2021年10月26日 10 26, 2021 EVENT REPORT TALK workshops

Event Report:10.19 GFD Diversity Series: An Introduction to Supporting Students with Autism in Higher Education

Speaker: Alison Taylor

Supporter: Julia Lindley-Baker

Report by: Aurora Tsai
Access the recording of the event English here or日本語はこちらです。

 

In the first part of the presentation, Dr. Taylor talked about why understanding autism was important, theories of thought about autism, common behaviors we might see as faculty, and possible explanations for those behaviors. 

People with disabilities are full and human with equal human rights, and with right planning and support, more autisitc students can excel at university. Although student services at universities can help, it's better when faculty and other students understand. As many as 1-2% of students in higher education (in Japan, its reported that 1/55 students are on the autism spectrum) have autism, but less than 40% complete their studies. 

She introduced three theories that have impacted our perceptions of people with autism: the medical model, social model of disability, and affirmative model of disability. The medical model tends to treat autism as a within-person diagnosis, leading to stigmatization of people with autism. However, many of our support systems still rely on this, requiring a diagnosis before support can be provided. The social model of disability separates the person from the disability, viewing autism as a lack of understanding from surroundings (autism as a social construct, not impairment). The affirmative model of disability promotes autism as something to be proud of--as a part of the person’s identity. Taylor notes it’s important for us to move between the three, responding to each person’s situation/context, including co-occuring conditions/diagnoses.

Next, Dr. Taylor described some behaviors we might see from autistic students, while urging us to view the situation from the students’ perspective. We might see behavior from students with ASD including the following:

  • Responses that are seen as too strong or too weak (dominate conversations vs to not much at all, too much eye contact vs too little)

  • Difficulty communicating the same way as other students

  • A preference for written communication

  • Repetitive and routine behaviours

  • Difficulty reading social situations, expressions, tone of voice, body language. They may not feel inhibited to talk or may not talk at all.

    • Analogous to being the only “new” person at a party of people who all know each other and have known each other for years

  • Tendencies toward perfectionism, cataloging and rote learning

  • Some may have difficulty understanding the layout of campus, so changes of rooms, seating, etc. may cause major anxiety for them

    • Some autistic students are the opposite, and have strong mapping/visual skills

  • Sensory differences- some wish to avoid situations with uncomfortable sensory situations. Due to this, some may shut down, be unable to participate, or suffer serious fatigue trying to focus

  • May experience extreme anxiety due to other health challenges


She also explained some reasons why we might see such behaviors. Autism is a form of neurodiversity and the behaviors we perceive are influenced by differences in thinking. It can impact executive function (planning, organizing, inhibition, concept of time), central coherence (generalizing, making links, memory), and theory of mind (perception of others’ thoughts, perspective and intention). Sensory perceptions can be tuned differently and fluctuate depending on multiple factors (e.g. hunger, anxiety, etc), which leads to uncertainty and a preference for sameness. However, if we don’t make attempts to understand their feelings, it can lead to strong anxiety and fatigue.

Throughout the presentation, Dr. Taylor emphasized that there is no one set way to work with autistic students. Rather, one should communicate with the student and collaboratively to come up with a unique plan to support their needs. It can be helpful to ask what works well for them, what causes them difficulties and challenges, and what can be done to overcome these barriers that are identified. Having a good relationship and open and comfortable channel for communication provides more honest and useful insights.

Dr. Taylor also provided ten different areas (based on research findings) to consider when working with autistic students in the classroom. This includes a positive relationship between the instructor (or tutor) and student, accessible language, options for different modes of communication (reading/writing/speaking/listening/viewing), providing clear sign-posts to indicate changes in tasks, using visual mind maps to show clear relationships between ideas, making sure students feel comfortable with group work, providing different options for participation (e.g. speaking and writing options), and providing more structure/directions to in-class activities. It also includes minimizing distractions and sensory overload to enable the best possible focus, providing a visual framework to support understanding a presentation, asking if peer mentoring would be of interest to a student, allowing short “breaks” to alleviate student anxiety, and considering whether or not the task holds enough interest for the student to feel motivated. It’s also important to consider whether or not a student with autism might have other learning difficulties such as dyslexic traits, a need for visual/auditory supports, ADHD, epilepsy, or difficulties with motor strength and control. We can keep these items in mind when communicating with students, but collaboration is key to come up with a unique plan to support their needs.



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