How to Teach an Autistic College Student

Six Parts:What to ExpectOrganizing the ClassroomAccommodating ThemLabs and Group WorkHandling Meltdowns and TearsEncouraging Their Strengths

So you open an email or see a student come up to you and you hear those unusual words: "By the way, I'm autistic." What do you do? How will you handle their needs? With a little compassion and understanding, it will be all right.

Part 1
What to Expect

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    Forget everything you thought you knew about autism. It is not nearly as scary as some groups make it out to be. Autistic young adults are diverse and capable individuals. You will be fine.
    • If they made it to college, they are probably quite intelligent, and capable of handling a classroom.
    • Don't expect them to "look autistic"—with some people, you can't even tell.
    • Even the students who "look autistic" can still be eager learners who are a pleasure to have in class.[1]
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    Recognize that autistic listening body language is different from neurotypical listening body language. Your student may squirm, sit oddly, or move in ways that seem casual. This allows them to feel comfortable and focused. You may see...
    • Rocking
    • Wandering eyes (floor, ceiling, window, wall)
    • Changing positions
    • Stimming
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    Expect stimming, a type of repetitive fidgeting that helps with focus and self-control. They may play with a stress ball or chew gum in class. Planned ignoring, or not calling attention to the stimming, will help the other students become accustomed to it.
    • Assume that any repetitive movements are important.[2][3]
    • If you don't ordinarily allow gum or candy, make an exception for them. This is often a substitute for placing unsanitary objects in their mouths (pencils, jewelry, etc.).
    • If they are disrupting class, talk with them about finding a comfortable alternative stim.
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    Know that they may speak a little differently. Autistic people may use words differently, and may be unable to control their tone of voice. Keep in mind that the way they speak is not necessarily indicative of their intelligence.
    • Monotone, singsong, or "inappropriate" voice, potentially unusual in pitch (e.g. high-pitched) or volume
    • Repeating words or scripted phrases
    • Using big words or "talking like a textbook"[4], or very simplistic language
    • Odd phrasing (especially if they learned sign language first)
    • A disability accent, such as a lisp or childlike-sounding speech
    • Long pauses, sometimes or always being unable to speak[5]
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    They may be hurt or upset by things that do not bother others. This has a medical basis: sensory processing disorder, which changes the way the brain perceives sensory input. Here are some examples of things they may do...
    • Cover their ears in ordinary situations
    • Be afraid of certain objects
    • Refuse to touch slimy, sticky, or scratchy things
    • Become ill at the smell of chemicals such as formaldehyde
    • Cry easily when injured
    • Wear earplugs (If they wear earplugs during lecture, don't worry—they can still hear you!)
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    Expect some organization problems. Executive dysfunction is the technical term for the trouble autistic people have with time management and keeping track of tasks (among other things).[6] This may range from mild to severe, depending on their inborn capability and coping skills.
    • This may be especially tough for first-year students who are still getting used to the unstructured environment of college.
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    Be aware that their social behavior may be different. Autistic people don't usually understand social rules well, and each autistic person will act differently.
    • They may not want to make friends because it is too hard. This is okay.
    • To compensate for uncertainty or anxiety, they may constantly ask questions.
    • They may constantly raise their hands or blurt answers, like Hermione from Harry Potter.
    • They might hug you. (This simply means that they like hugs and they like you.)
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    Know that comorbid conditions are a possibility. Depression and anxiety are extremely common among autistic people, as well as epilepsy and stomach issues. If there is a problem, ask if they have discussed it with a doctor, and refer them to student health services if not. Here are issues you may notice:
    • Perfectionism, too eager to please (anxiety)
    • Shy, doesn't raise hand (social anxiety)
    • Constantly ill (could be a number of conditions)
    • Sick, tired, missing deadlines (depression)
    • Submissive, afraid of making own choices (PTSD or effects of compliance therapy)
    • Do not ask them to disclose their medical diagnoses, as this is very personal.

Part 2
Organizing the Classroom

The ideal environment for an autistic student is one in which assignments are clear and materials are easy to find.

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    Make your expectations clear. A vague assignment is confusing to all students, but especially autistic students. Even if the assignment is fairly open-ended, make it clear what goals it needs to fulfill, and don't expect students to "read between the lines" to understand the instructions.[7]
    • For projects, consider showing a few examples from students in previous years, so they can envision the type of thing you want.
    • Set a clear length. "As long as it needs to be" is not helpful. "Around 3-5 pages" is much clearer.
    • Autistic students may lapse into perfectionism when it is unclear, working until their physical or mental health suffers.
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    Make sure that all important directions are written down clearly. Autistic people often have trouble remembering spoken directions. They may do poorly if they don't have a written copy for reference.
    • Provide clear assignment sheets and rubrics so autistic people can go through them sentence by sentence.
    • Write in-class activity directions on the board or on the power point slide. Keep them there until the activity is done.
    • When asking for the class to turn to a certain page, write the page number on the board, or repeat it once or twice in case anyone didn't catch it.
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    Set up a class website. Many colleges use class websites such as Blackboard for students to access grades and assignments. Here are good things to keep online:
    • Digital copies of the syllabus and assignment instructions
    • The latest homework (e.g. "Thursday: Read Textbook Chapter 8 and prepare for Tuesday's quiz")
    • A gradebook where students can view their overall and assignment grades (so they can monitor their own progress)
    • Examples of previous student projects
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    Break large assignments into smaller pieces with individual due dates. This will help with organizational problems, and keep students from being overwhelmed by the size of a task. Choose a number of steps that seems reasonable to you.
    • This does not necessarily mean a lot of grading. Try making individual steps (like the rough draft) a completion grade.
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    Make it clear how students can get extra help if they need it. Autistic students may need a little extra guidance in figuring out what to do if they need help.
    • Write your office hours on the syllabus, on the class website, or wherever else it is easily found. Encourage students to attend them.
    • Tell students how to access a tutoring center, or whatever the school provides for help in your subject area.
    • Consider supplementing these with maps of the campus showing how to get there.
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    Go over assignment directions in class, providing time to answer questions. Autistic people may need extra clarification on directions.
    • Be available to answer quick questions after class ends.
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    Post any power points or notes online for students to access. You may even do this before the lecture, so students with laptops can follow along.
    • Autistic students can make sure they didn't miss anything.
    • Absent students can use the notes to catch up.
    • All students can use them to study for exams.

Part 3
Accommodating Them

Individual accommodations are important in giving autistic students an equal opportunity to succeed.

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    On the first day of class, encourage any disabled students to meet with or email you. This way, you can discuss accommodations.[8]
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    Let them sit in front. Most autistic students prefer to sit front and center, so as to avoid distractions. If you assign seating, talk with the autistic student about where they prefer to sit. Let them keep the same seat all semester.
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    Consider alternative seating for especially fidgety students. If the student has a hard time sitting in a regular chair, ask the school's disability services for an exercise ball, seat wedge, or other form of seating. These will provide extra sensory input, allowing them to sit better.
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    Give plenty of warning for due dates and changes in routine. Autistic students often thrive on routine, and surprises (pop quiz, notes not available online) can throw them off. Remind the class about the following:
    • Upcoming field trips
    • Test, quiz, and exam dates
    • Due dates for big assignments
    • Changes in schedule (e.g. a cancelled class)
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    Don't put them on the spot. Some professors may call on random students to ensure that everyone pays attention. This can backfire for autistic students, who may fumble with turning thoughts into words, and may become anxious or flustered under pressure. The anxiety of constantly trying to be prepared to be called on can detract from their focus.
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    If you grade on class participation, don't rely on verbal participation only. Turning complex thoughts into sounds and initiating public speech can be hard. Here are some ways autistic students can participate nonverbally:
    • Type messages in online discussions
    • Write a brief paragraph of their thoughts and show it to you at the end of class
    • Do an alternate project connecting the material to an interest of theirs
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    Be compassionate about problems that arise. Autistic students tend to have more health issues and forgotten assignments (due to executive dysfunction). Encourage them to tell you in person or via email as soon as they notice a problem, and be understanding when they do so.
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    If they are doing something disruptive or inappropriate, take them aside and gently explain. They probably didn't understand, so it's important to be clear and kind. Let them know why it's a problem, and help them find a different thing to do to fulfill the same need or desire.
    • "I like you and am glad we're friends, but it feels weird for a young woman like you to hug an old guy like me. Maybe next time you want a hug, you could ask your friend Tiana instead."
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    Keep in contact with the college's disability services center. Registered students can request accommodations through the disability center. Your student may need...
    • Extra time on tests
    • A separate room for test-taking (The Disability Service Center will provide a room.)
    • A note-taker
    • Use of laptop instead of handwriting
    • Ability to audio record lecture
    • The ability to turn in assignments a day late
    • Other accommodations

Part 4
Labs and Group Work

This section only applies if you have groups of students working together on projects.

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    Assign groups, and keep them small. This relieves the stress of needing to find one's own group, and makes it easier for the autistic person to speak up within the group.[9]
    • If you notice that the autistic person has a friend in the class, put them with their friend.
    • Have each group member have a role (secretary, spokesperson, editor, etc.). A concrete role will help them know how to contribute even when social skills are hard.
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    For small tasks, allow them to work alone.[10] If they can do it by themselves, doing it with a partner might actually be harder, because they have to navigate so many confusing social rules. Working independently can be more efficient for them.
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    Keep things from becoming too loud. Some autistic people are sensitive to sound, and constant noise will prevent them from focusing. Remind students to use their indoor voices and get their attention if the noise level is getting too high.
    • Seat the autistic person's group near a corner of the room, farther away from the main activity.
    • Some autistic students may work better with earplugs.
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    When checking on groups, pay extra close attention to the autistic person's group. Autistic people struggle with social interaction, so they might not realize when there is a problem, or not know how to solve it. Since self-esteem issues are common, they may lack the assertiveness skills to speak up.
    • Talk to individual team members who are not behaving well: being rude, slacking off, etc.
    • Encourage all group members to be patient with each other.
    • Do not allow team members to bully or ostracize the autistic student.
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    Check up on the division of labor. Since autistic people may not know how to speak up for themselves, they may end up doing a large portion of the work, or be assigned work that they don't understand. Help the group divide up work if need be.
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    Teach the autistic student how to handle recurring problems. This can be done during office hours, or briefly after class.
    • Try if-then statements: "If he tries to make you do all the work, then ask him 'What would you like to do?' If he doesn't pick something, then suggest a few things for him to do."
    • "If your classmates are talking over you, try taking a deep breath and clearly saying 'I have something to add.' If that keeps failing, tell me."
    • Intervene if the autistic person cannot solve the problem on their own.

Part 5
Handling Meltdowns and Tears

By early adulthood, many autistic people know how to prevent public meltdowns, or take them to a private place. Thus, any classroom crises will probably not be dramatic.

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    Know the warning signs of stress. Distressed autistic students may look a little different from distressed neurotypical students. Here are things you may see:
    • Crying
    • Agitated stimming
    • Decreasing self-control (for example, using a louder stim when they usually try to be as non-disruptive as possible)
    • Change in body language
    • Getting "stuck" on an idea[11]
    • Unhappy facial expression, or hiding the face
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    Quietly check up on them, just like you would with a neurotypical student who looks sick or very upset. Ask if they are okay, if you can help, and if they would like to leave. If they seem unable to speak, give them a pencil and paper, or suggest that they type a response on their laptop.
    • Sometimes autistic people may stay longer than they should in a misguided attempt to "stick it out." You can counteract this by checking on them right away.
    • Quietly asking about leaving lets them know that you will not be mad at them if they have to leave.
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    Intervene immediately if they begin self-injuring. Self-injury means that something is seriously wrong. If you can eliminate the thing that is causing them stress, then they will stop hitting or biting themselves.
    • If they cannot tell you what is wrong (through spoken or written words), ask them to leave the room. If the stressor is something in the room, it will remove them from it. If not, they will still be able to calm down in a less public place.
    • Use a compassionate tone of voice to make it clear that this is not a punishment.
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    Treat the problem as real, even if it doesn't make sense to you. Since their brains are structured differently, a situation that feels harmless to you could be very upsetting or threatening to them.
    • If you can get rid of the cause, do so. Quiet the classroom, give them an alternate assignment (e.g. dissecting a model frog instead of a real one), or have them leave the room.[12]
    • If they mention a psychological issue (e.g. an anxious student worrying that she is a "bad student" because she missed the homework), briefly and gently offer a dose of realism. "Every student makes mistakes sometimes. You are not a bad student. Please stop worrying about it." Sometimes reassurance from an authority figure will break the cycle of perseveration.
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    Quietly suggest that they leave if you can tell that stress is boiling over. They may need to take a few minutes in the bathroom to cool down, take some medication, or go back to their dorm to rest.
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    Reflect on what just happened. Sometimes crises result from sensory input (e.g. an especially noisy lab or a startlingly loud noise). If it was something in your control, see if you could avoid it next time.
    • Try giving warnings for unavoidable things: "I'm going to roll down the projector, and it's going to be loud, so cover your ears if you need to!"
    • If you can't figure out what caused it, it is probably not your fault. Don't feel bad. This happens sometimes.
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    Take a deep breath or two and continue teaching. This is new and alarming to you, but the autistic student has dealt with it thousands of times, and knows how to take care of themselves. It feels terrible while it lasts, but it will pass and they will go back to normal.
    • Right now, the best thing you can do is continue teaching.
    • If you are worried, ask your TA to go out with them and help them with whatever they need.
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    Be understanding but nonchalant when they return. Most autistic people get completely better by the next morning. Tell them what they missed (if anything), and ask if there's anything you could do to help them in the future. Then leave it at that.
    • If you want to ask what caused it, consider doing so via email, so they have time to think carefully about it.

Part 6
Encouraging Their Strengths

Autism affects the entire brain, causing not just difficulties, but also noticeable strengths. You can help the student capitalize on their abilities and feel proud of themselves.

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    Try letting students pick their own essay or project topics. Autistic people usually have intense special interests, or an area in which they are incredibly knowledgeable and skilled. They will enjoy learning much more if they can connect the material to their passion, and they will perform better too.
    • This will help all students enjoy the class, not just the autistic student(s).
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    Along with showing example problems, write down the general steps used to solve the problem. Autistic people tend to be good at sequencing and understanding sequences. Providing a pattern can be a huge help.
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    Use visual supports. Many autistic students are visual learners, and they benefit from diagrams, illustrations, and other images. Try using color coding and flowcharts to explain complex concepts.
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    Praise them a little. This does not mean extolling their virtues in front of the entire class—just an encouraging comment during office hours or a small affirmation when they ask you a question after class. Many autistic students grew up with others focusing on their deficits, and struggled with invisible issues such as sensory processing disorder and anxiety. A little reminder that they did well can make their day.
    • To encourage resilience, try calling them a hard worker.
    • When grading papers, point out a few positive aspects, such as "Great organization" or "Love the wording here!" This offsets the pain of seeing errors.
    • Avoid jokingly criticizing them; this will probably confuse them.
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    Harness their potential for enthusiasm and deep focus. If they have enough motivation, autistic people can access incredible amounts of energy for learning. Create a friendly environment and positive expectations, and watch them rise to the opportunity.
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    Get to know the student as an individual. This article is based on generalizations, which will sometimes or often (but not always!) apply. Some students need little accommodation and others need a lot. Some are mathematically oriented, others are great artists, and others are both. Get to know your student as a person, and you will learn how to build a great teaching relationship.


  • Don't mention their autism when others can hear. Some students prefer to keep it quiet for fear of ostracism by their peers.
  • If the student begins missing lots of classes, encourage them to see a doctor if they haven't already. Something might be seriously wrong.
  • If the student expresses or hints at suicidal thoughts, tell someone. Around 14% of autistic children and teens experience suicidal ideation/attempts.[14] You may save a life.
  • Never deny accommodations requested from the school disability center. Not only does it harm the student, but it could get you in trouble with the school.
  • If you research autism, use a critical eye. Autism research and education have a heavy history of ethical issues that continue today.[15] If you feel that a website is recommending something cold or cruel, trust your judgment and don't do it.

Article Info

Categories: Coaching Autistic People | Teaching Students with Special Needs