A Perspective on Engaging Scholars with Autism

22 April 2017, 1013 EDT

The following is a guest post by Rachel Harmon, a PhD student in Political Science at Emory University.

Recent events have prompted necessary discussions about mental health in academia, but a topic that remains underdiscussed are the challenges faced by individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As an adult diagnosed with ASD and current PhD student, I have personally experienced how ASD can be a strength or a struggle, conditional on the surrounding environment. ASD is a spectrum and effects each person differently, but for me, being autistic shapes every moment of every day of my life. I’m thankful that ASD has given me the ability to intensely focus on my research interests, making me a dedicated and creative researcher. At the same time, I have struggled to learn and communicate in the same ways that neurotypical students do. It takes enormous energy and mental space to navigate a world designed for the neurotypical, and most faculty are simply not trained on how to respond to or recognize the difficulties.

I have had significant ASD-related challenges in graduate school, but several people and resources have been crucial to my overall success. First, a TA during my first-year methods training took it upon herself to give me hours of additional assistance beyond what was required by her job when she saw how I struggled in the classroom setting. Second, I have developed two close friendships with people in my cohort; they have helped me navigate and interpret social interactions, monitor tone, and have stepped up for me when sensory processing is difficult. Finally, I have access to regular treatment through the Emory Autism Center and worked with a private tutor my first year. These resources are expensive and not covered by insurance. I hope that institutions find ways in the future to offer these types of assistance to all students with special needs.

Academics are frequently ill-equipped to interact with people with ASD and thus miss out on the rich contributions that people with ASD can make. It is important to remember that individuals with ASD have the right to decide if and when they disclose ASD status. My hope is that these tips will give you practical strategies to proactively support and engage with people who have disclosed so that academia fosters the success the people with ASD. Above all, the best response is to send a clear and credible signal of your willingness to support and engage with individuals with ASD.

For Student Interactions:

  • Open the lines of communication. Don’t brush over the disability accommodation policy in the syllabus. Sincerely express that you are eager to assist students who use accommodations and let them know they can meet with you in person or contact you via email to discuss accommodations. State whether you will have office hours the first week – many students need a form signed during that time. Some people with ASD prefer to communicate online, while others find the contextual clues of in-person meetings helpful. Students may wish to designate a “cue” they can give when a break is needed due to sensory overload.
  • Connect special interests to your class. People with ASD are intensely passionate about a few select topics, which are referred to as “special interests” in the autism community. Assign projects that allow students to connect their special interests to class materials. People with ASD can often hyper-focus on special interests, and when you allow their passion to combine with class material you are encouraging their success.
  • Have study aid recommendations ready. Many students with ASD find it difficult to learn in a traditional classroom setting. There are sensory distractions including lights, sounds, and smells that can be overwhelming, as well as challenging interpersonal interactions. Students with ASD may benefit from additional learning resources beyond what are required by their accommodations or offered to neurotypical students. These include individualized tutoring, online videos, or specific time set aside to go over class material with the instructor or a TA without the challenges found in the classroom. Have a list of resources ready to offer to students so they know their options. In my experience, individualized tutoring is particularly helpful. If your department can provide funding for tutoring, even better.

For Colleague and Student Interactions:

  • Invite dialogue. When a person discloses their ASD status, it is an act of trust. Tell the person disclosing that you appreciate their openess, and that you look forward to supporting them. To signal your commitment, I recommend asking two questions. First, ask what they would like you to know about how ASD affects them. Second, ask if there is anything you can do to support them in the specific environment you share, whether it is a classroom or office. These questions allow the person disclosing to give information at their own pace, and let them know that you genuinely want to be a source of support and engagement. A person may offer to put you in touch with a medical provider such as a counselor or an advocate at the university’s disability services office; take them up on the offer and have a brief conversation about how you can best support this specific student or colleague.
  • Set clear guidelines, boundaries, and expectations. Many people with ASD thrive with structure. You can support people with ASD by clearly communicating the rules, boundaries, and expectations of a relationship. Detailed written documents with concrete instructions are helpful; consider including checklists, detailed timelines, or prioritized lists for assignments. Avoid vague language, and remember that people with ASD are likely to take your words literally. Changing a syllabus throughout the semester is likely to distress a person with ASD; likewise changing a meeting or office hours at the last minute can pose a difficulty. Unexpected changes can be stressful for anyone, but are particularly challenging for individuals with ASD. When change is unavoidable, be sure to inform the person as soon as possible and give them time and space to process the change.
  • Understand that ASD symptoms vary across people and time. It is often said in the autism community that when you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. ASD can present itself in diverse ways depending on the person; that is why it is important to ask how you can best support an individual with ASD. Moreover, an individual’s ASD-related symptoms can shift over time, sometimes rapidly, when faced with sensory overload.

Ultimately, these are just suggestions for how to support students and colleagues with ASD. However, this is part of a larger conversation on mental health in academia; another useful reference is Amanda Murdie’s piece on depression.