Tertiary Students on the Autism Spectrum

The transition from secondary to tertiary education can be an overwhelming time for any student, but for the student on the autism spectrum the many and varied changes of this new and much more unstructured learning environment can be particularly challenging.

In commencing (and continuing) tertiary education studies, students on the spectrum may not only experience higher levels of stress and anxiety than other students, but the things which cause their anxiety to peak may be very different from that of the ‘neurotypical’ student.  For example, while many students may commonly worry about upcoming assessment, the student on the spectrum may be quite unconcerned about assessment but become extremely anxious, upset or even angry about things such a simple change in the timetable, their regular seat in class being taken by another student or being asked to work as part of a group.

These ‘unexpected’ reactions can undoubtedly make teaching some students with autism very challenging. However, by gaining an understanding as to why a student on the autism spectrum may react in an unusual way to different circumstances and stimuli, the first steps to preventing and/or quickly managing any such challenges are in place.

Autism & Asperger's Syndrome

The majority of students on the autism spectrum who proceed into tertiary education will be 'high-functioning' and are likely to have a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome.

Remembering that autism is a 'spectrum condition', students with Asperger's will be on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum with intellectual and language skills generally in the normal (through to superior) range.

For these students, it is not their intellectual ability that will limit their success at university, but rather their difficulties with social interaction, communication, challenging behaviours and any other secondary characteristics of autism that they possess (such as high anxiety or poor organisation) that will combine to negatively impact not only on their ability to learn, but also their ability to cope and gain social acceptance.

Image of students laughing

Fast Facts

Preliminary estimates indicate the prevalence of autism in university students may be as high as the current rate of autism in the general population (approximately 1%).

Some of the key ways you can assist students on the spectrum in the transition to, and progress through, their higher education qualifications include:

Assoc. Prof Kate Sofronoff discusses the emotional profile of Autism Spectrum Conditions, including the high prevalence of anxiety and depression among tertiary students.

Professor Tony Attwood discusses common intellectual and socio-emotional profiles of students on the Autism spectrum.