Roxanna Dewey, Glendale Community College
Key Statement: As the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder rises, challenges for college students with ASDs may be mitigated through instructional strategies beyond accommodations.
Keywords: ASD, Community College, Composition Courses, Student Success
As a community college composition instructor, previous high school instructor, and parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I have personal and professional experience serving neurodivergent student populations. In some cases, accommodations were enough to support the needs of the student. In others, they simply did not suffice. For example, even with accommodations, a student might experience social and behavioral challenges with placement in a standard sized in-person composition class. Students with ASDs are in all of our first-year composition classes of varying modalities and sizes to include: in-person, hybrid, online, live online, and independent study. A standard sized class is capped at 18 where an independent study would have a student-teacher ratio of 1:1.
In situations with unsuccessful placement, students with ASDs may present as agitated and frustrated, indicating difficulty with self-regulation. Once self-regulation is compromised, expecting the student to successfully access the curriculum is an exercise in futility. To work toward a solution in supporting success for students with ASDs in the composition classroom, I have found utilizing a team approach works best. For example, an instructor might, ideally with the student’s permission and buy-in, contact faculty who previously worked with the student, various administrators like the Department Chair and the Dean of Student Affairs, and Disability Resources & Services (DRS). It is not common for parents to be contacted, but I have also found parents, with Family Education Rights and Privacy (FERPA) permission, to be valuable advocates. It is also beneficial for the syllabus, course expectations, and timeline to be shared with students prior to the start of the class. In one instance, I met with the student, the parent, the Dean of Student Affairs, counseling faculty, and DRS to discuss expectations and available support for the class. In this setting, the student, surrounded by those who have already established trust, also unexpectedly revealed struggles in another class due to lessons delivered out of order from the published organization of the textbook.
Image from Bianka Van Djik, Pixabay.
Prevalence and Presentation
ASD is considered a developmental disability and impacts individuals differently, including communication, social interaction, behavior, learning (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022), and executive functioning (e.g., organizing, planning, initiating tasks, and paying attention (Executive Functioning, 2023). Disorders considered a part of the umbrella of ASD according to the DSM-5 include: Asperger’s Disorder, Autistic Disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) (Hoffman, 2020). It is also common for ASD to exist as a comorbid diagnosis in combination with anxiety, depression, or ADHD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022).
The number of individuals diagnosed with an ASD in the United States continues to rise. Currently, 1 in 36 children in the United States is diagnosed (Autism Statistics and Facts, 2023). Though students with ASDs are entering college at higher rates, the completion rate is much lower than neurotypical peers (Sanford et al., 2011). Furthermore, these statistics do not account for students without an official diagnosis.
At the college level, due to FERPA, students must be their own advocate by self-identifying and initiating contact with DRS and instructors to begin the extensive process. Unfortunately, at the college level, the team approach is not as standard a practice as it is in the secondary years (e.g., via a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Plan) because IDEA no longer applies to students after high school (Rein, 2022).
Unlike in K-12 settings, students who self-identify are provided accommodations, rather than modifications, per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is designed to ensure “equal access” (Differences Between HS and College, 2022). A modification would be something like rewording reading passages in a simpler language or reducing the number of assignments, provided the accommodation does not alter what is being taught (e.g., allowing the student extended time on tests) (DO-IT, 2022).
When students with an ASD self-identify, register with DRS, and meet eligibility criteria, they are provided accommodations. According to Gelbar et al. (2015), some recommendations for accommodations include distraction-free testing, extended time for tests, use of a notetaker, and meeting with a DRS counselor. In a current research study, regarding preferred accommodations in composition classes, students preferred books on tape or other recording and extended time for assignments and tests (Dewey, 2023). Accommodations in composition classes are a start; nevertheless, they are simply not enough to holistically meet the needs of the student. For example, students with ASD also indicated feeling depressed and preferred spending time in quiet places on campus (Dewey, 2023). College students with ASDs who may struggle with social emotional, executive function, and study find it beneficial to be presented with more comprehensive support via semi-structured social opportunities; an inclusive and supportive campus from fellow students and faculty; emotional support; and helpful, accessible ancillary services (Gelbar et al., 2015).
Instructional Strategies to Support Success
To respond to challenges, in addition to a team approach and DRS accommodations for students with ASDs, the following instructional strategies may support student success in composition classes (see Table 1).
Table 1. Instructional Strategies to Support Success.
Copyright, Roxanna Dewey, 2023.
In conclusion, as the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders continues to rise, challenges for college students with ASDs in composition classes may be mitigated through instructional strategies which provide social emotional, executive function, and study skills in addition to any accommodations that might be requested. Additionally, a proactive team approach may be most beneficial prior to the start of the semester where expectations and strategies for the new semester’s classes are shared and discussed. Keep in mind that all students are different, and even though two students may have the same diagnosis, what may be a best practice for one student may not be a best practice for all students. The goal, stated in Harvey’s 2014 article (as cited in Clauson & McKnight, 2018), is to “identify the needs of students, provide them with direct support, and join them in their advocacy on campus.”
What are your perceptions, awareness, and understanding of ASD? How does that impact your successes and challenges with this neurodivergent student population?
How do you support neurodivergent students in your classes? Are accommodations enough?
What instructional practices or strategies have been most effective when working with a student with an ASD? Or, if you have not had a chance to work with this population yet, what strategy would you like to have in your toolbox?
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