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Information & Advice

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...for Staff

...on Assistive Technology

Changing attitudes to autistic students.

The following extracts are taken from (and adapted) from:


Howlin, P. (2004). Autism and Asperger Syndrome: preparing for adulthood. 2nd ed. London: Routledge 2004 p216 - 217


Although attitudes to students with special needs are gradually changing, barriers still persist.  Inclusion remains particularly difficult to achieve for students who show severely challenging behaviours, but problems also arise for those who are relatively mildly affected.  As in schools, difficulties can occur because of a lack of understanding, misinterpretation of behaviour and inflexibility, either on the part of staff or other students or within the organisational structure. 


              Even staff who are used to teaching students with special needs may still have difficulties coping with the communication and social impairments that are characteristic of autism.  The majority of students in special colleges, for example, are unlikely to process the very specialised knowledge or interests or memory skills that are typically found within the autistic spectrum.  They are unlikely to correct lecturer’s factual knowledge or complain about how the course is run.  Many students with autistic spectrum disorders however, show no reticence in giving voice to their complaints, nor to they necessarily learn to express these in a diplomatic fashion.  One student caused total chaos in classes in his first term by continually commenting on his tutors’ handwriting.  He was particularly concerned that they did not dot the letter ‘I’, and lectures was constantly disrupted because of this.  Another student announced that he would not attend classes taught by anyone black or female.  Such behaviours understandably can result in students being viewed as rude or as ‘troublemakers’. Rather than recognising their need for more help, lecturers whose competence is called into question in this way are likely t become markedly less sympathetic and may even call for the exclusion of such students from their classes. 


              Rejection may even occur before the student even gets to college.  Louis had a first degree in engineering and subsequently applied for and was accepted for a master’s degree at another university.  His psychologist and careers officer, who had remained involved since he left school, were aware that he might have problems on a course that depended largely on project work requiring considerable self-discipline and strict adherence to deadlines. Because the University had a special needs department the psychologist with Louis’ permission contacted them to explain the potential problems and possible ways of dealing with these.  Two days later he received a letter stating that ‘in view of the problems and limited staff resources it would be advisable for the candidate to with draw from the course’!


              Other students, too, may need to be given advice or practical support in order to help them understand the problems and needs of someone with autism.  Even at college, problems of teasing, bullying and provocation can occur.  Other students with autism may be taunted for their ‘stupidity’ if they are unable to cope with more complex or academic components of the course.  They may also be the source of considerable irritation and disruption to other students because of their constant requests for help, explanation or reassurance.