How to Talk To Your Professor about Your Autism

Three Parts:Being PreparedHaving the DiscussionMaking a Good Impression

Going back to college or university is difficult for everyone, especially autistic students. In addition to the usual challenges, you'll need to navigate setting up accommodations and making sure your professor(s) are all on the same page. Start with step 1 for some advice on how to let your professor know what you need.

Part 1
Being Prepared

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    Register with your school's disability services center. They will be able to provide accommodations and services. Requirements vary by school, but you will usually need documentation from a doctor or mental health professional. At some point you will fill out a form regarding your needs.
    • Some disability centers will email your professor(s) or give you an accommodation letter to show them.[1] The letter or email won't share the name of your disability; it'll just explain your needs and how they will be accommodated.[2]
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    Talk to disability services in detail about your needs. This way, they can get you a detailed, thorough accommodation letter.[3] If you're going to miss classes, your professor should know that it's because of illness instead of laziness. If you need quiet to focus in the classroom, sometimes have to eat in class, or may get sensory overload and need to leave, those are all things your professors should know. This allows them to better accommodate you and be understanding.
    • When in doubt, ask for the accommodation. You can always choose not to use it, and it's better to play it safe in case you need it after all.
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    Set up a meeting with your professor before the semester starts. You can do this by finding their email on the syllabus or class website, and sending them a brief email. Do this early on, so there's plenty of time to meet. Try to set up the meeting sometime after the first class session.
    • For example, "Hi, I'm ____ and I'm a student in your _____ class. I would like to meet during the first week of class to discuss my disability."
    • If you are nervous about your tone, try asking a friend to review it for you or running it through a tone-analyzing website.[4]
    • If you are not comfortable emailing, you can approach the professor after class to set up a meeting.[5]
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    Figure out the course goals. Read the syllabus, and listen to the goals the professor talks about during the first day of class. What will be easy for you? What might be more difficult? What potential problems could arise?
    • You can talk to the professor about the potential problems. For example, "I struggle a lot with time management, and completing a big essay in three weeks could be hard. Would you be able to help me break it up into smaller steps when the time comes?"
    • Try coming up with solutions to a problem, knowing that you can brainstorm more with the professor. For example, "I get sick very easily, so I might get more than 4 absences. If this happens, how could I make up for it? What if I wrote one page on the textbook reading as my participation?"
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    Jot down notes if you want to make sure you remember everything. It may be helpful to write a few main points on a notecard, so you can mentally check them off as you discuss each one in conversation. This way, you won't forget to tell the professor anything important.
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    Ask someone to come with you if you are nervous. The school disability center may have assigned you a case manager, and there may be other people in the office who could assist you. Explain that you're nervous about talking to the professor, and would like someone to come with you to help.
    • You will probably do most of the talking, and the person will be there to support you and help out with any potential issues that arise.

Part 2
Having the Discussion

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    Assume the best. Treat the professor with the assumption that they are a reasonable person who wants to help you. Most people will rise to your expectations and be happy to help you succeed. Set an optimistic, problem-solving tone, and they will probably follow your lead.
    • Don't feel the need to be ashamed or apologetic. It's perfectly natural and reasonable to want your needs met.
    • Remember, your professor wants you to succeed. Your accommodations and rights are a fact of life.[6] You don't need to defend them; the professor is already on board. You're simply here to discuss how to make things work.
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    Explain to the professor why you are coming to them. Tell them the basics of your disability, especially how it relates to your performance in class. You may tell them that you're autistic if you feel comfortable, or stick with the generic "I have a disability." Either way, be prepared to elaborate on what it means.
    • "Hi, I'm Emma. I have a disability that affects my body language and study skills. I'm getting testing accommodations, and I may need extra help understanding assignment instructions. Fidgeting helps me pay attention, so don't worry if you see me doing it in class."
    • "Good morning! I'm Jamal. I came to you because I'm autistic, and I want to make sure that I can do well in your class. Time management and staying organized can be difficult for me, and I want to do my best."
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    Discuss any accommodations you are getting, and any more you might need. Your research from before, and your time at the disability office, will have helped you figure out your greatest needs. If you have an accommodation letter, give it to them and use it as a guide. Ask for the things you think you'll need. (Remember, you can always change your accommodations as you adjust to the class and its pace!)
    • "I've signed up with the disability center, and will take my tests there in a separate room. Also, I have issues with my blood sugar and may need to eat small snacks in class."
    • "I can't sit still and listen at the same time. You might see me sitting in weird positions or fidgeting with things to help me focus. Sometimes I need a chair cushion or an alternate chair."
    • "I have visual processing issues that make it hard for me to read quickly. It would help if I sat in the front, and could get copies of the notes or Power Points."
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    Make time for dialogue. Be prepared to field questions and explain some details. Be honest, and focus on what your needs are and how the professor can help. They may also have great ideas for how to accommodate you and make your life easier.[7]
    • Brainstorm solutions to potential problems together. Work with your professor to be a problem-solving team.
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    Offer more resources if they are uncertain or interested in learning more. If your professor is not used to accommodating disabled students, they may find it helpful to talk to the disability services office. It can be helpful to know a few good autism resources in case they wish to learn more about your disability.
    • Feel free to share wikiHow articles with them. For example, the article How to Teach an Autistic College Student explains what to expect, and the article How to Recognize Autism Symptoms in Yourself describes what autism usually looks like in teens and adults.
    • Steer them away from catastrophizing websites such as Autism Speaks, which may mislead and worry them.[8]
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    Thank the professor for their time, and assure them you'll keep communication lines open. You can always come to their office hours later with questions or requests to change your accommodations. Give them your student email so they can contact you if they want to follow up.
    • End on a high note. For example, "Thanks for taking the time to talk this through with me. I look forward to your class. Bye!"

Part 3
Making a Good Impression

Talking one-on-one and using friendly body language can be stressful or confusing if you're autistic. This optional section provides more detailed instructions for people who feel uncertain about how to hold a conversation, or who are nervous.

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    Try doing a role-play practice session. Ask an understanding friend, family member, or therapist to pretend to be your professor. This can help you practice and gain confidence.
    • Pratt has some self-advocacy videos available, if you need extra guidance.[9]
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    Be clean and well-dressed. Make sure that you have showered, applied deodorant, and neatly groomed your hair. Wear comfortable, neat clothes. This gives the impression that you care.
    • If you have facial hair, make sure it is clean-shaven or well-groomed.
    • You don't need to wear makeup in order to look good. Only put it on if you like it and feel confident wearing it. You can rock your look either way.
    • If you feel uncertain about your ability to do this, ask a family member or friend to help you choose an outfit.
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    Bring a good stim toy, if you use one. You can stim discreetly throughout the conversation to help you stay focused relaxed. The professor won't mind if you squeeze a stress ball or twirl a bracelet in your hand as you talk with them.
    • If the professor is curious about it, say "This helps me focus." If they ask, try showing it to them; they may think it's pretty cool!
    • It's a good idea to have a box of stim toys in your dorm room. You can grab one or two whenever you go out.
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    Be polite and respectful. Say "please" and "thank you," and listen without interrupting as your professor speaks. Do your best to use a pleasant facial expression and tone of voice. Assume the best, and see if you and the professor can work together as a team.
    • Use "I" statements to phrase your needs. Try the template "If/When ____, I ____" (for example, "When there is a lot of chatter in a room, I have a hard time focusing.")
    • If for some reason the conversation goes badly, don't turn defensive or demanding. Instead, say "I don't think we can have a productive conversation right now. I'm going to leave. Thanks for your time." Then go to student disability services and explain what happened. They will help you.[10]
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    Brush up on your listening skills. You can show that you are attentive by looking at the professor when they talk, and periodically nodding or saying things like "All right" and "I see." When you have a question, ask it. Showing non-autistic people that you're listening isn't a mysterious art; it's simply a matter of learning and implementing a pattern.
    • You don't need to make eye contact in order to show that you're listening. Try looking at their eyebrows, nose, mouth, chin, or shirt. (Keep your focus near the top of their face if they are wearing a low-cut shirt.)
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    Allow pauses in the conversation. You'll want to give the professor time to absorb what you say, and to speak up if they have any questions or thoughts. You don't need to rush the conversation.
    • If you talk very quickly when you're nervous, take a deep breath. Say "Sorry. I tend to talk quickly when I'm nervous. I'm trying to slow down." The professor will understand, and may reassure you.
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    Recognize that you are more skilled than you realize. Autistic people are often pathologized and underestimated,[11][12][13] and this can make it easy to discount your strengths. You can hold a good conversation and be autistic at the same time. You've got this.


  • If you are nonverbal or have selective mutism, try writing an email explaining the things you would say during the discussion, or have the conversation via text chat.

Article Info

Categories: Autism Spectrum | College University and Postgraduate