Supporting Learning in Students with Autism: What Do Professors Need to Know?

“Jason is a bright, ambitious, and warm 22-year-old. He wants to be a Geologist. However, Jason has a hard time staying focused in a large classroom. Group activities, competing deadlines, and fast-paced lectures challenge him. He has trouble asking his professors for help, and sometimes comes across as blunt or awkward.”

Have you wondered how to support a student like Jason? While some young adults seek out vocational options after high school, others pursue higher education in a variety of majors. Several young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have average or above average intelligence, have advanced language and reading abilities, and are highly dependable and hard working. Like all students in higher education, students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) hope and believe that their time in a 2-year or 4-year college/university would lead to a job or a career in their field of interest. However, a large majority of these students do not enjoy their college experience and drop out of college. The graduation rate of students with ASD across the nation is at 41% in comparison to the 59% graduation rate of students without disabilities (Newman 2). It is expected that approximately 500,000 students with ASD will be seeking post-secondary options in the United States by 2020 (Jackson 639). While these young adults and their family members are on the look out for an enjoyable and meaningful college experience, university faculty and staff are not well-equipped to understand and support the strengths and needs of this growing population.

In K-12 education, parents and the school district are responsible for providing the necessary services to support the learning and education of students with disabilities including those with autism. Once these students transition to colleges/universities, the one-on-one support and services are no longer available. Further, the responsibility of seeking out support falls on the young adult. The office for disability services at higher education universities provide various accommodations such as extra time in tests, note takers, and specialized seating in the classroom. Although some students on the autism spectrum benefit from these accommodations, several students find it insufficient and/or irrelevant for their needs. Therefore, a large part of the support needs to be provided by faculty members who have the direct experiential understanding and awareness of their students’ strengths and challenges.

Given below are some strategies that can be used by professors in their classrooms and offices. It is important to remember that heterogeneity is common in individuals with ASD; each individual with the diagnosis is unique in his/her abilities. Therefore, not all strategies apply to all young adults on the autism spectrum. Please consult with an expert or the disability services office at your university for additional support. While the strategies given below are highly beneficial for students with ASD, students with all learning abilities can also benefit from these.

  1. Build trust: Try to find a way to connect with the studenta common topic of interest or a shared goal. Be willing to share both your success and difficult experiences from when you were a student, and your journey to becoming a professor. When we demonstrate to the student that we are not embarrassed by our challenges, it creates an atmosphere of openness and approachability for the student and encourages them to share their difficulties as well. In addition, they understand that everyone faces challenges in their education/academic experience.
  2. Explain the “why”: Begin each class with an explanation of “why” we discuss the topic and “how” it relates to real-world applications or future learning. Motivation is a challenge for several students with and without ASD. Understanding the rationale/purpose helps increase motivation and increases the desire to learn.
  3. Add more structure: Use more structure in both course design and delivery. For example, start each class with a written agenda on various topics and activities that will be covered during class time. Predictable schedules and routines help reduce student anxiety and encourages them to engage in novel tasks.
  4. Be explicit: Providing written instructions, diagrams, or graphic organizers in addition to verbal instructions can be helpful for all learners. Avoid implying, hinting, or suggesting changes without a concrete example. Provide models, examples, and illustrations when possible.
  5. Give breaks: We all need a break during a lecture or when we are engaged in learning a large amount of information. Breaks are helpful to increase attention and motivation, and help us stay focused. Provide a 3 -5-minute break for every 30-minutes of class time.
  6. Allow multiple ways to respond and engage: Encourage students to respond by speaking, typing, illustrating, using note cards, or other non-verbal methods. These alternative response formats encourage students to engage more in the classroom and do so with more confidence.
  7. Allow sufficient response time: We process information differently, and differ in the amount of time we need to respond to both familiar and novel content. The 15-second thumb rule is ideal for responding to questions or initiating an activity. Allowing sufficient response time helps reduce anxiety and encourages students to talk more in class.
  8. Practice relaxation: Many young adults with autism experience anxiety. By practicing relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, physical activity, or humor in class, we help reduce students’ anxiety. Practicing relaxation in class can also serve as a proactive way to prevent any anxiety attacks or disruptions before they occur.
  9. Do not take remarks personally: Many young adults with ASD tend to use language that can be perceived as direct, abrupt, or even rude by their communication partners. Although they don’t intend to be impolite, several young adults are often misunderstood. Although it can be difficult at times, try not to take such comments/remarks personally. Modeling socially appropriate language and setting clear expectations on classroom communication can be excellent strategies in these situations.  
  10. Build and practice inclusivity in the classroom: Remind all students that everyone has different learning abilities and that differences need to be celebrated. Encourage students to support and mentor each other in classroom activities.

Bio: Siva priya Santhanam, PhD, CCC-SLP is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language, Hearing Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado. She is the developer of the Integrated Supports for Students with Autism spectrum disorders in College (ISSAC) program at her university. Her research interests include developing innovative methods of intervention to support communication in young children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, supporting parent-child interactions in families of children with developmental disabilities, and multicultural service delivery in speech-language pathology.


Jackson, Scott LJ, Logan Hart, and Fred R. Volkmar. “Preface: Special issue—college experiences for students with autism spectrum disorder.” (2018): 639-642.

Newman, Lynn, et al. “The post-high school outcomes of young adults with disabilities up to 8 years after high school: A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). NCSER 2011-3005.” National Center for Special Education Research (2011).

Santhanam, Siva priya. “Why we all need to understand the needs of students with disabilities”, October 8, 2019.