Preparing to teach autistic college students in an unprecedented fall semester

Theresa McFalls is director of college support, and Mary Ann Newell and Allison Gatta are assistant directors of college support at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

By Theresa McFalls, Mary Ann Newell and Allison Gatta

As we approach an unprecedented fall semester on college campuses across the country due to the novel coronavirus, professors are actively planning for various learning modalities: in-person, virtual, outdoors, in configured classrooms, synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous (anytime) learning. These plans are taking shape against the backdrop of many unknowns about how students will respond to changing learning environments.   

Students on the autism spectrum face unique challenges in the traditional classroom setting and, with many course offerings transitioning to hybrid, hyflex, or fully online platforms, professors are eager to support students in new and varying ways. 

Five Ways to for Professors to Support Students with ASD Across Learning Modalities 

  1. Break up screen time. Students may experience attention differences during online instruction, particularly during a time when daily screen time for the average college student has risen due to limited in-person social events and increased virtual learning environments. Overstimulation, a reaction caused either by overexposure to a single stimulus or an overload of sensory-based information (visual, auditory, etc.), is common among persons with autism spectrum disorder and can be exacerbated by the increased exposure to computer screens required by entirely online courses. Overstimulation may present as students exhibiting rapid eye movements or looking off screen during video instruction or exams, even though they are actively engaged. Overstimulated students may need to leave a seated position or turn off video momentarily during class as to take a break. To support students experiencing these challenges, professors should be mindful to build in breaks and periodic learning checks during longer lectures. 

  2. Take advantage of interactive features. Alternatively, some students may experience an opposite reaction due to a lack of stimuli compared to a traditional live lecture. Without the social “rules” of classroom learning, students may find it easier to disengage from course material or become distracted by other things in their home environment. A good way to promote engagement and to provide clear guidelines around participation requirements is to incorporate engaging content and interactive features of online classrooms into each course. Small “breakout” rooms within a larger class group can allow instructors to monitor student participation and encourage interactive groups, which naturally require student engagement.  

  3. Build in different ways for students to engage with content. Additionally, students may feel uncomfortable participating via audio or video channels.  Consider alternative ways for students to engage such as chat and online polling features. While the traditional lecture modality allows for natural interaction between professor and students, those with preexisting difficulties reading social cues may struggle more in an environment where they have no ability to read others’ body language. Expectations around participation can be helpful, particularly if they incorporate a variety of options for engagement. Minimum requirements for class participation could be set, and can include commenting during class on lecture or reading material or posting on an online discussion thread. Similarly, overly participatory students may need clear limits on how many times they contribute to the discussion. Instructors can set a daily limit for individual students, and should make sure to mention that this limit incorporates all participation modalities with the exception of required polls or quizzes. 

  4. Assign partners for small group work. Students may struggle to connect with partners during a shared or group project. Consider assigning partners or groups as it may be more challenging for students to self-select partners online. Professors can offer standardized suggestions for group communication methods such as email, discussion board or group chat. These strategies will most likely benefit all students in the course, not just those on the spectrum! 

  5. Stay connected with regular updates. Due to the fluid nature of the pandemic response, institutions may need to alter or change schedules midway through a course. Without consistent face to face interaction with professors, students may struggle to “check in” with small questions they ordinarily would have been able to ask one-on-one after class. To ensure that the entire group is aware of changes, give the class regular verbal (when possible) and written updates regarding grades, upcoming assignment deadlines and syllabus change. Instructors should also consider that online students may be logging in from a different time zone. Try to be flexible for those who are participating outside of typically scheduled hours.  

Establishing structure and consistency is the simplest way to ensure that all students, regardless of diagnosis, feel supported and prepared to engage in a new, ever-changing virtual learning environment.  

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