Asperger's Syndrome / Autism Spectrum Academic Impact

What is Asperger's Syndrome?

Asperger's syndrome is the mildest and highest functioning end of the spectrum of pervasive developmental disorders (autism spectrum). Asperger's is a pervasive and complex developmental disorder. It is only relatively recently that the syndrome, originally described by Asperger in 1944, has attracted more widespread attention. There is still some considerable debate about the value of distinguishing Asperger's syndrome from autism but clinically there would appear to be advantages in using the term Asperger's syndrome for individuals with a particular cluster of social, communication and behavioral characteristics. Students with Asperger's syndrome range from normal to high (occasionally very high) IQ and typically present with basic language skills.

Insistence on Sameness

Students with AS are easily overwhelmed by minimal change, are highly sensitive to environmental stressors, and sometimes engage in rituals. They are anxious and tend to worry obsessively when they do not know what to expect; stress, fatigue and sensory overload easily throw them off balance.

Impairment in Social Interaction

Students with AS show an inability to understand complex rules of social interaction; are naive; are extremely egocentric; may not like physical contact; talk at people instead of to them; do not understand jokes, irony or metaphors; use monotone or stilted, unnatural tone of voice; use inappropriate gaze and body language; are insensitive and lack tact; misinterpret social cues; cannot judge "social distance;" exhibit poor ability to initiate and sustain conversation; have well-developed speech but poor communication; are sometimes labeled "little professor" because speaking style is so adult-like and pedantic; are easily taken advantage of (do not perceive that others sometimes lie or trick them); and usually have a desire to be part of the social world.

Restricted Range of Interests

Students with AS have eccentric preoccupations or odd, intense fixations (sometimes obsessively collecting unusual things). They tend to relentlessly "lecture" on areas of interest; ask repetitive questions about interests; have trouble letting go of ideas; follow own inclinations regardless of external demands; and sometimes refuse to learn about anything outside their limited field of interest.

Poor Concentration

Students with AS are often off task, distracted by internal stimuli; are very disorganized; have difficulty sustaining focus on classroom activities (often it is not that the attention is poor but, rather, that the focus is "odd"; the individual with AS cannot figure out what is relevant so attention is focused on irrelevant stimuli); tend to withdrawal into complex inner worlds in a manner much more intense than is typical of daydreaming and have difficulty learning in a group situation.

Poor Motor Coordination

Students with AS are physically clumsy and awkward; have stiff, awkward gaits; are unsuccessful in games involving motor skills; and experience fine-motor deficits that can cause penmanship problems, slow clerical speed and affect their ability to draw.

Academic Difficulties

Students with AS usually have average to above-average intelligence (especially in the verbal sphere) but lack high level thinking and comprehension skills. They tend to be very literal: Their images are concrete, and abstraction is poor. Their pedantic speaking style and impressive vocabularies give the false impression that they understand what they are talking about, when in reality they are merely parroting what they have heard or read. The student with AS frequently has an excellent rote memory, but it is mechanical in nature; that is, the student may respond like a video that plays in set sequence. Problem-solving skills are poor.

Emotional Vulnerability

Students with Asperger Syndrome have the intelligence to compete in regular education but they often do not have the emotional resources to cope with the demands of the classroom. These students are easily stressed due to their inflexibility. Self-esteem is low, and they are often very self-critical and unable to tolerate making mistakes. Individuals with AS, especially adolescents, may be prone to depression (a high percentage of depression in adults with AS has been documented). Rage reactions/temper outbursts are common in response to stress/frustration. Students with AS rarely seem relaxed and are easily overwhelmed when things are not as their rigid views dictate they should be. Interacting with people and coping with the ordinary demands of everyday life take continual Herculean effort.

Studying at the Postsecondary Level

Listed below are some of the challenges students with Asperger's syndrome may experience while studying at Ferris State University.

  1. Communicating with faculty/staff and fellow students

    While individuals with Asperger's syndrome may have an excellent vocabulary and sound syntactic knowledge, the performance or 'communicative' aspect of their language may be poor. They may have difficulty knowing when to speak and when to remain silent, what to talk about and with whom, when, where and in what manner. They may have difficulty inferring ideas from what is said, or they may take what is said very literally. Students with Asperger's syndrome may be unable to alter 'register' or language style in different language situations — resulting in a very pompous or stilted language style. Their language can appear 'odd' and inappropriate. Sometimes particular phrases will be repeated many times in a stereotyped fashion. Non-verbal communication, both receptive and expressive, is often not well developed. Individuals may often interrupt inappropriately and be unable to interpret any cues that such interruptions are unwelcome. At times, students with Asperger's syndrome may appear non-compliant as they often have difficulty taking direction and coping with negative feedback. Students with Asperger's syndrome may often be perceived as being rude or arrogant — it is important that academic staff are aware that the student has impaired communication and that any rudeness is unintentional. Classroom participation may present problems for some students - allowance for communication difficulties may be necessary.

  2. Social interaction

    Students with Asperger's syndrome can be loners who never quite "fit in". This may be because of eccentric behavior, peculiar ways of speaking and a lack social skills. However, students with Asperger's syndrome are generally very keen to develop social relationships but lack the ability to understand and use the rules governing social behavior. He or she may attempt to initiate contact inappropriately or react unnecessarily aggressively to a rebuff. Students may feel rejected but not understand how their own behavioral responses have contributed to their isolation. Over time, some students may withdraw from uncomfortable interactions and become quite isolated (concomitant psychiatric difficulties can occur e.g. depression, obsessive compulsive disorder). Students with Asperger's syndrome may benefit from accessing the Academic Support Center or the Personal Counseling Center. Students may need to be directed to particular groups — a Chess club or other special interest group for example. If support staff are aware of the potential for isolation, it may be useful to arrange a regular support meeting. The periods of emotional frustration experienced by all students at some time or other can be greatly magnified for students with Asperger's syndrome. They may seem to over-react to seemingly unimportant issues.

  3. Coping with the university learning environment

    Students with Asperger's syndrome are often resistant to change and cope best in a structured environment in which any change is predictable. The vastness of universities and the adult learning environment in which students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning is likely to be difficult for such students. Because these students often have difficulty inferring information, they may find it difficult to take on board the significance of registration dates and examination timetables.

Common Problems for Students with AS

Little research has been done into the needs and problems of students with AS, and because AS is a wide category, individuals may have very different difficulties. These may include:

  • In interview situations, people with AS may not do themselves full justice. In particular, they may give limited eye contact, or struggle with open questions.
  • Extreme difficulty dealing with room-mates in shared accommodation, and need for quiet and solitude in order to be able to work.
  • Difficulty with proximity to others — leading to a need for an aisle seat in exams, or to take exams in a separate room.
  • Needs similar to students with dyslexia, such as extra time for examinations.
  • Problems interacting with others in seminars and groups.
  • Great difficulty speaking in public, especially without notes.
  • Difficulty understanding instructions and requirements.
  • High levels of anxiety and vulnerability to stress.
  • Difficulty coping with the social environment of university and dealing with other students.
  • Can often suffer from lack of organization.
  • Difficulties with time pressure due to high anxiety levels, disorganization etc.
  • Can have poor concentration because of anxiety inducing factors — lighting, noise, etc.
  • Difficulties in team or group work.
  • Problems in learning by observation.
  • Difficulties with ambiguous instructions.

Academic Strengths Associated with AS

Having AS can offer some academic advantages as well as problems:

  • Most students find that a busy social life interferes with their studies. This is one problem that students with AS generally don't have.
  • Some people with AS have memories for exceptional detail and/or a natural affinity with computers — both of these can give a student a head start.
  • The formal style required for academic essay writing is usually a lot easier to master than "casual" social conversation.
  • Hans Asperger suggested that academia might be the natural environment for bright people with AS, and other researchers have even suspected that the stereotype of the "absent-minded" professor might have been based on people with AS
  • Students with AS are often original and creative in their thought patterns.
  • Students with AS can have good attention to detail and precision.
  • Students with AS can be very independent in their studying.
  • Students with AS usually try extremely hard at what they are doing.