, vocational internships, and other physical and hands-on activities.

Sensory Perception

Students on the autism spectrum may take in a lot of sensory input at a time or have enhanced sensory perception. This can cause intense overstimulation, which can lead to shutdowns or meltdowns. Sensory perception issues can be a significant contributor to anxiety in autistic students.

How this affects learning in K-12 students with ASD

Noisy classmates, school bells, PA systems, bustling hallways and decorated classrooms with a lot to look at can overwhelm the senses. Many autistic students have very sensitive hearing, so scraping chairs, alarms, bells and PA feedback can be startling and cause headaches or abstract mental pain. Students with ASD may be more sensitive to flickers in fluorescent lights that teachers and neurotypical peers wouldn’t notice.

How this affects learning in college students with ASD

Decorated classrooms, bells and PA systems likely won’t be issues in college, but poor lighting and noisy crowds can be. Echoes in large auditoriums and flickering lights can be distracting or distressing, even for students with ASD who have more control over their response to overstimulation.

Social Skills

Students with autism may have trouble reading facial expressions, body language, and social cues, making interaction with peers more difficult. Many students with ASD also prefer doing activities by themselves and self-isolate, and may deal with bullying.

How this affects learning in K-12 students with ASD

Young students may misinterpret their peers’ intentions or, on the other hand, say and do things they don’t realize are hurtful. This can make it difficult to be part of their peer community. As students move into adolescence, differences between peers may become more pronounced, and peers can become less empathetic, making school feel unwelcoming.

How this affects learning in college students with ASD

With the increased independence that accompanies college, social skills play a vital role in student success. Without the social skills to successfully communicate with teachers and peers, students may feel isolated and have trouble with their classes. In college, students may also have to learn how to navigate professional, romantic, and collaborative academic relationships for the first time.

How Schools Can Support Students with ASD

With a better understanding of how ASD affects learning, educators and schools can support their autistic students more effectively and make informed decisions about creating equitable learning environments. Here are some tips and ideas educators can use to support students at different points in their education.

Kindergarten through 5th Grade

Entering elementary school is the first of many significant social and academic shifts autistic students will navigate. Development in these years lays the groundwork for success in adolescence and adulthood, so good support is crucial.

5 ways teachers can support younger students with ASD

1

Talk to parents. They can help you understand their child’s strengths, challenges, interests and triggers.

2

Use visual aids to communicate.

3

Provide a safe, calming space that can be used as a retreat.

4

Treat misunderstandings, outbursts, and meltdowns as teachable moments rather than cause for punishment.

5

Minimize stimuli in the classroom. This can include seating autistic students near windows for better light, teaching neurotypical classmates about appropriate speaking volume and avoiding distracting computer screensavers.

What schools can do to support students with ASD

  • Look to successful programs as models for your school. ASD Nest in New York has a unique approach to supporting autistic students. Classrooms led by two teachers trained in special education are composed of a handful of neurodivergent and neurotypical students. Classrooms have a safe area for students to go if they need to regulate, and if one teacher needs to sit down with a student, the other can continue teaching class, more or less uninterrupted.
  • Give autistic students and their families different options for educational placement and help them decide the best mode of education for them. Mainstreaming, specialized classrooms, specialized schools and traditional coursework delivered online are a few types of education delivery that can work for students with ASD.
  • Support programming and initiatives that help teachers and neurotypical students understand autism and develop sincere, nurturing friendships.

These can be good years. I feel like neurotypical children are less judgmental of others at this age, and more likely to include those different from themselves. That said, we can always do more to encourage neurotypical students to be accepting and welcoming. Moreover, I think it’s important to start thinking early on about students’ individual strengths and needs. Instead of forcing autistic students to assimilate to the demands of their environment, which by default is set up with the needs of neurotypical students in mind, we can, to use Thomas Armstrong’s phrase, try to construct ‘positive niches’ for everyone.

Patrick-Dwyer

Patrick Dwyer

6th through 8th Grade

Middle school marks a considerable shift in school structure, academic content, and social dynamics. Focused support during this transition can have a significant impact on the academic and emotional wellbeing of autistic students.

5 ways teachers can support pre-teen students with ASD

1

Follow your students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Specially Designed Instructions (SDIs). They’re meant to help both you and your students.

2

Collaborate and communicate with one another. You may be more familiar with a student’s strengths and interests. Share that information with the student’s other teachers so they can improve engagement and performance. Collaboration can also help establish consistent rules and expectations, which typically differ from class to class and can create confusion and stress for students with ASD.

3

Support students with technology and visual aids.

4

Be clear and explicit without shaming your student. Autistic students often have trouble making inferences, so precise, literal instructions can make things easier for both you and your student.

5

Offer priming materials so students can prepare for class in advance. Let students get familiar with the day’s lesson early to keep surprises to a minimum and give extra time to take in content.

What schools can do to support students with ASD

  • Make a “home base” room available to students, and make sure all teachers are trained in helping students know when and how to access the room. This can ease students stress, anxiety and overstimulation; reduce disruptions; and serve as a healthier alternative to punishing students for behavior issues.
  • Enact friendship groups, like Best Buddies, as well as anti-bullying campaigns and policies. Facilitating sincere community-building between peers can benefit all types of students.
  • Employ and collaborate with autism specialists.