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January 7, 2010

View From Outside the Classroom

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Autism spectrum disorders on campus

Most of us know what autism is, or at least we’ve seen the Hollywood depiction of the disorder in “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump” and “The Other Sister.” However, what is less well-known is that autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning individuals on the spectrum can range from the non-verbal to the high-functioning.

Included in the autism spectrum are individuals who are capable of going to college. At the University, we currently have approximately 20 students registered with Disability Resources and Services who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. However, while students are encouraged to register with the office, some students do not, choosing to handle their college career without accommodations. Whether you are aware of it or not, it is very likely that you have met or have interacted with someone on the autism spectrum.

Some of these individuals may display stereotypical autistic traits, while others may not. Autism may affect mannerisms, social skills, hygiene or class behavior. Mannerisms may include repetitive behaviors, awkward body movements or organizing class material in a very specific way without the ability to deviate from that particular style. Characteristic autistic behaviors are developed as a means of coping with the physical and social environments that such students often find taxing, thus for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, these behaviors are “normal.”

Social skill issues may appear as an inability to modulate voice volume, unawareness of personal space or discussion focused on one subject without being conversational. Social contact can generate feelings of anxiety for the student, thus causing a student to avoid it completely. The student may come to class unkempt or dressed inappropriately for weather conditions.

In the classroom, the autistic student may be unaware of the discomfort his or her behaviors or mannerisms may cause others, such as interrupting when others are speaking, or reacting negatively if the structure of the class is changed. Do not confuse these behaviors with a lack of interest or commitment to education; most students on the spectrum care deeply about their education. Many autistic students have done well in academic settings due to their ability to easily learn and recall facts and details.

If a student is disrupting the classroom environment by exhibiting some of these behaviors, what should the faculty member do? Refer the student to Disability Resources and Services or to the University Counseling Center. All students must adhere to the student code of conduct, including students with disabilities. Generally, it is appropriate for an instructor to ask a student to stop a particular behavior if it is disrupting the class, but be careful not to further embarrass the student.  For example, if the student spends too much time discussing an issue of narrow interest, it is appropriate to interrupt the student or tell them it is not relevant to the current conversation and then move on.

On college campuses across the country, the number of students with autism spectrum disorder is growing. The reason is two-fold. First, the ability to diagnose individuals on the spectrum has improved greatly and allowed for earlier intervention, which increases the students’ chance for academic success. Second, at the post=secondary level the services offered for individuals with disabilities have been expanded to include services to those on the autism spectrum.

Pitt’s Office of Disability Resources and Services provides accommodations and services for students on the autism spectrum, as well as those with learning disorders, visual impairments, psychiatric disorders, orthopaedic disabilities and chronic illnesses. Common accommodations for qualified individuals registered with the office include classroom and testing accommodations, as well as assistive technology and a variety of auxiliary aids and services, such as qualified sign language interpreters. Specific accommodations for a student with autism may include extended time on an exam in order to allow the student to process the information being asked, a quiet testing environment to control outside stimuli or a single residence hall room to minimize the pressures of constant social interaction.

If you have questions regarding students with autism or any other disability, contact Disability Resources and Services, 140 William Pitt Union, 412/648-7890.

Megan Turske and Noreen Mazzocca are  disability specialists in the Office of Disability Resources and Services.

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