Teaching autistic students at third-level


The diagnosis of autism has become prevalent in education with more people than ever seeking a formal diagnosis. Currently, it is estimated that 1.0-1.5% of the population in Ireland is autistic [1]. This means that in a classroom environment, there is a very high chance of having a learner on the autism spectrum. Some of these students may have formally given documentation to make their educators aware, others may have yet to be diagnosed.

Although formal diagnosis is available, the steep cost (1000 Euro approx.) often leaves many students forgoing the typical diagnosis and opting for the more common “self-diagnosis” approach whereby they simply identify as being autistic.

In a college environment, this can be a difficult route as to access many traditional education supports requires formal paperwork to be filed before services are available. This often leaves many learners with little additional options but to continue without support. Even with the correct diagnosis paperwork, it can often be a few weeks wait before the correct details have been passed around to relevant course leaders and educators who are interacting with the learner.

Autism is a wide spectrum with each person experiencing different difficulties in their day-to-day life. These include areas such as interpersonal skills, communication, thought processing, focus, hearing, physical and mental stimuli, behavioural and emotional regulation.

In addition to this, many learners with autism often have co-existing difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia that further alter their ability in specific situations. This does not mean they do not understand numbers or cannot write at all, it implies they just may have difficulties in the process or require additional help during the process.

Although at face value the spectrum of autism may seen as limitations, many autistic people have their own unique ways of dealing with issues as they arise such as taking notes, focusing on specific areas of interest, and daily scheduling. With the correct set of tools, autistic learners can easily thrive in the college environment, far exceeding the grades of other students due to their extensive commitment, enjoyment, and focus.

How do we talk about autism?

Terminology is key when discussing the area of autism. The formal diagnosis of autism is titled Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), however, many autistic people take issue with this as this has the implication there is something wrong with them as the term disorder is used. Most autistic people will agree that autistic is something they are and not something that is wrong with them.

Autism is always defined as a spectrum due to the number of areas in a person’s life it interacts with. An older diagnosis titled Asperger’s Syndrome was often described as being “high-functioning autism” e.g., the person can interact without the listener ever knowing of their struggles. The term “high-functioning” can also cause issues as it has the implication others are “low-functioning” and both may have similar issues in day-to-day life.

With revisions, the term Aspergers has faded away as a formal diagnosis, although some people may still refer to themselves as being an aspie.

When thinking of the terminology of autism, similar parallels can be made about a person who is living with depression. There would be no joy in referring to them as “the depressed person” all the time. Indeed they live with depression, but they are a person first.

What does their daily life look like?

The daily life of a person with autism can have a number of different challenges such as difficulty with day-to-day tasks like communicating, focusing, and working in high-stress environments such as classroom settings, which may be completely relaxed environments for other learners. How these are impacted varies greatly between people. Even the process of moving around a campus can be daunting as the environment often contains many different sounds, smells, and interactions they wish to avoid from time to time.

Sensory issues – In a classroom environment sensory issues can come from classroom noise, background noise, temperature, textures, seating, desks, and physical materials. How these are mitigated can be very personal to the person such as wearing headphones to block unwanted sounds, playing background music to focus, or wearing a coat indoors if they feel the continued sensation of temperature changes.

Interpersonal skills – These can be extremely difficult, as many of the facial expressions, inflections, and inferences simply fall away with many autistic people. When working in group environments, this can be a challenge if others on the team are not aware of these issues and may unintentionally consider the person rude or difficult. This can impact their progress with others in the classroom. During an interaction, an autistic group member may be unintentionally blunt in how advice or criticism is given, without intending to offend other members.

Holding back judgment on these changes is core to ensuring they feel comfortable and providing understanding can be beneficial. We overall want to ensure what works for them works also in the classroom.

Small subtle movements – During their interactions with others or even when sitting by themselves small changes can be seen such as rocking can also often be seen as legs nervously jumping while they are doing work, or fiddling repeatedly. This does not mean they are distressed, often they are just calming their own nerves.

Eye content – When working with autistic learners often eye contact is a common issue whereby the learner continues to avoid eye contact. This is often seen as a disinterest on their part or a dismissive approach to a conversation but these are merely common issues autistic learners deal with.

Avoidance – Although many autistic learners want to be included, they can often have a fear of interactions with others. For this reason, they will often unintentionally avoid other people in a classroom and even avoid asking questions in a classroom even if they desperately wish to have the answer. By providing avenues for private communication, these barriers can be avoided.

What can educators do to help an autistic learner?

Finding what works for all autistic learners is an impossible task as each will have their own strengths and weaknesses. Dynamic and well-considered teaching methods are the best tools to aid an autistic learner who may be formally known to us in a classroom environment or not. In this section, we will look at some of the small changes that can be made to make a difference in their learning experience.

Our main goal is to make them comfortable, depending on their own definition of comfort. As a form of reflection at the end of each section, a possible solution is provided. Although it may not work for all students, it still moves in the direction of progress.

Early identification of paperwork

Many autistic learners will have previously been given supporting documentation during their diagnosis that can be validated by the college. Before the new semester, consider providing a reminder about this documentation and a simple method of providing it in a secure fashion. The earlier this documentation is provided, the quicker the process can begin.

If they previously do not have any documentation but have suggested they would like to begin the process, connecting them with the correct representative would be a helpful step. Even after emailing about required paperwork, if no response is found from the learner, consider a gentle follow-up. Some learners may have difficulty with deadlines and may be concerned about how they should handle the interaction even if by email.


Temperatures can easily change based on the time of day and how well the heating works. Although this may seem a very trivial element to consider, many people with autism suffer from sensory issues that can easily become overloaded. These sensory issues are a very personal component to each person and if they are triggered may cause the learner to disconnect from the environment and retreat and may need additional time to reengage.

Be mindful of the temperatures in a room, keeping it consistent allows the learner to prepare for it. When providing additional media resources, be mindful of volumes.

Background noise can be difficult for many learners, however, autistic learners may become completely disengaged because of it. Allowing them to focus on a single voice at a time allows time for them to completely focus. Although group-based feedback sessions happen, be mindful of how many people are talking at once.

If they choose to wear headphones in a classroom, wear sound-blocking ear protectors, wear a coat indoors, or wear sunglasses to block glare, it should be considered possible.


All academic courses are held together by a number of different deadlines. Deadlines provide the additional structure for the assignment to the learner, however, considering the position of a learner with autism, additional time such as an additional week or two can drastically change the pace of the assignments they are working on.

Many may think the additional time is useful to pace better but when viewing the full life considerations of an autistic learner, the additional time may be the much-needed downtime as a result of daily overstimulation or recovery time from a complete burnout.

When the additional time is allocated, keep it open as an option to the learner as they may originally not need it but further reflection after a few weeks may really require it.

A learner with autism often becomes hyper-focused on specific tasks such as the one they are currently most anxious about completing or most interested in. In a case where there are a number of different assignments due, unintentionally they may completely forget about the other deadlines as they have become so focused on a single task. Reviewing these deadlines frequently with them can be a great source of calm throughout the semester to ensure they are on top of their work.


Routine and consistency are core elements of the world of autism. Standard academic years provide many options for success. Typically our classes are broken up into lecture settings where the learner is required to just listen and lab environments where they are designed to perform.

When a learner attends a class with a specific idea of what is going to be performed, such as writing, suddenly changing to a dynamic of group conversation where they are expected to speak in front of peers can be a difficult transition.

If a core component is delivering a presentation, prior warning about this can be very useful. As it is required, additional consideration of the location and the audience can be beneficial changes. Moving to a smaller room with no additional people provides the opportunity to focus on the task at hand.

When working on lecture notes, consider the flow of the information and headings. Ensuring that each collection of lecture notes begins with an outline of what will be covered and followed by detailed references at the end for further reading. This will provide the learner with plenty of opportunity to reflect on the material and dive deeper if they wish. Context is a core issue with autistic learners and many will require to know about a wider picture of a topic before it becomes relatable and something they can remember.

By considering the process of lecturing as one-half of the process of conveying the knowledge. In many cases, providing material before the class can additionally benefit the learner by allowing them time to consider the content before the scheduled lecture time.

Clear messages and directions

The process of providing additional material is a common process in smaller group sessions when working on a topic. Clearly outlining what the learner is expected to do removes any ambiguity about the session for the learner. Although it can be useful to provide a wealth of information, many autistic learners will become frustrated with the additional content and need time to process the collection of material before the actual session begins. By being concise, we can reduce the difficulty for the learner.

Always consider how many learning resources are being provided and ensure there is a defined instruction outlining the “core” and “additional” material. By doing this we can prevent information overload for the learner.

Proving alternative material for further reading

Digging deeper into a subject is always enjoyed by many autistic people. By providing structured additional material, whenever they have questions they could easily look to the additional material. When providing this material, be sure that it is an expanded form of the original material in the form of context and not just additional material in the general area. By digging into the relevant content, they can easily expand their knowledge in the area at their own pace.

Linking with services

Many colleges offer additional support to learners who are struggling. The process of interacting with these services can be difficult for many autistic learners as they often do not know what is expected of them when they reach out for help. When a learner wants to connect but does not, moving to get the first step started can often be very beneficial.

Simple times and dates along with the name of a contact in the service can help calm their nerves before the interaction. After this, the services typically will discuss what the next steps are with them to inform them along the way and calm their nerves. It is often the case that they want to, but find the first step difficult.

Alternative modes of delivery

Many autistic people utilise a number of different physical and virtual tools to aid their learning experience. Currently, tools such as screenreaders provide the ability for the learner to listen to the content. For this screen reading ability to be fully utilised, the material being read should be in a text-based format with an additional focus on not using picture-based text to images with text. These have particular issues with many screen reading tools.

Whiteboard-based demonstrations can be difficult for autistic learners to track. Where possible additional recorded demonstrations provide the learner with time to reflect on the material at their own pace. Where recordings are not possible, capturing the content in the form of a PDF or picture can be very helpful.

Pause days or weeks

Many autistic learners suffer from burnout which can vary in length. This can be considered a form of extreme tiredness and mental fog. This process prevents the learner from retaining new knowledge and day-to-day tasks become difficult. Attempting to get the learner back on track during this time is difficult. Allowing the learner time to reproach at their own speed and time is the best solution. This may impact deadlines which the learner originally agreed to. Understanding during this time, and reassessment of deadlines is crucial to success.

Alternative communication methods (private forms)

Communication is the key and to aid this process providing as many different modes of communication to the learner is the best approach. When selecting a method of communication, consider the perspective of an autistic learner, will they feel comfortable communicating?

Many modern learning environments offer functionality for learners to leave feedback and comments in a public way using mediums such as forums that can be read by all the students in the class. Although this is a good idea, it can be quite an anxiety-inducing process where the learner may feel that undue attention is being placed on them in front of their peers.

Providing anonymous feedback methods on your course page such as a direct email form allows the learner to detail the concerns or questions without this stress.

Related issues

The diagnosis of autism often comes with additional issues the learner may be suffering with. High levels of anxiety and depression are very common in the autism world. Changes in an autistic learner’s mood can be commonplace in the academic semester as external stressors such as the process of getting to a classroom and day-to-day college life impact them. If these issues are persistent in your classroom, connecting them with counseling services is a good way to ensure all their emotional needs are assessed by professionals.


Many educators are focused on a tight semester to get all the material completed and grades returned to the students as quickly as possible. When working with autistic learners, additional consideration can drastically impact the quality of the work the student will submit.

It should always be remembered that it is not that the student cannot complete their assignment, they may be dealing with any number of issues at that moment. Communication and being aware of their unique struggles can be very beneficial to them ensuring they complete their work before the end of the semester.

The warning signs in a classroom environment

A classroom environment can be any number of different things at any time throughout the day. Lectures can be loud, students can be talking and videos or audio samples may be playing during the process of delivering content. At face value, many neurotypical people can find issues with these things as they are common to everybody.

In addition to this, there are many more forms of stimuli that can cause difficulty for an autistic learner that have been outlined. But how do we know if a learner is having an issue? The warning signs can be very subtle such as missing classes, missing deadlines, not responding when reminder emails are being sent, and a complete lack of communication.

This does not mean they have dropped out of college, it simply means they may need a bit of space and time to recuperate before they reengage. Becoming over-stimulated and over-whelmed are part of the autistic landscape. These changes can happen day-to-day and hour-to-hour so ensuring a follow-up will ensure we do not leave them behind.


[1] (2018) Estimating Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the Irish Population: A review of data sources and epidemiological studies – https://assets.gov.ie/10707/ce1ca48714424c0ba4bb4c0ae2e510b2.pdf