Understanding the Autism Spectrum
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong and complex "spectrum condition", characterised by a broad range of social, communication, and behavioural difficulties:
- Social skills and interactions: Individuals with autism often find it difficult to understand others' perspective (mentally and emotionally), and the 'rules' of social interaction.
- Verbal and non-verbal communication: Common difficulties include interpreting a 'series' of instructions, literal interpretation (e.g., 'Hop to it', 'Don't move') and difficulties with non-verbals such as eye contact, gestures and facial expressions.
- Behavioural: Unusual, rigid or repetitive behaviours and/or a restricted repertoire of activities and interests are very common.
There are many positive attributes associated with ASD however. For instance people with ASD often:
- Can focus on a specific topic and become expert in that topic;
- Have exceptional memories and visual skills;
- Can see patterns in a visual array that others cannot see;
- Do not have a hidden agenda;
- Are very truthful and not tied to social expectations.
Other common characteristics of ASD
A person on the spectrum might display many of the following behaviours, or just a few. Also, the behaviours might be quite severe in intensity or very mild.
- outstanding skills in certain areas
- reduced (or no) emotional expression
- repetitive and stereotyped behaviour (e.g., flapping arms, rocking, head nodding)
- difficulty coping with change and transition - coupled with a strong desire to do things the same way
- over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli (sound, touch, taste, smell and visual)
- poor motor skills (may manifest in an usual gait, or uncoordinated movement)
- unusual or challenging behaviours in response to confusion, anxiety and stress
- difficulty with executive functioning (e.g. reasoning, planning, time-management)
- difficulty making conversation
- being awkward and ill at ease in a social situation
ASD and the tertiary student
The majority of students with ASD who proceed into tertiary education will be 'high-functioning' with intellectual and language skills in the normal (to superior) range.
Preliminary estimates indicate the prevalence of ASD in the student population may be as high as the current rate of ASD in the general population – approximately 1%.
For many students with ASD, their difficulties with social interaction coupled with any other secondary characteristics (e.g. high anxiety, depression, poor organisation) combine negatively to impact on their ability to learn and function in the social setting of a university. As an example, a student with ASD will find the social requirements of group work challenging and confronting.
The challenge of tertiary transition
For students with ASD, transitioning from secondary to higher education offers many new freedoms. Whilst these are eagerly embraced by many of their typically-developing peers, these freedoms can be a source of overwhelming frustration, uncertainty and anxiety.
One of the most common behavioural characteristics of ASD is a strong aversion to change. This is manifested in a desire to:
- Do certain things exactly the same way, and/or
- Keep things in their environment and life exactly the same.
Unfortunately this is not possible as higher education operates under a completely different paradigm to secondary schooling.
While it is common practice for tertiary providers to provide a myriad of orientation activities, the majority of these are not delivered in a format that will assist students with ASD (e.g. large groups, set structure, 'global' introduction). Inherent to this training is the expectation that incoming students possess the skills required to navigate the many new challenges and changes of tertiary life.
Support for the tertiary student
The transition from secondary to tertiary education also marks a significant decrease in the support available to any student.
Students diagnosed with ASD have typically enjoyed a substantial degree of support from family, teachers and other allied professionals during their high school years. Not surprisingly, the withdrawal of these supports can significantly add to the challenge in successfully transitioning to tertiary education. For those students who enter tertiary education without a formal diagnosis, the transition to the much less structured environment of university life may exacerbate the intensity of their symptoms, leading to similarly poor outcomes.
This represents a challenge for the student, the academic, and the institution.
Fast Facts about ASD
- Current research indicates that an estimated one in 100 people has autism, with prevalence rates being higher in males then females.
- There is no single known cause for autism, however, research has identified a strong genetic link. Autism is not caused by an individual’s upbringing or their social circumstances.
- 55-60% of people with autism will have an intellectual disability, however 40 to 45 per cent do not.
- People on the autism spectrum who have no intellectual disability are referred to as ‘high-functioning’.
- The majority of higher education students with high-functioning autism might have a diagnosis of ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’, which is generally associated with intellectual and language skills in the normal (to superior) range.
Professor Tony Attwood discusses the characteristics of behaviours that may be seen in individuals on the Autism spectrum.