Students with Autism in the College Classroom


MODULE GOALS: To assist post-secondary faculty and administration in understanding the characteristics and needs of a person with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This module aims to provide information on how the disability manifests and how it impacts the student throughout their college careers. In addition, it discusses strategies for providing support to the student.


  1. Define autism
  2. Legal mandates
  3. Characteristics of student with ASD: what it looks like in the college classroom
  4. Accommodations for a student with ASD
  5. Information and resources on students with ASD in the post-secondary education setting


People with ASD represent a consistently growing population; it is, therefore, important to understand their needs and how to support them in their academic endeavors. There are no clear statistics on college enrollment of students with ASD, but it is estimated that they comprise anywhere from 0.7 percent to 1.9 percent of the college population with an 80% incompletion rate. These numbers will most likely increase in coming years and will make the need for understanding individuals with ASD even more imperative (VanBergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008).

Despite adequate cognitive ability for academic success in college many individuals on the autism spectrum find post-secondary education an insurmountable hill to climb. Often gaining admission without ever identifying themselves as individuals with autism / Asperger’s those students go unnoticed by their professors until their sensory, social, learning styles and organizational challenges combined with fatigue, cause them to fail. (US Autism and Asperger Association, 2013)


  1. What is autism?
  2. How will I recognize a student with autism in my course?
  3. How can I provide supports to students with ASD?

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurological disorder that was first described by Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician, in 1944. At the same time, Austrian physician, Leo Kanner, who was living in the United States, began to describe children he saw with similar characteristics. Both physicians called the disorder they described ‘autism’. However, it was Dr. Kanner’s form of autism that became the subject of extensive research for the next 40 years. It was not until Lorna Wing, a British psychiatrist, realized that many of the patients she was seeing did not meet the criteria for autism as described by Kanner. In 1981 she described some of her clients as being more similar to the individuals Asperger had written about and she used the term Asperger’s syndrome to provide new diagnostic criteria within ASD (Attwood, 2007). However, under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM V), released in May 2013, Asperger syndrome is now absorbed under ASD and rated on a severity scale.
There are two hallmark characteristics of a person with autism: communication and social challenges, and an abnormal focus on a specific topic or interest (Gobbo, & Shmulsky, 2012). It is referred to as a spectrum disorder due to there being a wide range of ability levels. Some individuals with ASD are non-verbal and engage in stereotypic, repetitive behaviors while others are very high functioning, contributing members of the community (Attwood, 2007). It is the individuals on the higher end of the spectrum that professors will be most likely to encounter in their courses and thus, will be the focus of this module (White, Ollendick & Bray, 2011).

What legal mandates are relevant for students with disabilities?

Several federal laws outline the rights for students with disabilities in colleges and universities: The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), The Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Workforce Investment Act (504), and The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA).
The ADAAA is a civil rights law and was first passed in 1990 as the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2008 it was amended and went into effect at ADAAA on January 1, 2009 (The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, 2009). It provides protections for people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination against them in the workplace, school and other settings. It requires public and private institutions to make reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities but does not provide funding for services or accommodations. While the ADAAA does not specifically mention autism, the law defines a person as disabled if he or she:
  • has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • has a record of such an impairment;
  • is regarded as having such an impairment. (The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, 2008 §12102)

The ADAAA does not make schools responsible for the free and appropriate education of all students, but the protections that are “guaranteed by the ADAAA/Section 504 apply equally to public and private K-12 schools, colleges, universities and testing agencies. These protections do not extend to organizations controlled by religious groups” (The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, 2008).

“Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is designed to eliminate discrimination on the basis of handicap in any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”(The Rehabilitation Act, 1973 § 504) Section 504 employs the same criteria for and definition of disability as the ADAAA. Institutions of higher education must provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities found eligible for services. In order to qualify for services, students must provide documentation regarding the impact their disability has on their life and academic performance to disability support services. While Section 504 does not provide funding for services, the federal government does provide remedies to violations of the law under § 12117(a)(The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, 1990).

“The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) (PL 110-315) was enacted on August 14, 2008; it was a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965” (Higher Education Opportunity Act 2008, n.d). This law includes may new provisions that improve access to post-secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities as well as students with ASD who have significant cognitive deficits” (Think College, 2013). HEOA provides financial assistance to students who meet requirements and encourages collaboration among college, businesses and relevant organizations to provide support and improve accessibility to students in college. In order to qualify for federal financial aid, students must meet the following criteria:

  • The student must meet the definition of intellectual disability as outlined in Section 760 of the HEOA  (
  • Students must be attending an approved Comprehensive Transition Program - a list of these programs is maintained on the Federal Financial Aid website (
  • Students who meet these two criteria DO NOT have to have a standard high school diploma, or be pursuing a degree or certificate.
  • Students with intellectual disabilities DO still have to meet the financial need criteria for eligibility
  • They are eligible for federal grants and work study funds, but NOT student loans (HEOA, 2008, para. 3; Think College, 2013).

How will I recognize a student with autism in my course?


Individuals with high functioning autism (HFA) bring many positive attributes to bring to the college campus. They have a unique perspective that will enrich group activities and they tend to be honest and loyal. They tend to be very persistent in their efforts and are able to focus on one thing for extended periods of time. In general, those with HFA are conscientious, logical, attentive to detail, thrive on routine and clear expectations (Attwood, 2007).


Students with HFA generally have average to above average intelligence. They have an extensive vocabulary and may speak in a formal or pedantic manner and tend toward verbosity. You will also notice that they appear to lack social understanding and have limited ability to engage in reciprocal conversations often focusing entirely on their topic of interest (Wenzel & Rowley, 2010). Other signs a student may be on the spectrum:

  • Odd prosody
  • Excessive talking
  • Abnormal focus on a particular subject / activity
  • Talking too little
  • Repetitive pattern of speech

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind (ToM) is similar to empathy and encompasses the abilities to recognize and understand the thoughts, intentions, beliefs and desires of others (Dillon, 2007). People with ASD often have impaired ToM which impacts daily life in several critical areas such as the ability to glean information from body language, facial expression or tone of voice. It also causes the individual to be remarkably honest and direct often unwittingly offending, embarrassing or hurting others’ (Attwood, 2007). This challenge also makes it difficult to acknowledge and accept points of view that differ from their own and they may appear belligerent when faced with differing opinions (Dillon, 2007). These challenges can make it very difficult for the individual to analyze characters in novels, discuss feelings and emotions or engage in imagination based activities.

Executive Functions

Executive functioning (EF) skill deficits impact the individual in the areas of organization, planning, controlling impulses, understanding abstract concepts, retaining information in working memory, managing time and prioritizing (Attwood, 2007). For example, a student with challenges in this area may not turn homework in or will turn it in half done. They are often forgetful and tend to lose things.

Central Coherence

Central coherence can be descried as the ability to understand context and “see the big picture”. The ability to determine what is important and relevant and what can be discarded is a crucial component to success in college. Unfortunately, people with ASD often have weak central coherence; “they often do not have a broad cognitive perspective in the classroom and focus solely on the details that they miss the big picture” (Attwood, 2007, p. 241).

Co-Morbidity and Tics

People with ASD often display characteristics of other disorders which may or may not be diagnosed. According to Siminoff, Pickles, Charman, Chandler, Loucas and Baird (2008), 70 percent of adults with autism have at least one additional disorder such as social anxiety and attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder and oppositional disorder. Obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, insomnia and depression are also commonly found in people with autism (Attwood, 2007).

Additionally, people with ASD may have tics such as facial grimacing, nose twitching and throat clearing. While these tics generally appear in individuals who are on the more severe end of the spectrum, they can also appear in higher functioning individuals. Any signs of tics or co-morbid symptoms may be clues that a student also has ASD.

How can I provide support to students with ASD?

Although individuals with ASD are diverse and require personalized support, they tend to think literally and require very specific instructions. A student with autism needs more specificity than for the professor to say, “Turn your papers in by the due date.” They may not respond to a directive that they perceive to be somewhat vague and will not turn their work in. A more effective directive would be, “When you are dismissed from class, place your research papers on this desk on your way out of the room”. “Be sure to upload your papers to the dropbox on Blackboard by Wed, July 3rd”. Below is a list of tips as suggested by Atwood (2007):

  • Make directions clear and provide step by step instructions in written format
  • Ask student to repeat instructions to verify comprehension
  • Ask for another student to volunteer to be a ‘mentor’ (assisting with organization, turning in assignments, navigating social situations)
  • Allow for student to have short breaks if necessary – pacing is sometimes calming for people with ASD
  • Allow delivery of assignments in different formats such as electronically
  • Extend deadlines to allow for challenges in organization, time management, and processing
  • Provide students with the option to work in a group or independently if they feel uncomfortable in a group work setting
  • Provide visual supports to promote understanding

The Office of Disability Support Services on your campus can provide further support and information for meeting student needs. While individual offices vary, typically offer an overview of laws covering students with disabilities in postsecondary settings; information regarding the different disabilities students in your course may have and how to support them. Be sure to check the HEATH Resource Center’s module on Accommodations for more information (


This module described how to recognize students with ASD in your college course and the supports you can put into place that will help them be successful. It provided a brief background on ASD, a summary of legislation that pertains to students with ASD in a postsecondary setting followed by fairly comprehensive description of characteristics of students with autism. Although postsecondary education can be challenging for students with ASD, with the proper supports, they can be successful and enrich your course with their unique and insightful perspectives.


Autism Speaks Transition Tool Box
This site was created to assist families with children with autism spectrum disorder navigate social, educational, occupational aspects of life. It has several tool kits available including community, family, school and emergency kits. The site also provides valuable legal information to families.
Association for Higher Education and Disability
The Association for Higher Education and Disability website is intended to provide support for the full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in post-secondary settings. The organization disseminates information, provides professional development, and promotes leadership.
Achieving in Higher Education
Achieving in Higher Education is an organization that supports students with various disabilities in the college setting and teaches them self advocacy skills. The organization provides trainings to high school and university faculty, organizations and employers. Once a student Is accepted into a college, they may apply to AHEADD online or support services. Tuition assistance is available for their services for those who qualify.
US Autism and Asperger’s Association (USAAA)
USAAA has created a program titled the US Autism College Project (USCAP). This project is intended to support the rising population of students with autism and Asperger syndrome in post-secondary settings. USCAP tailors the curriculum to the individuals needs and bring the student together with college faculty and staff as well as peers who would like to be involved in implementing the program.
Think College: College Options for People with Intellectual Disabilities
This is a website for a national organization dedicated to improving the opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) in higher education. The site features modules intended to inform students with ID and their families on the transition to college. It also provides a database of post-secondary institutions that offer services or programs for individuals with ID and has links to numerous informational articles on higher education opportunities.
Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN)
The Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a non-profit organization run by and for people with autism. The organization provides information and support to those with autism and their families. ASAN has chapters across the United States as well as several international partners. The organization has published a handbook entitled Navigating College: A Handbook on Self Advocacy and launched a website to coincide with the publication of the manual. The website and more information on the book can be found here:
The Faculty Room at the University of Washington: Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT)
The University of Washington, with the support of the U.S. Department of Education, offers a site that provides information, publications and videos to college faculty designed to assist postsecondary faculty and administration in making course materials more accessible to students with disabilities and maximizing their success. The site provides resources on how to design instruction so that it is accessible for all students (Universal Design for Learning) as well as disability specific interventions that can support students in your course.
  1. How would you recognize a student with ASD in your course?
  2. What laws cover students with ASD in post-secondary settings and how do they impact you as the instructor?
  3. What kinds of supports would be beneficial for students with ASD? 
  4. In reviewing the list of resources provided, are there any organizations that could provide additional support to your campus?  
Individuals with ASD have many positive attributes and much to offer society. Their unique perspective and abilities make them valuable members of educational and work communities. However, a better understanding of their specific needs is necessary in order for them to be successful in a postsecondary setting. The suggested supports and online resources made available in this module along with the office of Disability Support Services at your institution will aid you in supporting these students and making their journey more positive, productive and successful.

Laura Harris Delrieu is a doctoral student in the Applied Neuroscience in Special Education program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Ms. Harris Delrieu focuses her doctoral research on students with ASD and their successful transition to postsecondary settings and employment. She is completing an internship with the HEATH Resource Center in Washington, D.C. In addition to pursuing her doctorate, Ms. Harris Delrieu serves as a special education teacher for the Loudoun County Public School System working primarily with students with ASD. She holds an M.A. in Special Education from the University of New England and a B.A. from the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C.A. §. 12101 et seq. (West 1993)

Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to asperger syndrome. Philadelphia, Pa: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Dillon, M. R. (2007). Creating Supports for College Students with Asperger Syndrome through Collaboration. College Student Journal, 41(2), 499-504.

Gobbo, K., & Shmulsky, S. (2012). Classroom Needs of Community College Students with Asperger's Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 36(1), 40-46.

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Morrison, J. Q., Sansosti, F. J., & Hadley, W. M. (2009). Parent Perceptions of the Anticipated Needs and Expectations for Support for Their College-Bound Students with Asperger's Syndrome. Journal of Post-secondary Education and Disability, 22(2), 78-87.

Nevill, R. A., & White, S. W. (2011). College Students' Openness toward Autism Spectrum Disorders: Improving Peer Acceptance. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(12), 1619-1628.

Siminoff, E., Pickles, A., Charman, T., Chandler, S., Loucas , T., & Baird, G. (2008). Psychiatric disorders in children with autism. Journal of the Academy of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(8),

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (PL 93-112, September 26, 1973)

Think college: Higher education opportunity act 2008. (2013). Retrieved June 8, 2013 from

US Autism and Asperger Association. (2013). About us college autism project (uscap). Retrieved from

VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting More Able Students on the Autism Spectrum: College and Beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1359-1370.

VanBergeijk, E. O. (2011). Changes in Federal Policy: Help Students with Intellectual Disabilities Gain Access to College. Exceptional Parent, 41(12), 38-39.

Wenzel, C., & Rowley, L. (2010). Teaching Social Skills and Academic Strategies to College Students with Asperger's Syndrome. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 42(5), 44-50.

White, S. W., Ollendick, T. H., & Bray, B. C. (2011). College Students on the Autism Spectrum: Prevalence and Associated Problems. Autism: The International Journal Of Research And Practice, 15(6), 683-701.