Instructional Strategies for Students with Asperger's and Autism Spectrum Disorders


There is a range of inclusive teaching strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific strategies that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with mental illness.

In considering alternative forms of assessment, equal opportunity, not a guaranteed outcome, is the objective. You are not expected to lower standards to accommodate students with a disability, but rather are required to give them a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.

First Day of Class

  • Include a statement in your course syllabus regarding accommodation issues for students with disabilities. See the Suggested Disability Statement for course syllabi.

  • Students who have been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome/Autism Spectrum Disorders often find it helpful when the course syllabus is written with clearly defined assignment deadlines as the need for organization is important to them.

  • Invite students to self-identify on the first day of class by making a public statement such as: "Please contact me to discuss disability accommodations."

  • Provide clear, detailed information (oral and written) about the structure of the course, practical arrangements, assessment requirements and deadlines

Lectures and other Teaching Sessions

  • Respect any need for routine, e.g., the student may wish to sit in the same seat at every lecture.

  • Give advance notice of unusual events such as field trips or exams. Change is often hard to deal with.

  • Group work may be particularly challenging. Students may find it particularly difficult to participate in group work and a sensitive approach to handling any problems that arise from this type of work needs to be employed.

  • Be aware of the need for extra support and take this into account in assessments — or devise an alternative assessment method to group work.

  • Be aware that teaching strategies useful for students with Asperger's syndrome may be useful for everyone.

  • Try to understand and act upon the requirements of a student with Asperger's syndrome; this is one of the most supportive strategies you can adopt.

  • Try to get to know the student's particular needs in advance — meet them before the course starts to discuss needs

  • Be consistent in approach and keep variations to a minimum — if a change (e.g. in a timetable, room, lecturer) is inevitable give clear, specific information as far ahead as possible.

  • Use clear, unambiguous language (spoken and written) and avoid or explain metaphors, irony etc and interpret what others say- give explicit instructions and check that the student is clear about what he/she has to complete.

  • Present course materials and instructions in a structured way using literal language - show how components fit together as a whole. Provide subject lists, glossaries of terms and acronyms

  • Students may have difficulties in motivation for certain parts of their course due to them having a particular interest in one aspect of it. Set concrete, realistic goals to assist motivation e.g. "If you want to become an engineer you must complete all parts of the course, even the essays".

  • Use detailed, clear instructions. Do not assume that a student who has Asperger's Syndrome will automatically understand what you mean.

Written Assignments and Examinations

  • Poor fine-motor co-ordination may result in extremely poor handwriting. Use of a word processor in lectures may be beneficial.

  • The writing assignments of individuals with AS are often repetitious, flit from one subject to the next, and contain incorrect word connotations. These students frequently do not know the difference between general knowledge and personal ideas and therefore assume the teacher will understand their sometimes obscure expressions;

  • When assigning timed units of work, make sure the student's slower writing speed is taken into account;

Arrangements that may Benefit the Student Include

  • Seeing previous examples of exams to be aware of the structure of the exam and what is expected

  • Knowing the layout of the exam room and location of their seat to alleviate anxiety

  • Language modification of the written exam may be necessary to ensure the language used is as literal as possible and not open to misinterpretation.

General Ideas

Issues Involving Emotional Vulnerability

Teaching strategies that may benefit the student include:

  • Be calm, predictable, and matter-of-fact in interactions with the student with AS, while clearly indicating compassion and patience. Do not expect the student with AS to acknowledge that he or she is sad/ depressed. In the same way that they cannot perceive the feelings of others, these students can also be unaware of their own feelings. They often cover up their depression and deny its symptoms;

  • Teachers must be alert to changes in behavior that may indicate depression, such as even greater levels of disorganization, inattentiveness, and isolation; decreased stress threshold; chronic fatigue; crying; suicidal remarks; and so on. Do not accept the student's assessment in these cases that he or she is "OK", make a mental health referral so that the student can be evaluated for depression and receive treatment if this is needed. Because these students are often unable to assess their own emotions and cannot seek comfort from others, it is critical that depression be diagnosed quickly.

Issues Involving Academic Difficulties

  • Do not assume that students with AS understand something just because they parrot back what they have heard;

  • Offer added explanation and try to simplify when lesson concepts are abstract;

  • Capitalize on these individuals' exceptional memory: Retaining factual information is frequently their forte;

  • Emotional nuances, multiple levels of meaning, and relationship issues as presented in novels will often not be understood;

  • Students with AS often have excellent reading recognition skills, but language comprehension is weak. Do not assume they understand what they so fluently read;

  • Academic work may be of poor quality because the student with AS is not motivated to exert effort in areas in which he or she is not interested. Very firm expectations must be set for the quality of work produced.

Issues Involving Poor Concentration

  • A tremendous amount of regimented external structure must be provided if the student with AS is to be productive in the classroom. Assignments could be broken down into small units, and frequent teacher feedback and redirection could be offered;

  • Students with severe concentration problems benefit from timed work sessions. This helps them organize themselves. Students with AS can sometimes be stubborn; they need firm expectations and a structured program that teaches them that compliance with rules leads to positive reinforcement (this kind of program motivates the student with AS to be productive, thus enhancing self-esteem and lowering stress levels, because the student sees himself as competent);

  • Seat the student with AS at the front of the class and direct frequent questions to him or her to help him or her attend to the lesson;

  • Work out a nonverbal signal with the student for times when he or she is not attending;

  • The teacher must actively encourage the student with AS to leave his or her inner thoughts/ fantasies behind and refocus on the real world. This is a constant battle, as the comfort of that inner world is believed to be much more attractive than anything in real life.

Issues Involving Restricted Range of Interests

  • Do not allow the student with AS to perseveratively discuss or ask questions about isolated interests. Limit this behavior by designating a specific time during the class when the student can talk about this;

  • These students respond to compliments (e.g., in the case of a relentless question-asker, the teacher might consistently praise him/her as soon as he/she pauses and congratulate him/her for allowing others to speak);

  • Some students with AS will not want to do assignments outside their area of interest. Firm expectations must be set for completion of class work. It must be made very clear to the student with AS that he/she is not in control and that he/she must follow specific rules. At the same time, however, meet the students halfway by giving them opportunities to pursue their own interests;

  • Use the student's fixation as a way to broaden his or her repertoire of interests.

Issues Involving Impairment in Social Interactions

  • Protect the student from bullying and teasing by maintaining a classroom built on mutual respect for other ideas;

  • Emphasize the proficient academic skills of the student with AS by creating cooperative learning situations in which his or her skills, memory and so forth will be viewed as an asset by peers, thereby engendering acceptance;

  • Most students with AS want friends but simply do not know how to interact. Given repertoires of responses to use in various social situations they can navigate basic social situations. Model two-way interactions and let them role-play. These students' social judgment improves only after they have been taught rules that others pick up intuitively. They must learn social skills intellectually: They lack social instinct and intuition;

Issues Involving Insistence on Sameness

  • Provide a predictable and safe environment;

  • Minimize transitions;

  • Offer consistent classroom routine: The student with AS must understand each day's routine and know what to expect in order to be able to concentrate on the task at hand;

  • Avoid surprises: Prepare the student thoroughly and in advance for special activities, altered schedules, or any other change in routine, regardless of how minimal;

  • Allay fears of the unknown by exposing the student to the new activity as soon as possible after he or she is informed of the change, to prevent obsessive worrying.

  • Email Disabilities Services for ideas to help individual students.