Asperger Syndrome/High Functioning Autism - what is it?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a term that is used to describe a series of pervasive developmental, neurological disorders including Autism, Asperger Syndrome/High Functioning Autism (HFA), Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).
Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by impairments in reciprocal social interaction and communication.
In recent years UCC has seen a particular increase in students accessing higher education with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). AS/HFA is characterized by severe and sustained difficulty in social interaction, and the development of restricted, patterns of behaviour, interests and activities. These two features of the disorder will create a significant impairment in social skills, occupational performance and other areas of functioning.
Students with AS/HFA may have excellent vocabularies, however communication may still be stilted. Difficulties often lie in the semantics and pragmatics of speech. They do not understand the give and take of a conversation. Individuals with AS may dominate a conversation on an obscure topic that may be of little interest to the other person. Their style of speech can be described as pedantic or very formal in its style. There is also evidence to suggest that co-morbidity with Dyspraxia and Specific Learning Difficulties such as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and ADD is common. Co-morbidity with anxiety and depression among adolescents with Asperger Syndrome is increasing also. Many individuals with AS often have difficulties with sensory processing and regulation of affect and arousal.
Challenges for students with AS include forming and maintaining functional work and personal relationships, demonstrating age and interpersonally appropriate behaviours with members of the opposite sex, and developing meaningful personal understanding of AS.
There are many characteristics of AS that can be considered as personal strengths and can enable individuals to achieve high levels of competency and mastery in their areas of study, interest and employment.
160 students or 2% of the student population registered with disabilities in Higher Education in Ireland have Asperger Syndrome/High Functioning Autism (AHEAD, 2011).
Signs and Symptoms
- Often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli or irrelevant thoughts i.e. not being able to concentrate during lecture or study periods.
- Often starts a project or task without reading or listening to the directions properly. This may lead to incomplete work, or work that does not fully take account of all of the instructions.
- Often has problems doing things in proper order or sequence. This may manifest as problems with goal setting which can impact on study and assignment submission.
- Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks which can lead to procrastination ad difficulty managing deadlines.
- Often has difficulty organising activities or tasks.
People with an Asperger Syndrome/High Functioning Autism can on occassion:
- Be vulnerable - will do what people ask due to difficulty imagining the consequences.
- Require closure.
- Have poor understanding of cause and effect.
- Have different sensitivity to the five senses e.g. hyper-sensitive to particular sounds, so much that it causes physical pain.
- Become over-stimulated by too much input from verbal and nonverbal information leading to confusion.
Multiple factors can affect the student's occupational performance with ADHD including:
- Problems in aspects of executive functioning for example decision making.
- Difficulties in focusing, sustaining and shifting attention from task to task.
- Self-regulation and monitoring including modulation of emotions.
- The student may be demanding of tutor’s time or individual attention.
Supports available through DSS
- When the student registers with the Disability Support Service they receive a detailed needs assessment report
- It is a collaborative document between the disability advisor and the student, parts of which are circulated to their department.
- This report details the supports that the student needs at higher level
- The Disability Support Service will also put in place, exam accommodations, assistive technology, and should the student require, act as an advocate on their behalf.
- The Disability Support Service collaborates with Outreach Workers in the Cork Autism Association to develop personal and social integration interventions to help the student with AS/HFA make a successful transition to higher education and onwards to employment.
Please refer to the section relating to Inclusive Teaching and Assessment. It is important to note that each person with ASD is different and that specific accommodations may have to be put in place for some individuals.
- Provide clear and unambiguous instructions - Students with AS/HFA find it difficult to decode implied meaning in language. It is therefore recommended that simple and clear language free from metaphors be used. It may be necessary to give both written and verbal instruction for some students.
- Provide lecture notes in advance - Students with ASD may have difficulty with fine motor movement and thus note taking can be difficult. Provision of lecture notes in advance eliminates this problem and allows the student to pay better attention in the lecture.
- Written timeline of events and assignments throughout the term- Students with AS/HFA may have trouble managing their time as the concept of time can be quite abstract for them to grasp. Thus a written timeline of events and assignments would help to reinforce when things are due.
- Lectures and exam venues - Because many of the students on the autism spectrum have difficulties with distractibility a reasonable accommodation would be to maintain a low distraction environment in teaching and testing environments.
- For meetings, choose a quiet venue, avoid having to reschedule and minimise distractions.
- Students may find abstract language and metaphors impossible or difficult to understand. Try to use literal language whenever possible and be explicit about precisely what you mean.
- When giving instructions do not assume that the student has understood. Patient questioning and listening, a willingness to rephrase questions and added explanations may be necessary.
- Written information is especially helpful for people with AS, many of whom have visual learning styles.
- Be careful about making jokes – students with AS are often unable to interpret what is a joke.
- Some students may find it difficult to work in a group. If it is possible and appropriate, consider alternative ways of completing group assignments.
Recommendations for Examination Accommodations
- Separate examination room to avoid distraction.
- Extra time – 10 minutes per hour.
- Use of a computer.