Autism spectrum conditions

Key support actions

  • Clear and explicit details of course requirements and expectations
  • Keep timetables and venues consistent
  • Instigate strong ground rules to ensure everyone can participate in discussions, even if they have difficulty reading social cues
  • Written feedback with reference to a grade and explicit description of further development required

What are autism spectrum conditions?

People who are diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions will have difficulty in the following areas:

  • social communication
  • social interaction
  • social imagination

This means that an autistic student may have difficulty with the use of metaphor, simile and sarcasm and may interpret communication literally.

They may also find it hard to read behaviour in situations involving discussion, whether that is in a social or academic context and thus find it hard to know how to behave (or what others' behaviour may mean). This may be particularly acute when attempting to know how often to speak in a supervision, and for how long.

Difficulties with social imagination may be apparent when someone autistic has difficulty imagining an alternative outcome or working out how another person feels in a given situation. This may be why autistic people often like routines and find breaks in routine more upsetting than someone who is not autistic as it can be hard for them to anticipate what may then occur.

Additionally, autistic people may experience acute sensory sensitivity and, as a result, may need to avoid certain sensory stimuli. Students may also have a strong area of interest, which may be very specific.

How does autism impact on study?

Autistic students are individuals and the impact will vary from individual to individual.

Autistic students may have difficulty with the elements of a course that involve interacting with other people, in particular, supervisions and other discussion activities and any paired work.

They may find it difficult to know how and when to ask questions and may come across as abrupt when it is not their intention.

Such students are likely to make a literal interpretation of any instructions, and this literal approach means they may have difficulty differentiating between core and peripheral information (which has a particular impact in a lecture, where the lecturer is unlikely to intend an anecdote to carry as much emphasis as the description of a particular theory).

Supporting and teaching autistic students

Inclusive Teaching

Many principles of inclusive teaching are beneficial for autistic students. Here are some particular examples:

  • Timetables to be consistently adhered to
  • Well-structured lectures and supervisions, so that if concentration is poor, the student can easily find their place again
  • Deadlines in advance and clearly described academic tasks
  • Provide legible written feedback, including good points and aspects requiring further development. This is useful to the student as it avoids the need to record feedback while discussing it and provides a helpful reference.
  • Firm management of group discussions to manage any difficult conversations. This helps to reduce any anxiety felt by the student about taking part.

Reasonable Adjustments

These are adjustments which should be available to autistic students, although may not be relevant to all.

  • Extended loan period for books, to enable management of stress and to mitigate organisational difficulties
  • Reserved seating
  • Access to mentoring and study skills support, to enable good planning and efficient working, and to manage any difficulties as they arise
  • Additional preparation and support for field work, presentations and years abroad, to minimise stress
  • Additional preparation and support for group work so that the social interactions involved do not overwhelm the learning activities involved in the task
  • Regular meetings with Tutor or Director of Study, to keep everyone informed of issues and agreed support strategies
  • Implementation of strategies to minimise impact of sensory sensitivities
  • Taking exams in college (or other quiet space), to avoid distractions

The Equality Act (2010)

The Equality Act protects autistic people when their impairment is substantial and long-term. In such cases, there will be a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments and not to treat less favourably.