Monday, February 28, 2011

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome in the Basic Communication Course

Barbara G. Tucker
Associate Professor, Communication
Dalton State College

Abstract

The growing awareness of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and the improved early intervention strategies for those affected by the disorders mean that the college instructor is more likely to deal with neurodiverse students in the classroom. Neurodiverse students face particular challenges in the college classroom, especially one where the focus is oral communication skills. The college instructor should understand the disorders and how effective teaching and learning strategies can be used. The writer interviewed six male college students, three with autism and three with Asperger’s, to ascertain what would help them learn.

Introduction

Any college instructor knows that sometimes students will reveal information that is, to say the least, unplanned. This type of incident happened to me in Spring 2010, but it has had fortuitous results. In a lecture on audience perceptions of public messages, I mentioned, somewhat off-topic, that I had recently learned that persons who have autism actually perceive stimuli more intensely than other folks do, so that their behavior is a way of tuning out the stimuli. (The source of this information was, among others, an interview of Temple Grandin by Terri Gross on National Public Radio.) One male student in the class raised his hand and spoke immediately, “I know that’s true, because I have autism.” Not ready for this news, and having been trained to be leery of too much self-disclosure, especially in regard to disabilities, I was still fascinated. “Do you have Asperger’s Syndrome?” I asked. “Yes,” he affirmed, and another student’s reaction indicated that he was also affected in this way.

At first, I was surprised by this student’s admission because nothing in his behavior to that point would have led me to think he had an Autism Spectrum Disorder. My own brother, who is now 44, has autism (very low-functioning) and lives in a group home for adults with disabilities, so I was raised with a certain set of expectations about persons with this diagnosis. However, as I began my research on the struggles and needs of college students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome (also sometimes referred to as Asperger’s Disorder), I realized that the student’s behavior, especially in terms of communication, clearly validated his diagnosis. For example, Asperger’s Syndrome is often referred to as involving a “triad of impairment”—nonverbal communication, verbal communication, and an intense, consuming area of interest.

The student, whom I will call Cameron (not his name) always had the same facial expression. He smiled constantly, and since smiling is more acceptable than scowling or staring, he fit in. He also tended to stand by while others talked, entering in but not really sensitive to the play of his classmates’ words, and he didn’t seem to realize when a conversation was over. In fact, sensitivity to others and nonverbal communication was visibly lacking when we did a group critique of introductions to persuasive speeches. Unfortunately, he was assigned to critique the shyest student in the class, and in classic pedantic, “little professor” mode that those with Asperger’s are known for, especially as children, he told the other student exactly what was wrong with his introduction in a direct, condescending way no other college student would talk to a peer. Additionally, when Cameron spoke, he started and stopped on time—without introduction and conclusion. At the time I attributed it to nerves or lack of knowledge, although he claimed to have done a lot of public speaking in high school and Boy Scouts. Now I realize it was part of the diagnosis. Finally, in terms of the last area of the triad, Cameron loved to talk about guns. He told me at length one day about how he had a carry permit. He gave two speeches about guns, one a tribute about the inventor of the Browning pistol and a persuasive speech on why students should be allowed to have guns on campus.

Working with Cameron was a learning experience for me and an impetus for the research within this paper. I wanted to know the following: How do these college students learn? How do they learn differently from other college students? What struggles would be particular for them in a basic communication or public speaking class? How can an instructor facilitate their learning? However, I quickly realized that just reading about Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s was only a start. To answer my questions and provide answers for other instructors, I would need to speak to students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s myself, collaborate with our college’s Coordinator of Disability Support Services, and survey my faculty colleagues about their knowledge and concerns about this topic. The rest of this paper will address the literature I reviewed, the methods I used, the findings, and suggestions for college instructors who will be teaching these students now or in the future.

What We Know—Or Think We Know—About Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism has recently received much press because of high-profile persons who have children dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorders. One of the most contentious discussions has been over whether vaccines, which allegedly contain mercury, cause autism. With increased public awareness of autism have also come increased public misconceptions about autism. Hollywood films such as Rain Man and The Temple Grandin Story influence many to believe autism is a monolithic mental “disease” that causes those afflicted with it to be able to memorize the phone book and do other superhuman feats while failing to have a coherent conversation. The addition of Asperger’s Syndrome into the mix has further complicated matters. A recent review of The Social Network by a well known film critic (who should have known better) began with the speculation that Mark Zuckerberg must have Asperger’s Syndrome. Why? Because he acts like a jerk; therefore, the myth that Asperger’s is just a personality quirk, and a particularly unpleasant one, is perpetuated.

Since there is no lack of books on the subject of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s, it is not the intention of this paper to elucidate all of the research, only to correct some common misconceptions and direct the reader to other sources. Primarily, we will look at information that will help the college instructor. First, both conditions are referred to by the DSM-IV (1994 and 2003 edition, the DSM-IV-TR) as pervasive developmental disorders. The diagnosed person will not outgrow the disorders, cannot be medicated out of them, and will not be counseled out of them. However, many people with Asperger’s or autism have high IQs and are capable of advancing far beyond what was expected thirty or forty years ago when the term autism was coming into the forefront.

Several questions face us. First, is Asperger’s simply a light, less severe version of autism? This question is one over which volumes have been written. When the Austrian-American psychiatrist Leo Kanner first recognized and named autism in 1940, he was unaware of the work of Austrian physician Hans Asperger’s concurrent work with children who exhibited social, verbal, and behavioral impairments. However, there were some distinct differences between the children with whom Asperger was working. It was not until 1981 that British psychiatrist Lorna Wing popularized Asperger’s work and made the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” a category distinct from autism. At about the same time, the term “high-functioning autism” began to be used to describe those who displayed typical signs of autism as very young children but later developed greater cognitive, social, and behavioral skills than others diagnosed with autism (Atwood, 2007).

The DSM-IV lays the foundation for both disorders. As for autism, it states that the criteria for diagnosis are:
• Qualitative impairment in social interaction (marked)
• Qualitative impairments in communication (marked or total)
• Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities
• Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years:
(1) social interaction,
(2) language as used in social communication, or
(3) symbolic or imaginative play (2003, p. 75).

In laying out the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome, the DSM-IV duplicates the criteria, but uses language that seems less severe. It also notes that one of the distinguishing features is that adaptive behavior and verbal development are normal in early childhood.
• Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:
• Marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors, such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
• Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
• A lack of spontaneous seeing to share enjoyment, interests, or achievement with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
• Lack of social and emotional reciprocity
• Restrictive repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:
• Encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped or restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
• Apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
• Stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)
• Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
• The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning
• There is no clinically significant general delay in language (e.g., single words used by age 2 years, communicative phrases used by age 3 years)
• There is NO clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood.
• Criteria are not met for another specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Schizophrenia (2003, p. 84)

The International Classification of Disease of the World Health Organization follows the DSM-IV-TR. However, there are currently more than 13 scales or assessment tools for diagnosing Asperger’s. One is Gillberg’s, which lists the following as diagnostic criteria:
• Social impairment (extreme egocentricity)
• Narrow interest (possibly more rote than understanding)
• Compulsive need for introducing routines and interests
• Speech and language peculiarities (superficially expressive but impairment with implied or ironic meanings; odd prosody
• Nonverbal communication problems – limited use of gestures; clumsy body language; limited, stiff, or inappropriate facial expression and/or gaze
• Motor clumsiness (Atwood, 2007, p. 37)

Other criteria used in diagnosing Asperger’s Syndrome are a pedantic, overly-detailed, and self-based style of speaking, a lack of theory of mind, and a lack of executive function. “Theory of mind” is a term coined by Simon Baron-Cohen which denotes an inability to see or imagine that another person thinks differently from one’s self and is also related to problems with ambiguity and imaginative language and play. However, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders suffer from a lack of “theory of mind” to a greater extent; perhaps the better linguistic skills of those with Asperger’s explains the difference (Bartlett, Armstrong, and Roberts, 2005). Executive functioning refers to being able to plan for future events and manage time. Finally, the issue of extreme sensitivity to auditory and visual stimuli is debated; some researchers posit that faulty memories and language impairments in describing the experiences may be unduly influencing the literature (O’Neill & Jones, 1997).
Asperger’s scholars at Yale University, Klim and Volkmar (2000), state “the validity of Asperger’s Syndrome as a distinctive diagnostic concept remains to be adequately addressed.” It is then the position of this paper that the disorders overlap in many of their traits but that Asperger’s is not just a variation of Autism Spectrum Disorders. The college instructor, especially in a communication skills class, will face similar challenges but should not conflate the two diagnoses; instead, he or she should be knowledgeable about both. Therefore, in order to avoid confusion, in this context I will speak of these as separate diagnoses.

A second major question is, “How many persons are affected by autism and Asperger’s?” That question has been answered more fully as years have passed. According to a CDC report (2009), "For the 2006 surveillance year, 2,757 (0.9%) of 308,038 children aged 8 years residing in the 11 ADDM sites were identified as having an ASD, indicating an overall average prevalence of 9.0 per 1,000 population.” This is an increase from .66% in a 2002 CDC study. Interestingly, the 2006 report states, "Before the 1980s, the term ‘autism’ was used primarily to refer to autistic disorder and was thought to be rare, affecting approximately one in every 2,000 (0.05%) children.” Much ink has been used to discuss whether this higher percentage is due to a medical cause or just better, more thorough diagnosis.

However, the follow-up question would be, “How many college students in 2011 have an Autism Spectrum Disorder?” In a sense, there is no way of knowing exactly. One source of statistical information would be how many students ask for accommodations from disability services, but it is my experience that students don’t always ask for accommodations, for whatever reason. Cameron, mentioned earlier in this essay, did not have them. After my mentioning in class that I was researching this subject, a student approached me and told me he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s; he did not have accommodations either. On the other hand, a female student informed me she had Asperger’s, but the Coordinator of Disability Support Services told me that was not true. Interestingly, in doing my research at Dalton State College, I have come in contact with eight male students with a diagnosis, and only one female, which matches the numbers in the general population. My experience was corroborated by our Coordinator of Disability Support Services.

The third major question about Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome is “What do we know about their etiology?” In this era of “live action” MRIs and increasing knowledge of brain anatomy and physiology, Autism Spectrum Disorders have come to be called neuropsychological disorders. Some Asperger’s and autism activists call themselves “neurodiverse” in contrast to the “neurotypical.” (Some with Asperger’s also call themselves “aspies.”) Brain scans show that the connective tissue between the two hemispheres of the brains of those with ASD is thinner, and that the brains are larger. This condition has led to speculation that the communication between the two hemispheres is impaired. Also, other studies have found that differences in the amygdala that “may represent a curtailment of neurodevelopment and a state of relative functional immaturity” (Schultz, Romanski, & Tsatsanis, 2000, p. 190). The abnormality in the amygdala may lead to an inability to read the relevance of nonverbal signals and the importance of emotional input.

There also seems to be a strong genetic component. Folstein and Santangelo (2000) report that there is a higher incidence of Asperger’s, ASD, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the parents and siblings of those diagnosed with Asperger’s and ASD than in the general population. Of course, this research is somewhat hampered by the fact that many people who should have been diagnosed with Asperger’s prior to the 1980s simply were not. They grew up, managed to cope, found employment (often in the computer professions), and even married and had children, but were always considered odd or socially impaired. Much of the research depends on family members remembering certain behaviors of other family members long after the fact; even some of the research on the verbal development and auditory/visual sensitivity of children is dependent on memories from several years past. The genetic component is still being explored.

This has been a brief summary of more recent research on the diagnoses, prevalence, and causes of ASD and Asperger’s. We will now move on to the research I conducted at my institution.

Getting to Know You

With the help of our Coordinator of Disability Support Services, I convened two focus groups of students with ASD and Asperger’s. These groups met on February 15 and 16, 2011. I generated a series of questions for the students, based on the literature I had read and on other questions I had about their experience as students. The Coordinator approved these questions, as did the Human Subjects Institutional Review Board. The questions are available in the appendix. The questions centered around three major areas: What were their lives as students at our institution like? What challenges did they face as learners? And what could instructors do to help them learn?

A total of six students, all male, all traditional-age college students, participated in the focus group. They received lunch for their time. They were filmed and signed consent forms. The Coordinator joined us for the second group. Three of the students have a diagnosis of Asperger’s; three have a diagnosis of autism. All are students in good standing at our institution. In the following discussion, I will refer to the students as A, B, and C (those with a diagnosis of ASD), and D, E, and F (those with a diagnosis of Asperger’s). All the students live with family in the community, which is not unusual since our college population is 95% commuter. Also, all of them had attended the local public schools.

Subject A and B were highly verbal and eager to talk. Subject A manifested the common trait of a strong, intense preoccupation with a certain area, in this case, trains, both model and real. He reverted to the topic of trains several times, and even said that was what he really wanted to talk about, in the focus group and in class. He tried to divert the topic of the focus group to trains as well. He also had been involved in a local “Extreme Home Makeover” that was going on in our area that week, so he wanted us to see his pictures on his computer. He was the most talkative and outgoing of the two groups, often interrupting and dominating the conversation; he was also the most conscious of his own condition and willing to talk about his own needs as a learner. He could almost be called an “activist;” he mentioned that his mother was a special education teacher in the local public schools, and when I asked, “Who helps you with your advising and scheduling,” he said, “My mother.” Interestingly, only one of the six males mentioned a father during the discussions.

Since he was so willing to talk, Subject A gave me the most insights into his learning. He really was unhappy with a required class such as Music Appreciation, since he is a visual, not auditory, learner. He believed “no one listens to classical music today anyway.” He also complained about history, although this was not true of the other students with whom I spoke; however, math, particularly algebra, was a problem for the students. They all mentioned struggles with developmental and college algebra. At times with Subject A I wondered if he was engaging in certain behaviors because he knew it was expected of him. He had a sense of humor about himself and his desire to talk about trains, for example, indicating that he was trying to turn the topic to his interest. He spoke readily, even when I was trying to get more responses from the three other participants.

Subject B, with whom I met on the first day, was also highly verbal but not as “activist” about his needs as a neurodiverse learner. He was very polite in his nonverbal behavior and his speech, always calling me “ma’am.” He did not interrupt and had a more rapid-fire, sometimes stammering form of speech, but not to the point that he was hard to understand. His vocabulary was the most advanced of all the students with whom I talked. He was the only one who mentioned having worked for pay at any time, and also the only one who mentioned his father, who lives in a distant state. He stated that he had worked with his father and brother the previous summer doing stock work at a large grocery store chain. He is a history major. He also has the highest GPA, at 3.09. My impression of Subject B was that he was trying very hard to fit in and was reluctant to admit to difference. He said that he drove to school on his moped. He did not yet have a driver’s license, but expected to get one soon. He had some trouble with maintaining eye contact and exhibited some repetitive motions.

Subject C, on the other hand, exhibited very shy behavior. He did not contribute much to the conversation, except when questions were directed at him, at which time he took some time to answer them. He spoke in a quiet voice, but politely. His major is graphic design, which fits with the visual learning style and strengths of those with ASD.

As for the three students who had diagnoses of Asperger’s, they too represented a variety of points on the spectrum. The students with Asperger’s were quieter and answered my questions politely but without any elaboration unless I pursued it. Subject D is a current student of mine, the one who approached me after class. He said his major is general studies and that he wanted to change it but was unsure as to what. He did not indicate that any one class was difficult for him. Subject D’s facial expression is constant, somewhat blank. He will smile, but rarely. His prosody, a word for emphasis, inflection, and vocal variety, is fairly constant as well. Significantly, Subject D was responsible for consuming a whole large pizza. One of the traits of Asperger’s is not understanding social conventions or thinking about how others may be impacted by behavior. After eating three pieces in the session, he piled five more pieces on his plate before he left.

Subject E is a tall, very thin, young man. He smiled throughout our interview but avoided eye contact. He spoke quietly and exhibited some repetitive hand motions. In his case, as in the others, I had to approach him in the hallway outside our meeting place; they did not recognize me as a professor until I initiated contact. Subject E just recently earned his driver’s license. He said he had been a communication major (A.A.) at one time, but he didn’t do well in a communication course that required analysis of a movie, so he changed his major. This information matches literature on the poor ability of those with Asperger’s to deal with fiction and imaginary scenarios.

Subject F, as it turns out, (I did not know it at the time) is the nephew of our Coordinator of Disability Support Services. I learned this because I questioned his being in the group afterward, since his behavior was distinct from the other participants. He wants to study art at a prestigious college in another city, and our college does not offer an art major. So he has a strong visual learning style. He was clear in his answers but not longwinded. He did not really exhibit any nonverbal behaviors in our session that would mark him as having Asperger’s to most observers, but his aunt assured me that “if you are around him very long, you will see it.”

It must be remembered that one trait of Asperger’s is a lack of “theory of mind.” The fact that the students did not offer me examples, elaboration, or context, without my prodding, fit into this facet of Asperger’s. Another trait is lack of executive functioning. I asked the subjects about planning and their assignments. They were slow to discuss this aspect and gave limited answers; however, Subject F uses a calendar.

When I asked if these students were involved in any clubs, they said no. As to hobbies, other than subject A’s love of trains, they didn’t express any strong preoccupations other than video games and surfing the Internet, which is a typical and safe answer. They may have felt uncomfortable discussing those areas, and I did not pursue them, since the focus of the research was their experience as learners. One of the characteristics of ASD and Asperger’s is intense preoccupations, but they were not forthcoming about those.

In reflecting on the focus groups with these students, I would like to have interviewed a female student. I know of one female student on our campus who has ASD and one who has Asperger’s, and I would like to interview them in the future. I also conducted an online survey of the faculty of our institution. The results are in the appendix. I was pleased to know that our faculty members were relatively knowledgeable about the traits of ASD and Asperger’s and that they wanted, for the most part, to learn more.

Findings

In this section I will summarize what I learned about these students and their diagnoses beyond what I have encountered in the literature. First, they were all excessively polite or tried to be. Perceptions of persons with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism as rude, mean-spirited, or violent, are unfortunate. Student A did show a tendency to interrupt, but not with inappropriate comments. The students admitted to struggling with math, specifically algebra, indicating that the idea that persons with ASD are math whizzes is often incorrect. They stated a strong preference for any class that used PowerPoint and included much visual work or teaching methods.

The students also mentioned, repeatedly, that instructors spoke too fast and they wished that all instructors would speak more slowly and clearly. They also expressed a general dislike for group projects and assignments. They are at a disadvantage in groups in two ways: in a group there is a multiplicity of communication channels; neurodiverse students do not always understand the banter and humor and slang of their peers (and are often socially awkward); and they do not always perceive the nonverbal signals of one person, much less several. However, many of us use groups extensively and do not want to exclude the neurodiverse student. Since many basic communication courses involve group discussions, the instructor may want to assign the neurodiverse student to a group with another student with whom he or she feels comfortable.

The students were asked if they preferred giving speeches to writing papers. They prefer to write papers, which should not be surprising. Although many of the assignments that these students will encounter in college will be difficult or seemingly inappropriate for them, they should not be sold short. A colleague of mine who teaches public speaking had three students with either Asperger’s or an ASD in his class last year. All three were successful in the class because he creates a supportive and accepting environment.

The six male students whom I interviewed also stressed that instructors should understand their conditions and that they learn differently. In fact, one said that teachers should understand that everybody learns differently and that some students in the class might not even be learning by the instructor’s methods. They mentioned that they would like to see concern from their instructors. Admittedly, these comments from the students are hard to digest; college is to a large extent a place where students are to be responsible for their own learning, and an instructor can be showing concern even though a student can miss it (and a neurodiverse student may be even more likely to mistake it). On a more practical note, they did suggest that longer lectures be broken up periodically with short periods of application, a technique also suggested by the leading scholars in college pedagogy (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

As a final note, the students in the focus group admitted to “bad handwriting.” This may be related to the motor clumsiness of Asperger’s and is also mentioned in the literature. They preferred not to handwrite assignments because it took them longer and because of the results. This stipulation may be of value to instructors who require essay tests or writing in class.

Suggestions for Instructors

We have already seen that not all students with Asperger’s or an ASD in the college environment ask for, believe they need, or know how to obtain the best learning environment for themselves. They may not have self-advocacy skills; on the other hand, some neurodiverse students have been taught to advocate for themselves and will be very open about their diagnoses. The college instructor needs to be empathetic, flexible, and knowledgeable—and realistic. While it is not our job to advocate for the neurodiverse student, or any student with a learning or physical disability, it is our responsibility to send them to the campus resources where they can obtain services to enhance their learning, especially if they self-identify but are not receiving accommodations. Until the paperwork is accomplished, it is unwise to provide any accommodations. Students will probably self-identify and come to you with expectations of help; at the same time, they will not seem to be self-conscious about their diagnosis.

The campus ADA Coordinator is not your adversary; he or she is your ally in teaching. However, he or she has limitations. If the student has the paperwork to prove the diagnosis, the Coordinator can guide the student to ask for a variety of accommodations such as note-taker, extended testing time, audio-recording of lectures, priority classroom seating, distraction-free testing environment (Bedrossian & Pennamon, 2007). Some of these may not be the most necessary. Since students with Asperger’s and ASDs are visual learners, a tape recording of the lecture may not fit their learning style as well as other accommodations.

The college instructor should start with good pedagogy: use all learning modalities; emphasize structure of lectures, providing previews and transitional statements; break longer assignments such as papers and projects down into steps. Since the visual modality is strongest for those with Asperger’s Syndrome and ASD, use PowerPoint to the extent that you can. It is often suggested that the students in these situations be afforded the PowerPoints prior to the actual class. Find or create visual representations of theoretical where possible. Since this can add to the instructor’s burden and does not place responsibility for learning on the student, perhaps an arrangement can be made by which the student finds visual representations of processes or theories on the Internet.

An instructor may find that he or she will need to spend some time in the office conferencing with the neurodiverse student. A revealing article by Ann Jurecic (2007) chronicles her multiple meetings with a neurodiverse student in her composition class. His lack of theory of mind led to frustrations on both sides; he worked very hard to revise papers to have a stronger sense of audience along the way she directed, but seemed unable to imagine an audience himself. When dealing with such a student in a one-on-one context, do not use sarcasm or irony, even for innocent reasons. The student probably will not understand it but may still feel hurt. While the instructor should be open to holding conferences with all students, the student should be encouraged to use all the campus resources and not become dependent on just one personality.
Frith and Happe (1999) have written on the self-consciousness of persons with autism. If Baron-Cohen is correct about the lack of “theory of mind” in persons with ASD, and therefore they are impaired in attributing thoughts, feelings, and motivations to others, then they are probably impaired in doing so for themselves, and they would see their belief as reality, not a belief. They could conflate it with fact or not see the difference between them. Therefore introspection may be severely impaired. Additionally, the literal-mindedness of persons with ASDs will make understanding literary techniques (symbolism, imagery, metaphor) very difficult. This might be an area where a student will need to spend some conference time with an instructor. Other researchers have found that persons with Autism and especially persons with Asperger’s can learn to be self-conscious and introspective, but must work hard at it. Consequently, assignments in which students must engage in introspection might present a close- to-insurmountable challenge. Some have suggested that these students should be allowed to do a more “literally minded” and factual type of research assignments in lieu of an exercise in introspection or self-analysis.
So far, we have focused on instructional strategies. However, some behaviors of students with ASDs may become problematic in the classroom. Graetz and Spampinato (2008)) mention the story of a student who often yelled at a professor during class when she became frustrated at her inability to keep up. These situations do happen, but are not typical. A student may interrupt in discussion, however. Furthermore, as with Cameron, a neurodiverse student may want to give all his speeches or write all the papers on the same subject. Perhaps a general rule prohibiting this practice in general could be written into the syllabus. I have know neurotypical students who wanted to give all their speeches on the same subject, and requiring a variety in subjects and picking topics based on audience and purpose makes sense.

Conclusion

You may never have a student with Asperger’s or an Autism Spectrum Disorder in your class. If you teach in a highly selective college with a primarily residential population, the odds are low. If you teach in a more open access environment or at a college with primarily commuter students, the odds are higher. Either way, all college teachers should remember that they are teaching students, not diagnoses. Just because a student doesn’t have the paperwork, that doesn’t mean that he/she is “neurotypical.” And remember, your student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder or Asperger’s may have the highest IQ in the class as well as many other hidden gifts.
References
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