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LaDonna Bridges, Advising Students with Disabilities Commission Past Chair

Students with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) are arriving on college campuses in greater numbers. While the reason for this increase can be debated, the need to develop skills to work with these students cannot be. Advisors – whether professional or faculty – can play a significant role in helping these students realize success both inside and outside the classroom.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurobiological disorder that falls on the mild end of the autism spectrum. It is characterized by a pattern of social and interpersonal behaviors that can range from mild to severe.  Because symptoms and behaviors vary in severity, individuals with AS may present very differently, making “one size fits all” accommodation plans difficult. Although many with AS have normal to superior intelligence and no significant deficits in communication, almost all have difficulty understanding social conventions or reading social cues, and they often engage in stereotyped or repetitive behaviors.  Nonetheless, with the proper support, most people with AS have the potential to function independently; they can attend college and attain gainful employment.

Typical behaviors of individuals with AS include avoiding eye contact, starting and ending conversations awkwardly, and failing to regulate interpersonal distance or space. They may seem rude or tactless; they may be unable to take hints, keep secrets, or understand metaphor, irony or humor. Individuals with Asperger’s may speak with an odd syntax and often cannot conceive that other people process information differently. Some are unusually sensitive to sounds, smells, and touch.

In addition to the social and behavioral difficulties found among students with AS, cognitive difficulties are also present. Many students with AS struggle with executive function – the skills associated with planning, foresight, and organization.  They may also become rigid or fixed in their thinking, unable to see differing points of view, and abstract or inferential thinking may be particularly difficult.

Given the differences among students with AS, advisors can be pivotal in helping these students navigate the many aspects of the college experience. While developmental advising helps advisors understand the strengths and weaknesses of the student with AS, prescriptive advising can be highly advantageous during course selection and registration. Because many students with AS struggle with decision making, registration can be one of the most stressful times. Advisors can help by breaking down the registration process into a concrete timeline with specific tasks: who to meet with (office location, email and phone); what courses or major requirements to consider (including prerequisites); where to go for specific tasks associated with registration; when to register (online, over the phone, or in person); and how to make changes or corrections.

 In addition to helping with the process of registration, advisors can ease the difficulty of course selection by remembering the following:

  • Guide the AS student to courses with professors who are structured and well organized
  • Recommend classes and majors that capitalize on the student’s strengths
  • Develop concrete degree completion plans
  • Connect the student to other campus resources

Once in their courses, many students with AS also face significant academic challenges, including time management, the writing process, essay exams, and group projects. Advisors who are aware of these classroom challenges can help a student choose courses accordingly and seek support from other campus offices.  Time management may be an area that requires academic support outside the classroom.  Dissecting the syllabus and developing a plan of action to complete assignments can be overwhelming for a student with AS. Concrete daily and weekly schedules can provide a structure and necessary framework. Advisors may need to refer students with AS to the appropriate campus resources – including disability services -- for this help.

Due to difficulties with abstract or inferential thinking, many students with AS find the writing process difficult.  Discerning the facts in the reading may not be difficult, yet making connections with the material and analyzing the information may be extremely challenging. Students with AS can miss the overarching themes or the big picture and, as a result, they may write off-topic, go on a tangent, or generate essays with poor organization. Advisors should be mindful of these difficulties when helping students choose writing-intensive courses or when balancing course loads.

Group projects or presentations may be another area of difficulty for the student with AS. Perfectionism, the inability to negotiate, and poor social interaction are characteristics of students with AS that may lead to group projects and laboratory classes being problematic. Social anxiety is not uncommon among these students, and many students have an equally strong work ethic. This combination makes it difficult to interact with other students or to see differing points of view. Advisors may be able to help AS students select courses where they know other students thus creating a more comfortable environment for group or laboratory partnerships.

Advisors should work closely with other campus resources in this effort. Disability services, writing tutors, academic success mentors, and counselors are the logical places for advisors to start making connections.  Above all, advisors should follow these basic guidelines when advising students with AS:

  • Speak clearly about expectations (no idioms or analogies)
  • Use a multi-modal approach (verbal and visual) for instructions about policies or procedures
  • Recognize frustration may occur when AS students try to make decisions or navigate the social climate of the campus and/or classroom
  • Be aware of sensory difficulties and allow the AS student to remove himself from an over-stimulating situation
  • Do not communicate through facial expressions
  • Create a system for cuing inappropriate behavior

Asperger’s Syndrome impacts a student’s experience on all levels – curricular and otherwise. The more widely information about working with AS students is disseminated among the academic community, the more likely the chance for student success. Advisors, in partnership with other campus resources, can play a pivotal role. As with all advisees, the individual needs of the AS student are paramount.

LaDonna Bridges
Framingham State University
[email protected]

Suggested Resources

Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s Syndrome: A guide for Parents and Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kirby, B. (2011). What is Asperger Syndrome? Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support (OASIS). Retrieved from www.aspergersyndrome.org

 Moreno, S., and O'Neal, C. (n.d.) Tips for teaching high functioning people with Autism. Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support (OASIS). Retrieved from www.aspergersyndrome.org/Articles/Tips-for-Teaching-High-Functioning-People-with-Aut.aspx

Wolf, L., Thierfeld Brown, J., and Bork, R. (2009). Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel. Overland Park, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Cite this article using APA style as: Bridges, L. (2011, June). Helping students with asperger's syndrome navigate the college experience. Academic Advising Today, 34(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2011 June 34:2


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