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Working with Students on the
Autism Spectrum
Prepared by the Office of Student
Disability Services at Eastern
Illinois University
Julie Runyon, Disability Specialist
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Autism is a neurobiological disorder with several
possible causes
It causes severe and pervasive impairment in social
interaction, communication, and behavior
It is usually first diagnosed in early childhood
It encompasses a set (umbrella) of characteristics that
varies widely from person to person
Most of these issues are greatly impacted or worsened
by stress and novel situations.
Asperger’s vs.
High Functioning Autism
 On a college campus, we are most likely to encounter
students with High Functioning Autism (HFA) or
Asperger’s Syndrome which are both included in the
autism spectrum.
 There are differing expert opinions about where one
stops and the other begins.
 The most commonly accepted differentiation is that
people with Asperger’s tend to have less severe
symptoms and normal language development.
Some Common Characteristics
 People with autism may look “typical”, may have average to
superior intelligence, but connect with their world in a different
 They usually have literal, concrete thinking patterns, difficulty
with change, and dependence on sameness and routine.
 They commonly have difficulty with social interactions,
reading social cues, expressing social cues (body language,
intonation, inflection, facial expressions, gestures).
 Often, there are unusually strong, narrow interests.
 Impulsivity in comments and behavior may occur.
 Mental “stuckedness” refers to not being able to move on
when perseverating on a thought.
Common Characteristics (cont.)
Many have additional diagnosis of ADHD, OCD, and other
mental health issues.
Individuals may have difficulty with focus on what is
relevant in a setting or conversation (off topic comments).
Organization skills are usually a deficit area.
Problems with motor coordination are common and
handwriting is often an issue. Long periods of note taking
can fatigue students with ASD.
Low frustration tolerance, being easily overwhelmed and
anxious are generally an issue.
Common Characteristics (cont.)
For some student’s, one of the most significant struggles is
their level of anxiety surrounding unknowns. They may not
handle vague expectations well at all and perseverate until
they get a clearer picture. For example, not knowing how
long a paper should be or what to study for on a test may
be incredibly stressful to them.
They may have a difficult time identifying what is important
(while taking notes, reading, etc.) The task of highlighting
key points may be almost impossible.
They typically experience significant test anxiety.
Sensory differences can be extreme in some cases.
Suggestions for Faculty/Staff
Read the accommodations letter and discuss any questions
with the student.
They may be capable of discussing some of their
differences, but may not always recognize a problem. If
there is an issue which may be related to the students
ASD, please arrange to discuss it with them privately.
If the student is monopolizing discussions, talking too often,
or getting off topic, it may be necessary to develop a
personal cue for them. This could be as simple as writing a
symbol on the board or coming up with a signal. Please talk
to them privately about what might work.
Suggestions (continued)
Be as concrete as possible with comments and directions.
Figures of speech and teasing may not always be
Events or circumstances that may be out of the ordinary
might require some preparation or warning.
Clear expectations, guidelines, and study material will
assist the student in not having to guess what they should
study or be anxious about their responsibilities. If they don’t
“get it” it’s probably not because they aren’t putting forth
their best effort.
For further information:
Please contact:
Julie Runyon, Disability Specialist
Office of Student Disability Services
[email protected]
Thank you in advance for providing instruction and accommodations
that fulfill the EIU mission:
“Eastern Illinois University is a public comprehensive university that offers superior, accessible undergraduate
and graduate education. Students learn the methods and results of free and rigorous inquiry in the arts,
humanities, sciences, and professions, guided by a faculty known for its excellence in teaching, research,
creative activity, and service. The University community is committed to diversity and inclusion and fosters
opportunities for student-faculty scholarship and applied learning experiences within a student-centered
campus culture. Throughout their education, students refine their abilities to reason and to communicate
clearly so as to become responsible citizens and leaders. “