Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by social, communication and behavioral challenges. Autism is known as a spectrum due to a wide variety of symptoms, experiences, and presentations. Many autistic people may identify as neurodivergent, a term recognizing and celebrating the natural differences in human brain wiring. Autism also can be viewed as a different way of sensing, communicating and experiencing the world.
Barriers to Access
- Expectations to interpreting nonverbal cues
- Engaging in abstract communication or instructions
- Expectation to express emotion in speech
- Sensory overload—lights, sounds, smells, crowds, etc.
- Navigating social interactions
- Changes to routine
Considerations and Tips for Improving Accessibility
Students’ accommodation letters outline the accommodations they are approved for with D&A. Following delivery by the student, instructors must provide each reasonable accommodation listed. The following list includes tips and best practices to consider in addition to the provision of ADA accommodations. (Information about a student’s disability is confidential with Disability & Access, and while a student may choose to disclose their disability, this information cannot be requested by instructors).
The following list of tips, adapted from Longhorn TIES materials, was gathered to support neurodivergent students. (Neurodiversity recognizes and celebrates the natural differences in human brain wiring. Individuals may self-identify as neurodivergent or identify with one of several neurodivergent diagnoses, including but not limited to: Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, and more).
Items on this list may be applicable or relevant for many different students and disability categories, while they may be less helpful or relevant for other students. This list aims to offer ideas and a starting point for instructors.
Communicating Instructions & Expectations
- Be direct, clear, and specific with assignment instructions, course expectations, and with feedback on assignments. Communicate intentionally and check for understanding.
- Follow up oral instructions with written summaries and provide visual examples on how to complete or submit assignments.
- Provide advance notice of meetings, topics to be discussed, and changes in schedule.
- Create clear expectations and processes for group work, including deadlines, potential roles for group members, and processes for troubleshooting group conflicts.
Creating a Welcoming Classroom Environment
- Create a safe and encouraging environment for students to discuss accommodations (welcoming directions for initiating accommodation conversations in syllabi and in class).
- Periodically check in with students and initiate conversations about challenges in the course.
- Facilitate healthy sensory environments (sound, lighting & visual stimuli). Ask about preferred meeting setting.
- Avoid cold-calling in class. Foster openness to input and questions and allow students to respond.
Flexibility with Teaching & Assignments
- Build flexibility into syllabi and offer multiple formats and/or options for students to submit work and demonstrate their knowledge in ways that best suit their strengths.
- Accept typed, recorded, and handwritten assignments and exam (multiple formats).
- Consider offering multiple assignment options (such as for term projects) and limit timed work (students may be unable to demonstrate full knowledge or understanding within time constraints).
- Build in optional structure for unstructured assignments and/or deadlines (or assist student in creating upon request).
- Provide a variety of formats for engaging with material (podcasts, videos, etc. in addition to reading assignments). During instruction, provide visual or alternate learning tools when possible (pictures, charts, spreadsheets).
- Longhorn TIES: Launched in 2019, the Longhorn TIES (Transition, Inclusion, Empower, Success) program within New Student Services coordinates and facilitates neurodiversity initiatives at The University of Texas at Austin. Longhorn TIES seeks to enhance the student experience for students who identify as neurodivergent through advocacy, connections and training, starting with the New Student Orientation process and continuing through the student’s tenure at the university. Longhorn TIES encompasses: TIESplus and drop-in student supports, faculty and staff support, the Neurodiversity Leadership Council, presentations and training and more.
- Students on the Spectrum: A partnership between Disability and Access and Longhorn TIES providing meetings where students on the spectrum to share experiences, ideas and resources with each other.
- Counseling and Mental Health Center Identity-Based Support Groups: UT’s CHMC offers a selection of identity-based support groups each semester. Previous disability-related offerings have included: Everything All at Once (ADHD), Free to be ND, and Connecting Around Chronicity. See their webpage for a current list of offerings.
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