Students With Autism Present Learning Opportunity for Faculty
February 9, 2017
Many University of Arkansas professors and instructors will teach students who have some of the characteristics of autism, even if the student has not been diagnosed as having autism.
Autism is a neurological disorder. Causes of autism are not known, and there is no cure. Effects of the disorder vary widely and include impairment in communication skills, difficulty with social interactions, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. People with autism also have a wide range of abilities.
Despite the complexity of autism and its effect on behavior, Aleza Greene uses simple examples when she educates people about autism, in particular the challenges people with autism face in communicating with others. Many people with autism do not read nonverbal cues or other body language so they will not understand if they are dominating a class discussion, asking too many questions or standing too close — unless someone tells them, she said.
"Would you tell a friend she had spinach in teeth?" Greene asked a group of faculty members last month. "Would you give her your honest opinion about whether a pair of jeans was flattering for her? You have to be brave and tell a student with autism what he won't pick up from watching you."
Ro DiBrezzo began teaching and conducting research with students at the U of A in 1983. Now, she serves as vice provost for faculty development and enhancement. She invited Greene to share her experience as director of the Autism Support Program at the U of A with faculty members campuswide as part of a faculty enrichment series.
Schools are doing a good job of preparing students with autism to go on to college, DiBrezzo said.
"Last year, we had faculty tell us they had these kids in their classes but weren't sure what the best practices were to help them," she said. "We know that the university administration's No. 1 priority is student retention, and that requires faculty help. Classes are bigger, students are more diverse, and we have things to do that are not necessarily what we learned in our doctoral programs."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated one in 68 children has been identified with autism as of 2012, the most recent year data are available. That is up from one in 150 children based on 2002 data. People who have autism range from those who are unable to live independently to those who would be considered socially odd, Greene said. She and her husband are also the parents of a U of A student with autism.
The characteristics U of A faculty are most likely to see in students with autism are social deficits such as difficulty reading social cues, expressions, body language, tone of voice and inability to express emotion, Greene said. These students may also experience anxiety and difficulty with executive function, which is the ability to make a plan, carry it out, evaluate it and adjust it. One aspect many people may be less familiar with about those with autism is what's called "theory of mind," she said. It basically means people with autism lack the ability most of us have to at least partially read other's minds.
Greene gave another example for that concept: When is it OK to sit next to a stranger in a movie theater and not appear to be creepy? When the theater is half full, three quarters full? You can't teach someone how to figure out what others are thinking if they don't instinctively have a feel for it, she said.
She told instructors to try to determine the nature of the anxiety a student with autism may feel in their classes. Some people with autism have what is called a co-existing disorder, in this case generalized anxiety disorder, she said.
"These are smart kids and they know they are missing things," Greene said. "They make mistakes but they don't know why."
Another cause for anxiety can be common for all students but more serious for students with autism, she said. They may worry obsessively about class requirements or the format of a test and ask the same questions over and over again to try to assure themselves they know what to expect. In that case, Greene advises students to save such questions until after class and, if they haven't been answered, to email their instructor. That way, with a written reply, students can read and re-read the information as much as they want.
Students with autism may also ask an inordinate number of questions about assignments and will do better — and feel less anxious — when instructions are clearly set out in writing, she said.
"Be as explicit as possible," Greene advised. "These students are very black-and-white. They look at things in a concrete way."
While Greene suggests that students advocate for themselves and explain their disability if they feel comfortable doing so, there is still a stigma attached to autism for some students. Instructors must respect students' privacy and confidentiality and may need to request a meeting in private to explain requirements in more depth, she said. Students will not "pick up" on an instructor's body language if the student is talking too much and keeping the instructor from covering necessary material.
Greene created the Autism Support Program in the College of Education and Health Professions in 2011. It's open to all U of A students and offers intensive services for an additional fee over tuition cost.
Greene and coaches in the program notify instructors at the beginning of each semester if they have a student in their program in their class. They also work closely with the Center for Educational Access to be sure students use accommodations for which they qualify.
Greene offered to assist any U of A faculty members who want additional information, regardless of whether they have a student in the Autism Support Program. Lauren DeCarvalho, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, has taught four students in the program. She wanted to ensure she provided these students with an equal playing field when it came to her classroom and their learning.
"I called Aleza last semester and had a wonderful conversation with her," DeCarvalho said. "She was extremely informative; all around, she was incredibly generous with her knowledge and support of individuals in the Autism Support Program. Additionally, Aleza was incredibly attentive to her students and so we had interactions through this as well."
Greene formerly taught in the childhood education program at the U of A. She holds the rank of clinical assistant professor. She has three degrees in psychology, a doctorate and master's both from Brandeis University, and a bachelor's from Tufts University.
The information Greene provided could be useful for working with any students, not just those with autism, DeCarvalho said.
"In general, the information encourages faculty to keep a closer watch on red flags and the needs of students," she said.
DiBrezzo said her office will continue to offer sessions in the faculty enrichment series.
"We have resources on campus that we need to get to people," DiBrezzo said. "I have been pleasantly reminded that we've got so many talented people doing so many good things."