Texas Tech University

Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum

Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research & College of Education 
Wesley H. Dotson, Ph.D., BCBA

What is autism?

According to the DSM-IV:

  • Impairment in social interaction
  • Impairments in communication
  • 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:
    • social interaction,
    • language as used in social communication, 
    • symbolic or imaginative play.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) display a wide variety of behaviors and each student is unique. The information presented here will be focused on higher-functioning students who are academically capable of success at the college level

Students with autism and college

A longitudinal study from Office of Special Education Programs (2005) explored post-secondary and social experiences. 

  • Less than 20% with ASD reported interacting with a friend once weekly.
  • 40% belonged to community or social group of some kind.
  • For most, over 75% of social interactions with family members and paid care givers.
  • Few students with autism (approximately 25%) attend any kind of post-secondary educational institution, but in most recent years this is closer to 40%.
  • Less than 25% of those who attend earn a degree within 6 years.

Recent study suggests the most common reasons for dropping out are:

  • Failure to develop friendships and "fit in" with peers.
  • Failure to navigate social environment and not-obvious expectations (Barnard-Brak, Lechtenberger, & Lan, 2010).

Therefore, What We're Doing Here at Texas Tech:

  • Project CASE (Connections for Academic Success and Employment) funded by Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD)
    • Provide wrap-around supports to students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at Texas Tech University and South Plains College
    • Partnership with Student Disability Services & TECHniques Center
    • Focus on self-advocacy skills, problem solving, degree completion, employment

Some characteristic behaviors that cause problems:


  • It is not unusual for individuals with autism to have "rules."
    • Rather than respond to fluid environment, they respond by following rigid "rules".
    • "I always do math problems in order." or "I don't erase wrong answers; I cross them out."
  • The advantage is that if a positive and adaptive rule can be taught, it tends to stick.
    • Find ways to teach desirable skills as rules.
    • "I always write my assignments in my planner before I leave class."


  • Often complete tasks and transitions in a stereotyped and repetitive way
  • Difficulty handling surprises
  • Difficulty with changes in routines
  • Predictability and stability are important


  • Students with autism struggle to identify non-verbal cues.
    • Misunderstand facial expression and body language
    • Tend to interpret language based only on its literal meaning
  • Sarcasm, inference, and slang often confuse and frustrate individuals with autism.

Difficulty generalizing skills

Often appear to "forget" skills in new settings.
Don't easily recognize when previously learned skill can be used in novel situations.

Difficulty Recognizing Important Things in Environment

Students with autism struggle to distinguish important from trivial in external environment. 
It can be overwhelming to know what to pay attention to, both during interpersonal interactions and class work.

"My hearing is like having a hearing aid with the volume control stuck on "super loud." It is like an open microphone that picks up everything. I have two choices: turn the mike on and get deluged with sound, or shut it off."
Temple Grandin (College Professor with Autism)

What this means for you

  • Usual accommodations and supports not enough.
    • Difficulties less likely to be academic
    • Social/environmental supports needed
  • Will need help making sense of complex "hidden curriculum" of college environment.

How this may present itself in your classroom:

  • Difficulty with group work/projects
  • Unusual social behavior (too many questions, not responding to questions)
  • "Extreme" reactions to minor disruptions
  • Anxiety across even simple situations
  • Failure to complete activities or assignments if confused

Some key things to keep in mind

  • It's NOT personal.
  • They WANT to do the right thing.
  • They WANT to be there.
  • They usually won't know how to ask for help.
    • Don't recognize root cause of problem.
    • Can't articulate what they need.
    • Ashamed/stubborn/afraid.

Transition to adulthood

Moving towards independence and adult responsibilities is hard and stressful for everyone!
College is scary for a lot of folks! Sometimes the problem is not the disability. 
Stay sensitive to what a successful peer would be doing.

How you can help them be successful:

Help them to discriminate what is important.
Provide and help them create stability and predictability.
Prompting: They need specific guidance.
Build a positive relationship.
Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Help them to discriminate what is important

  • Help them identify critical information in syllabi, assignment sheets, etc.
    • Provide detailed assignment sheets, grading criteria, etc.
    • Give them a way to recognize key information in lectures/texts –not every word is equally important.
  • Teach problem solving rules and routines for how to handle classroom situations
    • Class participation
    • Difficulty submitting homework
    • Requesting extensions
    • Asking a question during lecture
  • Teach "hidden" curriculum for your class and for dealing with university faculty and staff.
    • Interpret inappropriate social behavior as a teaching opportunity rather than a personal affront or challenge to your authority.
    • Explicitly tell them how you wish to be addressed/contacted/spoken to.
    • Don't be afraid to ask them to practice!

Stability and Predictability

Create a classroom routine that student can follow.
Provide student with a written or visual schedule for each week/class period.
Teach routines for your class.
Help identify functional rules for your class.


Don't assume anything. Prompt more than you think you should. When you think you've told the student often enough, prompt 5 more times. This is quickest and easiest way to provide more support and predictability to a student with autism.

Prompting: Changes

If routine will be disrupted, provide early and repeated warnings. 
Remind student of upcoming changes to the class activity or meeting schedule.
Provide a written or visual schedule before day in question.
Be prepared for "turbulence" on those days.

Prompting: Generalization

  • Rarely exhibit behavior learned in one setting in new settings or with new people.
    • Won't use outline technique learned in English class on a History paper, etc.
    • May "forget" how to use software or hardware if on a new computer or electronic devices.
  • Point out and make explicit any time a previously learned skill can be used in a new setting or with a new person.

Building a Strong Relationship: How to Focus on the Positive

  • Positive interactions increase success.
  • Use a positive and enthusiastic voice.
  • Model respectful interactions.
  • Proximity and specific praise.
  • Notice little things.

If you have additional questions, or would like to speak about a specific situation, please feel free to email Wesley Dotson.

Student Disability Services