Establishing an Inclusive Environment for Students with Autism

Introduction

Students entering college today have diverse abilities and learning styles.  Through implementing universal design within higher education settings, professionals can enhance educational opportunities for all students.  In this paper, we show how to implement Higbee’s (2008) universal design principles into student development programs in order to support college students who have autism.

Students with Autism in Higher Education

Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the nation.  In 2012, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in every 88 individuals had autism or a related disorder.  There is also an increase of students with autism entering higher education (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).  Government legislation has supported access to higher education for students with autism, as well as with other disabilities.  For example, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) banned discrimination of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that received federal assistance (Evans, 2008).

Section 504 mandated that colleges that receive federal funding provide equal access for individuals with disabilities (Hall & Belch, 2000).  Higher education institutions have removed some barriers to education for students with disabilities.  College admission processes can no longer inquire whether an individual has a disability.  Section 504 also mandated that buildings must address architectural barriers that prohibit mobility for individuals with disabilities.  Therefore, many colleges removed physical barriers that impede mobility on campuses for those with disabilities.  For example, campuses have added ramps and automatically opening doors.  Though colleges have removed some challenges involved in gaining admission to college as well as navigating campuses, students with disabilities are still less likely to engage in the college experience and gain a diploma (Hall & Belch, 2000).  Focus is needed on how institutions can create inclusive learning environments for all students, including students with disabilities.

Understanding Neurodiversity and Autism

Neurodiversity

People with autism have differences in cognitive processes; these neurological varieties are often referred to as neurodiversity (Blume, 1998).  In the 1990s, people with autism developed the term neurodiversity, in order to assert that those with atypical brain wiring deserve respect.  Advocates stressed that anyone can be placed on a variety of spectrums (Pollak, 2009).  Neurodiversity notes learning differences, rather than difficulties.  It is intended to be a positive statement of differentiation; though individuals have differences, they are not dysfunctional (Grant, 2009).  People with difference do not need to be cured; rather, they need help and accommodations (Robison, 2013).

People with neurodiversity conditions may experience challenges completing everyday tasks, which are dependent on neurocognitive processing of information.  These include social interaction, attention span, and time management (Grant, 2009).  In addition to autism, neurodiversity conditions include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and Tourette syndrome (National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University, n.d.).

Autism

Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder that affects growth in areas of social interaction and behavior (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).  Autism Speaks (2014) defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism as, “characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors… ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues” (para. 1-3).

What Challenges Do College Students with Autism Typically Encounter?

Social Challenges

Students with autism may have difficulty forming relationships due to misinterpretations of social cues or conventions (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).  They may interpret information in an overly literal way, causing them to misunderstand others’ attempts at humor (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).  Consequently, they may become isolated or exploited because of their perceived naiveté (Welkowitz & Baker, 2005).  Students with autism may experience difficulty establishing trusting relationships in a new environment, such as the college campus.

Adaptation Challenges

One of the challenges that students with autism encounter when entering college is that they transition from a centralized support system into an environment where they must advocate for themselves (Higbee & Kalivoda, 2008).  Their centralized support system includes their families, which understand and embrace their differences.  Students with autism may struggle with advocating for themselves and clearly communicating their challenges.  Acclimating to college life is a process that often involves navigating a range of college offices and personnel.

Learning Differences

Students with autism may have differences in how they learn.  When information is provided too quickly, they may not fully grasp all of the information dictated.  This experience may lead to them feeling overwhelmed and anxious.  In addition, individuals with autism may use unusual mannerisms, such as rocking, as a means of self-soothing.

How Universal Design Can Support Students with Autism

The theory of universal design is inclusive for all populations, in all environments.  According to the Center for Universal Design (1997), the principle of universal design promotes the design of products to be usable for all people, without the need to be adapted.  Universal design stemmed from Accessible Design, which was supportive design to be used by individuals with disabilities (Universal Design, n.d.).  Universal design is usable by the widest range of people to the greatest extent possible.  It considers humans to have diverse abilities, making spaces and products easier to use for all people.

It is no longer the sole responsibility of disability services to create inclusive environments on college campuses.  All professionals must foster a community where everyone has an equal opportunity to learn.  Using universal design throughout all parts of college campuses, as well as during instruction, enables higher education professionals to support students with diverse abilities.  The universal design framework is influential in helping professionals create environments where all students can thrive.

It has been the foundation of the student affairs profession to support and embrace diversity (Nuss, 1996).  Just as professionals have led in promoting diversity of religion, race, and sexuality in higher education, it is also vital that student development professionals promote acceptance of neurodiversity.  By implementing universal design principles, student affairs professionals can nurture students’ intellectual and social development.

Universal Design Principles for Student Development Programs and Services

It is vital for student development professionals to implement universal design principles into their daily practices in order to support the success of students with autism.  Higbee (2008) presented nine principles for universal instruction design in student development programs:

  • Create welcoming spaces;
  • Develop, implement, and evaluate pathways for communication among students, staff, and faculty;
  • Promote interaction among students and between staff and students;
  • Ensure that each student and staff member has an equal opportunity to learn and grow;
  • Communicate clear expectations to students, supervisees, and other professional colleagues utilizing multiple formats and taking into consideration diverse learning communication styles;
  • Use methods and strategies that consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing and previous experience and background knowledge, while recognizing each student’s and staff member’s unique identity and contributions;
  • Provide natural supports for learning and working to enhance opportunities for all students and staff;
  • Ensure confidentiality; and
  • Define service quality, establish benchmarks for best practices, and collaborate to evaluate services regularly (pp. 196-200).

Here we share examples of how professionals can incorporate universal design into campus programs and services to better support students with autism.

Create Welcoming Spaces

Higbee’s (2008) first principle is to create welcoming spaces (p. 196).  Students with autism may experience difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, and this challenge can lead to feelings of isolation.  When student development professionals create warm atmospheres in their offices and student meeting places, they help students feel valued.  Welcoming environments include staff and student workers greeting guests, offering genuine support, and fostering a sense of community.

Professionals must also use inclusive language that is welcoming to all.  They can train student workers and student leaders to use supportive, first-person language.  First-person language shows that workers appreciate diversity and honor individual identity. For example, professionals should use the term, “students with autism,” instead of “autistic students.”  According to Hall and Belch (2000), first-person language emphasizes the person over the disability.

Support Pathways for Communication

The next principle is to develop, implement, and evaluate pathways for communication among students, staff, and faculty (Higbee, 2008, p. 196).  Student development professionals must be cognizant of their communication practices and share directions in a clear and straightforward manner.  Sometimes, students with autism struggle to follow directions with multiple steps (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).  When introducing activities with several steps, such as during icebreakers, campus activities professionals should clearly state the rules and repeat them.  At large-scale events, such as orientations, professionals should also provide information in multiple methods, such as oral and written forms of communication.  In addition, professionals can communicate both in large group and small group formats.  Providing communication in multiple methods supports diverse learning styles and enhances educational experiences for all individuals involved.

Promote Interaction

Higbee’s (2008) third principle is to promote interaction among students and between staff and students (p. 197).  Student development professionals can serve as point persons for students with autism.  For some students with autism, it can be helpful to identify a point person to visit when they feel anxious (Myles & Adreon, 2001).  This person can be key in assisting the student in problem solving (Jekel & Loo, 2002).  For example, at Keene State College, a program exists where peer mentors are trained to offer support to students with autism (Welkowitz & Baker, 2005).

Offer Equal Opportunities for Learning and Growth

The next universal design principle for student development professionals is to ensure that each student and staff member has an equal opportunity to learn and grow (Higbee, 2008, p. 197).  Student affairs departments must develop services that improve opportunities for all students, but specifically reflect on the accessibility of resources to marginalized groups.  Student activities offices can offer leadership retreats that consider the diverse needs and abilities of all student attendees.  They can develop activities that are supportive to an array of unique learners.

Communicate Clear Expectations and Consider Diverse Communication Styles

Higbee’s (2008) fifth principle is to communicate clear expectations to students, supervisees, and other professional colleagues utilizing multiple formats and taking into consideration diverse learning communication styles (p. 198).  Students with autism tend to desire predictability and clear expectations; however, at times, this inclination may result in inflexible behavior (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).

Students with autism may become anxious when others do not adhere to rules, such as violating quiet hour rules in a residence hall.  It is important that student development professionals clearly explain living options so that students may make the optimal choice.  If students decides to live with a roommate, they must make efforts to understand the in’s and out’s of communal spaces.  If conflicts occur, professionals should help students negotiate through them, while maintaining appropriate boundaries and preventing dependency.

Consider Diverse Backgrounds and Recognize Students’ Strengths

The next principle is to use methods and strategies that consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing and previous experience and background knowledge, while recognizing each student’s and staff member’s unique identity and contributions (Higbee, 2008, p. 198).  Professionals must take into consideration each student’s multiple intelligences.  Students with autism have various strengths, including their tendency to be reliable, as well as their tendency to pay great attention to detail (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).  Professionals can assist students by guiding them in further developing these strengths.  For example, professionals can help the student determine how their interests align with organizations, learning communities, or employment opportunities.

Provide Natural Learning Supports

Another universal design principle is to provide natural supports for learning and working to enhance opportunities for all students and staff (Higbee, 2008, p. 198).  Typically, students with autism have difficulty with academic content and organizational skills.  Student development professionals can aid students in managing their challenges by providing natural learning supports.  For example, written supports include meeting minutes and handouts.  Professionals can also scaffold concepts during instruction.  Most importantly, professionals must reinforce that mistakes are opportunities for learning.

Ensure Confidentiality

A very important principle in universal design within student development programs it to ensure confidentiality (Higbee, 2008, p. 199).  Students with autism have a right to confidentiality.  However, when services are not universally designed, confidentiality can be breached.  This is because such environments may distinguish the student as different (Higbee, 2008).  Professionals must honor students’ trust by allowing the student to decide whether to disclose and how to disclose.  Professionals must recognize that students with autism may encounter negative attitudes from others concerning their abilities (Kroeger & Schuck, 1993).  This may lead students to be reluctant to disclose their disability with staff and their peers.

Identify Service Quality and Evaluate Services

Higbee’s (2008) final principle is to define service quality, establish benchmarks for best practices, and collaborate to evaluate services regularly (p. 200)It is essential that student development professionals seek out ongoing professional development on how to be a resource for students with autism.  By providing training, supervisors can hold staff accountable in promoting an inclusive environment.  If properly implemented, these trainings will result in a culture that values differences.  Furthermore, training should not be restricted to employees, but be provided to students as well.  For example, offices can educate student leaders, such as club presidents, on how to incorporate universal design into their activities.  Not only is training essential, but evaluation is also important.  Evaluation allows professionals to learn how they can improve and better serve all students.

Conclusion

Fostering the feeling of community continues to be a challenge as colleges diversify (Hall & Belch, 2000).  Through implementing universal design principles, student affairs professionals can create a sense of community for all.  Use of universal design principles can enable colleges and universities to create inclusive environments that are able to appropriately support students with autism.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do student affairs professionals at your institution promote acceptance in regards to students with neurodiversity, and specifically students with autism?
  2. How can your campus better incorporate universal design throughout the various functional areas of student affairs (campus involvement, residence life, orientation, etc…)?
  3. How can you help your students learn the importance of creating an inclusive environment and acceptance of neurodiversity?

References

Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School & Clinic, 42(5), 271-279.

Autism Speaks, (2014). What is autism? Retrieved from http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

Blume, H. (1998, Sept. 30). Neurodiversity. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199809u/neurodiversity

Center for Universal Design. (1997). What is Universal Design? Retrieved from http://www.ncsu.edu/project/design-projects/udi/center-for-universal-des…

Evans, N. (2008). Theoretical foundations of universal instructional design. In J.L. Higbee & E. Goff (Eds.). Pedagogy and Student Services for Institutional Transformation: Implementing Universal Design in Higher Education (pp. 11-24). Minneapolis, MN: Regents of the University of Minnesota.

Grant, D. (2009). The psychological assessment of neurodiversity. In D. Pollak (Ed.), Neurodiversity in higher education: Positive responses to specific learning differences (pp. 33-61). West Sussex, UK: Wiley & Sons.

Hall, L.M., & Belch, H.A. (2000). Setting the context: Reconsidering the principles of full participation and meaningful access for students with disabilities. New Direction for Student Services, 91, Fall 2000, 5-17.

Higbee, J. L. (2008). Universal design principles for student development programs and services. In J. L. Higbee & E. Goff (Eds.), Pedagogy and Student Services for Institutional Transformation: Implementing universal design in higher education (pp. 195-203). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

Higbee, J. L., & Kalivoda, K. S. (2008). The first-year experience. In J. L. Higbee & E. Goff (Eds.), Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementing universal design in higher education (pp. 245-253). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

Kroeger, S., & Schuck, J. (1993). Moving ahead: Issues, recommendations, and conclusions. New Directions for Student Services, 64, Winter 1993, 103-110.

Jekel, D., & Loo, S. (2002). So you want to go to college: Recommendations, helpful tips, and suggestions for success at college. Watertown, MA: Asperger’s Association of New England.

Myles, B. S., & Adreon, D. (2001). Asperger syndrome and adolescence: Practical solutions for school success. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing.

National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University (n.d.). What is neurodiversity? Retrieved from http://neurodiversitysymposium.wordpress.com/what-is-neurodiversity/

Nuss, E. (1996). The development of student affairs. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodard, (Eds.), Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 22-42). West Sussex, UK: Wiley & Sons.

Pollak, D. (2009). Introduction. In D. Pollak (Ed.), Neurodiversity in higher education: Positive responses to specific learning differences (pp. 9-11). West Sussex, UK: Wiley & Sons.

Robison, J. (2013). My life with Asperger’s: How to live a high functioning life with Asperger’s. Psychology today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neu…

Universal Design: The Resource for Universal Design News (n.d.). What is universal design? Retrieved from http://www.universaldesign.com/index.php?option=com_content  &view=article&id=327:what-is-universal-design&catid=2196:universal-design&Itemid=113

U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 14 Sites, United States, 2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6103a1.htm

Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders. Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 14 sites, United States, 2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries, 61(3), 1-19. Atlanta, GA: Author

Welkowitz, L., & Baker, L. (2005). Supporting college students with Asperger Syndrome. In J. L. Baker, & L. A. Welkowitz (Eds.), Asperger Syndrome: Intervening in schools, clinics, and communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

About the Authors

Dale O’Neill, M.A., serves as the Coordinator of Leadership and Community Service Programs and the Interim Greek Life Advisor at the University of New Orleans.  She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Education Administration from the University of New Orleans (LA).  She is an active member in ACPA – College Student Educators International, having served as the Newsletter Editor for two years for the Standing Committee for Graduate Students & New Professionals as well as the Convention Program Chair and Newsletter Chair for the Standing Committee on Disability. 

Rory O’Neill Schmitt, Ph.D., is an educational researcher and has earned her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction Studies.  Currently, she serves as a Faculty Associate in the University College of Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ.  She is a peer reviewer for the Current Issues in Education journal.  In addition, she volunteers on the board of the Arizona Art Therapy Association as its president.

Please email inquiries to Dale O’Neill.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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