Advising Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Authored by: Khrystyna Bednarchyk
The demographic layout of postsecondary education has now changed to include individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The current prevalence of individuals with ASD in the general population is 1 in 68 (CDC, 2014). Based on cognitive abilities alone, individuals with high functioning autism fall into a highly desirable pool of college applicants. At the same time this population is likely to drop out due to the demands of the college environment.
Academic advisors play an important and essential role in ensuring that students with disabilities receive support, accommodations, and quality postsecondary education (Denhart, 2009; Getzel, 2008). Kuh (2008) believes that advisors not only connect students to institutional resources and academic opportunities, but also encourage them to engage and excel. The latter is of the most important value to students with disabilities.
Since the number of college students with ASD and other learning disabilities is growing, there is an apparent need for advisors to be aware of the kind of support students with ASD may require (Smith, 2007; Taylor, 2005). It is true that inflexibility, poor executive functioning, lack of social skills, and low self-esteem may lead to failure to follow through with the Americans with Disabilities Act eligibility requirements for many students with ASD (Schreibman, 2005). Many researchers agree that the type of support necessary for individuals with ASD is quite different from the needs of other individuals with disabilities (Dillon, 2007; Smith, 2007). These accommodations are impossible to address without active participation of advisors.
Individuals with ASD typically have difficulty with social factors, organization, and communication (Schreibman, 2005; Taylor, 2005). In addition, many of these individuals exhibit sensory issues, behavioral problems, and deficits in executive functioning. All of these obstacles make the college experience incredible challenging. For example, students with ASD find difficulty in working in groups since they do not see the perspective of others. They may be destructive during class time or advising session by trying to answer every question asked by an advisor or a faculty member. It requires from advisors understanding of the disorder and delicacy in addressing it. Furthermore, students with ASD may simply withdraw from the conversation all together because they are unable to determine how to approach or interject the discussion with advisors. Strong advising support in the form of delicate guidance is crucial for this group of students. In addition, students with ASD need to have information in regard to the class schedule, program design, class structure, and the instructor’s expectations in advance. Since these types of accommodations are not normally provided by the Office of Disability Services at most colleges and universities, advisor awareness and proactive guidance is crucial (Smith, 2007).
The following list of common academic difficulties for students with ASD can be helpful to academic advisors (Safran, 2002; Tantam, 2000a):
- Organizational skills
- Following classroom rules
- Poor focus and concentration
- Anxiety and sensory issues
- Trouble with taking notes
- Narrow interests
- Passing the core courses (e.g., English Literature, Foreign Languages)
- Group activities
There are several strategies that advisors can use to promote academic success in students with ASD (Farrel, 2004; Safran, 2002; Tantam, 2000a):
1. Advisors should establish trust and prepare these students for unexpected changes. It is important to avoid forcing changes as it may provoke anxiety and negative behavior.
2. Advisors should recommend classes that do not require group projects. If students must participate in a group project, advocate for the students to be placed in a small group that consists of other students who are believed to be understanding and tolerant.
3. Advisors need to prepare students for tests. Advocate on behalf of these students so they receive as many details about the test as possible in advance. Students should be allowed to sit for tests in the location where distractions are at minimum. If possible, advisors should provide step-by-step instructions to test taking.
4. Advisors should seek a most effective method of communication and allow flexibility for the use of that method. Visual materials such as emails, slides, models, and demonstrations work the best.
5. Students should be taught time management, organization skills, and note-taking strategies. All instructions should be provided in straightforward and predictable manner eliminating unnecessary complexities.
6. Advisors should meet with students often and monitor their progress and understanding.
7. Any unusual student behavior should be addressed and discussed in private. Advisors should pay attention to behaviors, recognize possible problems, and discuss issues using literal, clear, and concrete language.
8. Advisors may recommend a tutor or a mentor who can model and teach appropriate academic, organizational, and interpersonal skills.
9. Consider the following accommodations: seating arrangements, extended test time, out-of-class testing, classroom mentor, note-taker, technology assistance, and assignment modifications. These accommodations could be secured with assistance of the Office of Disability Services.
A few universities (e.g., Nova Southeastern University and Marshall University) provide intensive and specialized support to students with ASD. For example, Nova Southeastern University (2014) offers an Access Plus program, which provides a wide range of services to students with ASD so they are able to succeed not only academically, but also are able to live independently and fully participate in the campus activities. Marshall University (2014) offers The College Program for Students with ASD, which utilizes a positive behavior support approach to assist their students.
One key factor for advising students with ASD is engaging in proactive advising, which goes beyond the regular daily advising. Advisors who use proactive advising seek to understand student's academic and social needs and address those needs with knowledge, advocacy, and care. Establishing routines and advocating on behalf of students are the most important advising strategies. To provide effective support and advocacy, advisors will need to reach out and collaborate with other departments within the university. Strong relationships with the Office of Disability Services should be established as well as with the academic support services necessary for student success.
Khrystyna Bednarchyk, Ed.D.
Assistant Director of Recruitment/Certification Officer
Abraham S. Fischler School of Education
Nova Southeastern University
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Data and statistics. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
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Marshall University. (2014). The College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.marshall.edu/collegeprogram/
Nova Southeastern University. (2014). Access Plus Program. Retrieved from http://www.nova.edu/humandevelopment/autism/access-plus/index.html
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Smith, C. (2007). Support services for students with Asperger's syndrome in higher education. College Student Journal, 41(3), 515 – 531.
Tantam, D. (2000a). Adolescence and adulthood of individuals with Asperger syndrome. In A. Klin, F. R. Volkmar, & S. S. Sparrow (Eds.), Asperger syndrome (pp. 367-399). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Taylor, M.J. (2005). Teaching students with autistic spectrum disorders in HE. Education and training, 47(7), 484-495.
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Bednarchyk, K. (2014). Advising students with autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse Resource: