Asperger's Syndrome: Some Considerations for Staff, Faculty and Friends

Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder that has great variability in how it presents, and each student will have their own individual strengths and weaknesses. Symptoms can range from very mild to more intrusive. People with the syndrome are likely to have the same range of intellectual skills as the rest of the population, although some of their other characteristics may impede their access to a college education. Consequently, it will be helpful for those unfamiliar with the Syndrome to become more familiar with common concerns in order to improve the opportunity for these students to succeed in the college environment. 

Common issues include challenges with social interactions and communications and a pattern of intensely focused and repeated interests and activities. Understanding social cues and nonverbal communications and the feelings of others may cause difficulty in relationships, and may put the individual at risk for being misunderstood. Because social interaction is so intrinsic to the way most teaching and learning takes place, difficulties in the area of social interaction can significantly impair academic performance.

Persons with Asperger’s Syndrome often have above average intelligence and may have very advanced vocabularies in particular topics. Speech may sound quite formal or stilted, tone or volume may be unusual, and back and forth conversations may be difficult. Instead, they may feel more comfortable talking at length about a topic that is of great interest to them. Often, someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome has a very intense interest in one or two activities and even if those are activities typical for their age group, they are pursued with an intensity that may be daunting to peers and may interrupt the student’s motivation for doing academic work not related to these topics. Slang, humor, and sarcasm may be difficult to understand, and non-verbal communication and cues may be missed. Difficulty understanding or communicating feelings is possible, as well as difficulty predicting others' behavior, all of which make any group work a challenge. A change in routine or in the environment (like rearranging dorm room furniture or a canceled class) may also pose a significant challenge.

Strengths may include extensive factual information, advanced vocabulary in some areas, exceptional memory for detail, original and creative thought patterns, attention to detail and precision, and ability to study independently. Challenges may include difficulty with abstract thought, problem solving, organization, and making inferences, difficulty adapting to change, a tendency to take language literally, and sensitivity to sensory stimuli unperceived by “neurotypicals."

Some adjustments to teaching strategies may help the student with Asperger’s Syndrome succeed more readily. 

  • Students are responsible for self-identifying to faculty and staff and requesting accommodations as necessary; if a student does self-identify, take the time to explore their particular needs.
  • Provide clear, detailed oral and written information about the course structure, deadlines, and assessments ahead of time and warn students well in advance of any change.
  • Use clear, unambiguous language that either avoids or explains metaphors and irony. Instructions need to be explicit and literal, check to be sure the student understands.
  • In group work, be careful to make clear what is expected of students and be prepared to resolve disputes; consider providing alternate ways of completing team work.
  • Set concrete, realistic goals to help with motivation: “If you want to continue in this job, you must be on time to all your work shifts and perform the work as your supervisor directs." “If you want to pass the class, you must complete the research paper in the format the professor expects."
  • Work with the student to identify a support person or a quiet place where the student can go to decompress when overwhelmed.
  • If possible, it may help students to look at the instructions and structure of an exam (not the content) prior to taking it, to address any confusion with the instructions or expectations. 
  • Address any concerns right away. Let the student know what expectations they are not meeting in clear, behavioral terms. “To live in the residence hall, you must turn off your music during quiet hours”. “To stay in this class, you must speak only when called upon, and must limit your comments to no more than five minutes”. With the student’s permission, contact any support person the student is working with for assistance (SASC, Disability Services, Counseling, etc.).