Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder that covers a broad array of symptoms. Individuals with high-functioning Autism (previously known as Asperger's Syndrome) often have unusually strong, narrow interests and average-to-superior intellectual functioning. Few students with ASD will self-identify. Of those who do, not all will require formal classroom accommodations. Individuals with ASD are most comfortable with predictable routines. Conversely, they may be quite disturbed by changes in familiar and expected routines, whether inside or outside the classroom. Students with ASD may exhibit deficits in language and communication, social interactions, and/or behaviour. Common characteristics of individuals with ASD are:


  • Interrupts the speaker; attempts to monopolize conversation
  • Discusses tangential information in answering questions
  • Engages in self-stimulating behaviour (e.g., rocking, tapping, or playing with “stress toys")
  • Poor self-care (e.g., diet, sleep habits, appearance, or hygiene)
Rigid fixation on certain concepts, objects, patterns, or actions (e.g., music, art, math, or science)
  • Reacts to sensory assaults; unable to filter out offensive lights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touch
  • May be argumentative


  • Very literal—doesn't understand metaphors, idioms, or hyperbole
  • Doesn't understand jokes, nuance, or subtleties of language
  • Uses odd phrases
  • Doesn't understand gestures, facial expressions, or voice tones/inflection
  • Difficulty modulating own voice (often loud)
  • Difficulty understanding instructions (but may appear to understand)
  • Talks at length about what s/he knows, usually facts

Social interaction:

  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Seems distant or detached
  • Finds it difficult to make friends, prefers to spend time alone
  • Difficulty initiating, maintaining, and ending a conversation
  • Doesn't understand social norms, mores, cues, or concept of personal space
  • Doesn't understand other people's emotions
  • Difficulty managing own emotions

Associated features/comorbidity:

  • Motor clumsiness, fine-motor impairment, difficulty with writing (dysgraphia)
  • Difficulty with visual processing, dyslexia
  • Deficits in organizing and planning (“meta-cognitive" deficits)
  • Depression
  • Attention-Deficit Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

When in distress, a student with ASD may miss classes or assignments, and might not discuss the matter with educators. The student may also appear agitated or anxious, become argumentative, or exhibit angry outbursts. Some students may appear more dishevelled and engage in self-soothing behaviours, such as rocking on their feet or foot-tapping.

You can support students with ASD by providing advance notice when changes are anticipated.

Students with ASD are subject to the same rules as anyone else. If inappropriate behaviour occurs, address it in private. Describe the behaviour and desired change as well as logical consequences if it continues. Students with ASD often don't realize when they are being disruptive. Ask the student how s/he would prefer you to address behavioural issues in a group setting. For example, establish a cue to indicate when the student is monopolizing group time. Your campus counselling service, health, or disability services offices can be useful resources for further information.

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