Guide to Academic Success for Students on the Spectrum
Children with autism often have trouble communicating and expressing themselves. They may display repetitive behaviors, limited obsessive interests, and other problems. If they aren’t properly diagnosed, they may be dismissed or punished simply for how their minds are structured.
Early intervention makes a big difference for children with autism. Treatment like applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy can help them develop necessary skills that set them up for academic success.
Teachers, parents, guardians, school administrators, and professors all play a key role in helping students with autism to succeed. More schools, from kindergarten to university, are offering support for students on the autism spectrum, but specialized therapy is also recommended.
Understanding Young Autistic Students, From Kindergarten to High School
Autism is a developmental disorder that can impact behavior, communication, and learning. This condition can be reliably diagnosed in children as young as 2 years old. Changes in a toddler’s processing, socializing, and other functions begin to differ from the development of neurotypical babies.
However, many people do not receive diagnoses of autism until they are adolescents or adults. This means that they can experience struggles at school without getting the help they need.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) completed a comprehensive report on the mental health of children, ages 3 to 17, in the United States, after gathering data from 2005 to 2011. The study found that millions of children in the U.S. have autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, and several other conditions. Having a developmental disorder like autism increases the risk of developing depression and anxiety, as a child struggles to fit in with their peers, learn in school, and get the support and care they need.
The Mental Health Surveillance Among Children survey found that 1.1 percent of children from 3 to 17 years old had been diagnosed with autism. The condition was most commonly reported in children 6 to 11 years old.
For grade-school students who have autism, three areas are impacted the most.
1. Mental well-being: Children who have autism struggle with mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, four to six times more than neurotypical students. These co-occurring mental health concerns are either internalized or externalized problems.
Internalized mental struggles may display as:
- Complaints about body pain.
- Upset stomach, digestive problems, or issues around food.
- Other physical health issues.
- Sadness and irritability.
- Fearfulness of specific things (phobias) or people (social anxiety).
Externalized mental struggles appear as negative behaviors like:
- Verbal outbursts and lashing out.
- Physical outbursts, including kicking or hitting.
- Aggression toward others.
- Refusing to complete tasks.
2. Social life: A psychological study published in 2010 reported that children at all grade levels, from elementary to high school, did not reciprocate friendships with children who had autism spectrum disorder as much as they did with neurotypical children. The study reported that children with ASD were not more likely to be rejected by their neurotypical peers, but they had fewer reciprocal friendships.
They were more often on the periphery of social groups in their classrooms, across all grades. The trend was most pronounced in the upper elementary school grades.
This issue may not be immediately apparent to teachers or school administrators because 48.1 percent of children with autism are involved in social networks. This involvement is usually superficial, however.
3. Academics, learning, and studying: Studies of students with autism show that, without the right support, they often experience poor learning outcomes. Changes to the environment that support these students can greatly improve social, learning, independent living, and employment outcomes.
While most research into students’ success has focused on positive behaviors, better emotional stability, and an improved social life, some studies have focused on academic outcomes for autistic students.
One meta-survey examined data from 19 studies with just over 65 participants total. Students’ ages ranged from 5 to 16 years old, with many studies focusing on older elementary school students, around 10 years old. The studies included students with measurably lower IQs as well as those with above-average IQs, along with a range of verbal abilities.
The meta-survey found that, in general, structure and routine around the learning process helped students with autism perform better. The survey was also clear that the range of skills and needs among all students with autism was broad, so there could be no single recommended track for improving academic outcomes.
Instead, working with specialists like ABA therapists could help school administrators and teachers come up with study plans and institutional supports for individual students with autism. There was no one-size-fits-all approach.
Providing In-School Support for Autistic Students
Teachers can work with students with autism to help them get more involved in social relationships with their peers. One way to do this is to support students who have particular skills and interests that line up with sports, clubs, or other popular activities that other students are involved in.
With academics, it’s helpful to create a clear plan for each assignment and learning goal. Explaining lessons in simple language, so each step is clear, is also beneficial.
Many autistic students learn at levels that are expected for their IQs, or they improve academically more than expected. Finding ways to support this success in the classroom can also improve behaviors that might otherwise be disruptive to learning for the autistic student or for their peers. Screening for learning difficulties on a regular basis — through a school counselor, an ABA therapist, or the child’s pediatrician — can help to identify issues and get appropriate support to overcome them.
Here are some recommendations for helping students who have autism to find academic and social success:
- Use concrete language and visuals. Combining clear explanations with visual aids helps students who have autism understand the link between the example and metaphorical or abstract language that might be used in textbooks or by their peers. Students with autism often find exposition frustrating or abstract symbolism confusing. As a result, they may have a hard time understanding how to complete some types of assignments. Breaking these things down into clear examples, using concise language, can help.
- Give limited choices. Students with autism often feel overwhelmed by too many choices or by choices that may not have a clear correct solution. Choices with nuance or subjective value can feel unwinnable. This is true of academic assignments, and it is true of personal situations like socializing with peers. For example, instead of asking the student what they want for lunch, offer them two options, such as a choice between a sandwich or a slice of pizza.
- Offer gentle feedback or criticism. The pitch and tone of your voice can have a strong impact on someone with autism. When offering critiques of school assignments or encouragement around socializing, use a soothing and gentle tone of voice. Heightened volume, excitement, or concern can cover what you are actually saying and cause the student to react poorly.
- Solve sensory issues. Many people with autism have trouble with sensory overload, from the soft hum of a lightbulb to the noise of classmates playing. Identifying these sensory issues and addressing them as helpfully and positively as possible can improve behavioral issues and academic success.
Creating a supportive, positive learning environment helps autistic students to learn and grown. Working outside of a regular educational environment will also help the student to develop important skills.
An ABA therapy program can help children with autism learn to manage their reactions, improve their language abilities, and enhance motor skills. ABA therapists and technicians can also advise schools, teachers, administrators, and parents on how to support the child, so they can learn and socialize in the most encouraging environment possible.
College Students With Autism
More colleges, universities, and trade schools are offering resources through their health or academic success offices to support incoming students with autism, who often have a range of social, structural, and sensory needs.
All students may struggle to adjust to the college environment, which has a new daily routine and requires more independence. Students with autism can have particular difficulty creating their own daily routine, adjusting to new environments, and engaging in new ways of socializing with their peers.
Often, college students with autism report higher rates of anxiety and depression, with loneliness being one of the key indicators. Many autistic students drop out of college before completing their degrees, even when they display high levels of academic achievement.
A survey found that three-quarters of the autistic students who participated had a lifetime history of suicidal behaviors, indicating that the group was especially sensitive to co-occurring mental health issues prior to entering college. With these heightened risks in mind, it’s important for colleges to include support structures for students who have autism, so they can effectively navigate this new educational and social environment.
When a department or office provides resources specifically for students with autism, this offers students a supportive environment where they can go for assistance without feeling self-conscious. Some students may feel pressured to inform peers, roommates, and professors that they have autism, but many students prefer not to disclose this information, especially to strangers. This environment offers a safe space where autistic students can get assistance that is appropriate for them.
These offices can also offer support to professors and administrators who want to further support students who have autism. As staff members are better able to understand autism and its range of presentations, they can better assist their students.
There are many ways that students with autism can be better supported in a college environment. Instructors can:
- Provide movement breaks during class.
- Reduce distractions in the room, especially during tests like midterms and finals.
- Provide extended time to complete certain exams.
- Use clear language if a student inadvertently monopolizes time, attention, or space, especially during class.
- Enforce class rules without being afraid of offending the student.
- List course requirements in writing with clear deadlines and instructions.
- Provide advanced, written notice of changes to the coursework schedule.
- Review what is said in plain language if idioms or sarcasm is used during a class.
If an autistic student appears emotionally overreactive to a situation or change in the classroom, instructors can provide them with a clear directive, like sitting quietly in the hallway for five minutes. This can defuse the situation and help the student process what has happened.
Setting Autistic Students Up for Career Success
Most research on autism has focused on younger children, including how to support students as they enter kindergarten and elementary schools. Creating infrastructure to support young children as they grow means that they are more likely to become happy, stable individuals once they graduate high school and college.
While this early intervention is very important, many people do not receive diagnoses of autism until they are teenagers or even adults. Those who receive later diagnoses need a strong support network so they can build certain life skills they may be lacking. Many of these skills are necessary to effectively find a job and interview well.
High schools and colleges may offer resources to help students with autism prepare for the job-seeking process. Instructors and counselors may:
- Review appropriate attire for school, work, and daily activities.
- Teach skills for the interview process. This is particularly important as interviewing may feel intimidating or socially overwhelming to people with autism.
- Work with the individual student on their specific needs to understand the job-seeking process. The autism spectrum means needs vary widely, so an individualized approach is essential.
- Help the student learn to advocate for certain job accommodations that are necessary.
Resources for Educators & Parents
Students with autism benefit when their teachers, school administrators, and families understand how their minds work and what they need to feel secure in educational and social situations.
These resources can be helpful for those working with autistic students:
- Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS): Part of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), this government program offers resources to parents and educators on a range of special needs, including autism.
- National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC): This program offers help to teachers and parents to support children, including those with autism.
- Digital Resources for Students with Autism: As more classes integrate digital technology in a variety of ways, teachers need resources to support students with autism and other special needs. This list can help.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2018). National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH).
- Key Findings: Children’s Mental Health Report. (March 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Addressing Mental Health Needs in Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Toolkit for Educators. Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
- Social Involvement of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders in Elementary School Classrooms. (November 2010). Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines.
- How Well Are Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder Doing Academically in School? An Overview of the Literature. (2016). Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice.
- Longitudinal Follow-Up of Academic Achievement in Children With Autism from Ages 2 to 18. (September 2017). Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines.
- Techniques for Teaching Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Saint Joseph’s University.
- Brief Report: Self-Reported Academic, Social, and Mental Health Experiences in Post-Secondary Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. (March 2018). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
- Students on the Autism Spectrum. Swarthmore.
- Job Seeking With Autism Spectrum Disorder Ready to Take the Next Steps. Arizona State University.