Supporting students with Autism and Aspergers Syndrome

  • People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) including Asperger’s Syndrome have a condition that affects the way they communicate and relate to others. More men than women are affected. Every individual is different, and many higher-functioning autistic people have above average intelligence. It can be hard for students with this “hidden disability” to get the support they need.

    Students may experience difficulties in the following areas:


    • An advanced vocabulary and a lot of knowledge about a narrow topic, about which they may talk obsessively. Difficulty switching topic.
    • Speech may sound pedantic and monotonic.
    • Taking language literally eg “she must have eyes in the back of her head”.
    • Difficulty reading non-verbal communication such as body language, facial expression, tone of voice.
    • Difficulties in social communication, including standing too close, staring, unusual body postures, avoidance of eye contact.
    • Difficulties in conversation, including starting conversation, interrupting.


    • May have a lot of factual knowledge about a narrow topic.
    • Difficulty understanding some types of wide questions.
    • Difficulty judging how much information to give in reply to an open question.
    • May have difficulties in abstract thought, problem solving, concept development, making inferences and judgements.
    • May find it difficult to adapt to change or failure.
    • May have difficulty in using the imagination
    • Difficulty in understanding and empathising with people.
    • Problems in learning by observation


    • Poor motor control may affect ability to perform lab work and writing.

    Sensory sensitivity

    • May experience sensory input differently, with extreme sensitivities to sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
    • Physical contact may be very problematic.


    • May need to follow regular routine, and be upset by changes.


    • Give the student time to get to know you before discussing special needs.
    • The student may find email easier than face-to-face communication.
    • Provide clear instructions, written as well as verbal.
    • Students may prefer written questions to spoken ones.
    • Be aware of your use of language. Avoid phrases like “she bit my head off”, which might be confusing and upsetting.
    • Avoid implied suggestions – students may miss them.
    • Give detailed feedback, explaining exactly what was good/poor and why.
    • How do you help these students to work in groups with other students?
    • How do you support other students in working with students with ASD?
    • Students may use a dedicated support worker to facilitate communication.

    Course delivery

    • Provide a clear course structure, and show how individual elements fit in.
    • Students will appreciate early notification of changes in course structure.
    • Using electronic media, including WebCT, eliminates some of the difficulties of face-to-face communication, and may facilitate team work.
    • Try to avoid changes in the environment. Students will prefer sessions in the same room, and may want to use the same chair.
    • Begin and end teaching sessions on time.


    • Provide clear instructions, written as well as verbal. Break a task up into discrete sections. Give a clear breakdown of how marks will be allocated.
    • Explain reasonable margins of error, and the degree of accuracy required.
    • Give students explicit feedback on how they’re doing. Tell them what to do differently, rather than pointing out what is wrong.
    • It’s difficult to generalise, but students may be good at tasks:
      • Where attention to detail/accuracy is needed
      • Where numbers, statistics and facts are involved
      • With a clear procedure to follow
      • Highly structured tasks, with a right and wrong way to do them
      • Where the end product is clearly specified
    • Students may have difficulty with tasks:
      • With open questions
      • Asking for empathy or imagination
      • Where structure is unclear
      • Requiring abstract thought and speculation
      • Requiring social interaction with other people
      • Requiring creative writing
      • Where the output is not clearly specified

    Group work

    • Students may be concerned about who they will be expected to work with, and may need support. Other students, too, may need advice on good practice.
    • Students may need extra support during and after group work to check that they have understood what was said.
    • Students may prefer electronic group work to face-to-face work.
    • Students may find it very hard to speak in public.

    Field work and work placements

    • Discuss arrangements and adjustments with the student well in advance. Students may want extra preparation for this break in routine.
    • Students may need the privacy of a single room.
    • Discuss with the student how an employer is informed of their support needs.
    • Students may need access to a “chill out” room.
    • Students may have particular requirements about food and transport.
    • Students may find the disruption to the normal routine stressful.


    • Students may benefit from preparation for this break in routine.
    • Students may find it helpful to see the exam room beforehand.
    • Individual adjustments can be arranged through the Student Disability Service
      • Physical environment eg a smaller room, a particular seat, a room on their own, invigilation by CCTV.
      • Use of a computer if poor motor control makes writing difficult
      • Extra time because of slow handwriting
      • Clarification of question meaning by a support worker (or getting wording checked in advance by an ASD specialist).
      • Providing a prompt to move on to the next question.

    Further information