Everyday Support Strategies

Students who are well-organised, proactive in their help-seeking and have good study techniques are more likely to succeed in their studies. Unfortunately, time management, understanding the context of new environments and communication (such as articulating a need for assistance or a lack of understanding) are key areas of challenge for tertiary students on the spectrum.

While the majority of students on the autism spectrum will require only minor adjustment or modifications (if any) to support them in the pursuit of their tertiary studies, it is important to understand that good practice for a student on the spectrum is good practice for all students—whether they have autism, another disability or are 'typically developing'. In other words, in order to support a student on the spectrum there is no need to develop a 'special' set of extra teaching approaches—the strategies that will assist these students can be universally employed across any teaching situation and will be of benefit to all students.

By integrating a range of 'generalist' support strategies into everyday teaching practices, tertiary educators can create an optimal learning environment not only for students on the autism spectrum – but for all their students.

Good for one is good for all

These strategies DO NOT require:

  • Targeted delivery (good for one is indeed good for all)
  • Specialist knowledge of disabilities or supports
  • Knowledge of a student’s diagnoses or difficulties
  • Any additional teaching time

Rather, they are more like a set of 'helpful hints' for creating a teaching environment that engages the largest cohort of students, regardless of their individual strengths and difficulties. In turn, this creates a more enjoyable teaching experience for you, as an educator.

General support strategies

  • Use clear & unambiguous language that avoids the use of metaphors or 'colloquialisms' wherever possible. Literal interpretation of language is common in individuals on the spectrum. A student may literally 'hop to it' if asked, or ask 'what horses?' if they’ve been asked to hold them.
  • If practical, make use of visual cues and procedures and support any verbal instructions with accompanying written instructions. Provide as much detail as possible when giving information. Students on the spectrum tend to be more visual learners. Delivery of instructions in multiple formats will cater to different learning styles and decrease the chance of misunderstandings.
  • Minimise the use of facial expressions and body gestures (non-verbals). Students on the autism spectrum often have difficulty in interpreting body language and non-verbal communications. Gestures like a 'frown' of warning may therefore have little or no impact on a student on the spectrum.
  • Where practical/applicable, provide practical tools in written format, e.g. semester and weekly planners, assessment task activities (including step by step guides with critical dates).
  • Instructions in relation to assessment including deadlines (time and date), location/method for delivery, process for extensions etc should be explicit, delivered in multiple formats (including written/visual) and reinforced during semester. Provide regular 'prompts' as to upcoming critical dates.
  • Where possible, check for understanding of any instructions given. This will be less feasible in large student cohorts but much more practical in smaller practical or tutorial sessions.
  • Set expectations as to classroom behaviour in the first session e.g. when and how to ask questions, whether students can record lecture, guidelines for working in groups etc.
  • In group work make clear exactly what is required of students and mediate to resolve disputes in a calm, logical way, providing an opportunity immediately after group sessions to check that they have understood
  • Students may have difficulties in motivation for certain parts of their course due to a particular interest in one aspect of it. Set concrete, realistic and factual goals to assist with motivation. To illustrate, "Engineers frequently have to work in teams. If you want to become an engineer you must complete all parts of the course, even the group work."
  • Provide timely feedback – be very clear about what is inappropriate or appreciated, and why. Errors in understanding, behaviour and/or content need to be corrected as soon as possible.

Quick tips

  • Provide as much advance notice as possible of any changes. If a change (e.g. in timetable, room, lecturer, assessment content) is inevitable, give clear, specific information as to the change, with as much advance warning as possible.
  • Some students may be highly (overly) sensitive to sounds, taste, smells and texture. Consider allowing relocation to remove the student from the sensitive (e.g. doing small group work outside of the classroom so other groups 'talking' does not distract).
  • Where practical, consider providing an individual orientation to the prac or lab rooms for some students who may experience anxiety due to unfamiliar learning environments.
  • Encourage students to seek additional assistance and provide written guidance as to who can provide what assistance e.g. this may be as simple as providing student services brochures or weblinks to support services, practice exams, Faculty student support officers/mentors etc.

More information

For more information on how tertiary staff can support students on the spectrum, head to the LaTrobe University page on supporting students with Autism.

Learn more

Simple strategies for supporting tertiary students - including those on the Autism Spectrum.

Professor Tony Attwood discusses how people on the Autism Spectrum can find it difficult to read facial cues or body language indicating when to stop, slow down, or go.