Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that primarily affects social and communication skills. It affects more than 1% of the population, but is diagnosed nearly five times more often in males than in females. Symptoms of ASD vary widely, ranging from mild to severe, and the condition often occurs simultaneously with other mental health disorders. Students with autism primarily struggle with the nonacademic aspects of school, like transitioning between classes, controlling their emotions, and engaging with their peers, although they may have other co-occurring disorders that cause them to have difficulty with academics as well.
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What is autism spectrum disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder is a condition affecting nearly 1 in 68 children. ASD is almost five times more common in males (1 in 42) than females (1 in 189). In its mildest form, autism primarily affects social skills. In severe cases, individuals are unable to care for themselves and have profound intellectual disabilities and severely impaired social skills.
Previously, mild cases of autism spectrum disorder were diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome and more severe cases as autism. The previous diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome was characterized by impaired social skills and repetitive behaviors or rituals in the absence of a significant language delay or overall cognitive impairment. The previous diagnosis of autistic disorder (autism) included a wide range of symptoms such as lack of appropriate peer relationships, little or no use of verbal communication, and inability to sustain a conversation (for those with adequate speech).
With the overlap in symptoms, practitioners often struggled to decide which diagnosis was more appropriate for a given individual. So, in its most recent update, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is the diagnostic guide produced by the American Psychological Association and used by most mental health professionals when diagnosing individuals, combined the disorders into a spectrum. Currently, an ASD diagnosis includes a severity level ranging from 1–3 where 1 denotes the mildest level of impairment (previously considered Asperger’s syndrome) and 3 denotes the most severe level of impairment.
What are the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder?
No two individuals with autism exhibit the exact same symptoms. However, there are some traits that are similar across many of those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. These include poor eye contact, delayed language development, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors or sounds.
- Poor eye contact is common in individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Humans use eye contact as a nonverbal social cue to interact with others, show attention, and synchronize behaviors when working together. Lower levels of eye contact displayed by those with autism affect social situations, making others think they are not interested in what is being said or are not paying attention.
- Delayed language development is another common symptom of autism spectrum disorder. Delayed language occurs when a child is not meeting common language milestones (moving to words from noises, using names, telling stories, etc.) at the appropriate age. Language delay makes it more difficult for children with ASD to communicate their wants and needs and makes it more difficult to create and maintain friendships.
- Restricted interests refers to the obsessive interest many individuals with autism have in one or two specific topics. The preferred interests may change or fluctuate over time, but individuals likely have few interests outside of their obsessions. Note that many children become intensely interested in a certain movie, TV show, or character, but do not meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis. The restricted interests in those with autism are at a more extreme level, so much that it interferes with daily life. For example, even if a child has a favorite movie, if the movie gets lost or otherwise can’t be watched, they will probably accept an alternative movie without too much fuss. An individual with autism, however, might become incredibly upset or angry, and not accept an alternative regardless of the situation.
- Repetitive behaviors and/or sounds or self-stimulating (“stim”) behaviors are also common symptoms in those with autism. Typically, these involve waving, rocking, or making the same noise repeatedly.
All of these behaviors can occur in the absence of autism spectrum disorder, but the difference is that in those with autism the behaviors are extreme and could occur with such frequency that they interfere with day-to-day life.
How is autism spectrum disorder diagnosed? Can an individual have more than one diagnosis?
The average age for an autism diagnosis is four years old, although it is not uncommon to receive a diagnosis at age two or three.
Often, parents who have concerns about their child’s development go to a pediatrician who can perform initial screenings and decide whether to refer the individual to a specialist. However, each state also has an Early Intervention program where parents can take their children for screenings if they have concerns. Typically, a formal diagnosis is made by a developmental pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional with experience diagnosing autism.
Due to the nature of developmental disorders like autism, symptoms often overlap with other disorders. This can leave parents wondering whether their child could have more than one diagnosable disorder. By one estimate, as many as 75% of children diagnosed with ASD also have another medical or psychiatric condition. The technical name for conditions occurring at the same time is comorbidity; the most common comorbid conditions with autism are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression.
Is autism spectrum disorder a learning disability?
No, autism spectrum disorder does not meet the diagnostic criteria for specific learning disabilities. However, someone diagnosed with autism may also have one or more specific learning disabilities affecting their reading, writing, or mathematics skills.
How does autism spectrum disorder affect students?
How a student is affected by autism is largely dependent on their specific symptoms. Some individuals with autism have ADHD-like symptoms (including inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity) which can make it difficult for them to follow directions and complete assignments on time, among other things. Additionally, social deficits related to autism can make just being in a classroom with dozens of other students stressful.
Students with disabilities (including autism) in the public school system are eligible for Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans to receive accommodations in school. An IEP is essentially a plan for individualized instruction; Academic goals are defined and data is tracked to measure progress. 504 plans, however, are primarily used to ensure that a student receives the accommodations that are necessary for them to succeed in the classroom.
In the most severe cases, accommodations could include placement in a special education classroom with few other students and an individual aide. For students with mild autism, accommodations could include a separate testing environment without distractions, a seat at the front of the class, or the ability to leave class as needed if they get overwhelmed. The goal is to place a student in the least restrictive environment, meaning that they should be kept with their peers as much as possible.
Learn more about IEPs and 504 plans here.
How is autism spectrum disorder treated?
Because autism affects a variety of behaviors, it is too complex to be treated only with medication. Typically, the preferred treatment for ASD is applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. Medications can help with some aggressive and ADHD-like behaviors, though.
- Antipsychotic medications (such as Risperdal and Abilify) are often used to treat the irritability associated with autism.
- Stimulants (such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse) increase heart rate and cause a feeling of euphoria when taken by most people, but they have a calming effect on those with the ADHD-like behaviors that are often present with autism.
- Nonstimulants or cognition-enhancing medications (including Intuniv and Strattera) may be used in combination with stimulant medications to treat ADHD-like behaviors in those with autism.
- Antihypertensive drugs relax blood vessels to increase blood flow. How these drugs treat ADHD-like behaviors is not fully understood, but they are successful at reducing both hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Applied behavior analysis therapy is often used to treat autism spectrum disorder, but it can be applied to any behavior. ABA uses reinforcement and changes to the environment (especially the actions happening right before and right after a behavior) to change the behavior itself. ABA focuses both on increasing functional skills (personal care, social and academic skills, and sometimes occupational skills) and decreasing problem behaviors (anything that gets in the way of these skills, including self-harm, aggression toward others, etc.). Typically, a therapist supports a child in their home, daycare, or school environment to help the individual develop social, communication, self-help, or academic skills. Specific behaviors (unique to the individual, but ranging from something as simple as using one word to request something to those as complex as carrying on a conversation) are chosen and defined, and the therapist then teaches the behavior, rewards successes, and tracks progress.
Can students with autism spectrum disorder go to college?
Yes, they certainly can and do. However, as with any decision, choosing to attend college with autism spectrum disorder is dependent upon many individual factors. If you have been diagnosed with ASD and want to attend college, consider what supports you received in high school. Although you may have received accomodation through an IEP or 504 plan, college will be different. You can receive accommodations in college, but you will have to disclose your disability to your institution and ask for the specific accommodations you want to receive.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Will I be living on-campus, off-campus, or at home?
- If you will be living away from home, you need to consider whether you are comfortable living with a roommate; if you choose to live on campus and disclose your disability to the school, you can request a single room if you prefer. If you will be living at home, what will the rules be? What will your parents expect you to do for yourself, and what are they willing to help with?
- What will I do for meals, laundry, and transportation?
- If you will be living away from home, you’ll need to be able to take care of yourself by doing your own laundry, getting meals at the dining hall or preparing them yourself, and using public transportation or a vehicle to get around. If you will be living at home, which of these things will you need to do for yourself, and which will your parents help with?
- Will I need extra help on assignments?
- If so, and if you are not disclosing your disability to your school, check whether tutoring is available for students. Many schools offer a number of free tutoring sessions to students each semester. If you are disclosing your disability, you can request accommodations for academic assistance.
- What doctor will I see?
- For emergencies, the campus health center or local hospital is always available. For medication refills or dosage changes, you could either choose to continue seeing your doctor at home or look for a new doctor closer to campus. Note that some doctors have a waiting list for appointments, so call well in advance if you’re hoping to make a switch.
- Are there support groups on campus?
- This is largely dependent on your institution, but it never hurts to check. You may find that there isn’t a specific group for students with ASD, but there may be a group for students with learning disabilities, students who have chronic illnesses, or students who just want the support of their peers. Most schools have a website with information on student life, but you can also check on campus and in the student center for fliers.
In college, you will need to advocate for your own needs to a greater extent than you needed to in high school. If you have questions about what supports are available, or simply need help, a great first step is to contact your school’s disability office.
What type of academic and social support is available for students with autism spectrum disorder who are attending college?
When it comes to academic support, you will have access to the same resources as all other students: one-on-one tutoring sessions, math and writing centers, academic counseling or advising, etc. But provided you disclose your disability to your school, you’ll also gain the help of your school’s disability office. If you need accommodations of any kind, the disability office should be your first stop. The staff there can not only help you request accommodations in your classes, but also put you in touch with support groups on campus and ensure that your rights aren’t being violated in any way. If you need help, just ask! Your professors, advisor, or dean can also assist you in finding resources on campus.
Larger schools are more likely to have other students with similar needs to yours, so they may have a wider variety of social supports available than you might find at a smaller institution. When you’re deciding where to apply to school, talk to someone in the disability office to learn what campus life options there are specifically for students with disabilities. Ask about resources like Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM) or the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, which have chapters and affiliates at campuses across the country. The National Center for College Students with Disabilities can be a great online resource as well. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on your campus, talk to the student life office; you could take the initiative to start a group on your own!
Are there other postsecondary options for students with autism?
Absolutely! Instead of college, you could consider attending a life skills program that focuses on teaching the daily living skills necessary for an individual to live independently. One example, the Minnesota Life College, teaches “independent living skills, employment readiness and placement, and social integration and peer support.” The support that a student with ASD would receive from a life skills program will always be more hands on than the support a student would receive at a college or university, simply because these programs have taken the time to develop a curriculum specifically geared toward students with developmental disorders. Individuals with severe autism, then, might benefit more from a life skills program or life skills classes than from a traditional degree program.
Additionally, students should consider whether enrolling in an online degree or certificate program, attending a community college or vocational school, or taking fewer classes per semester (thereby extending the length of time it would take to complete a degree or certificate program) would better meet their needs than a traditional four-year degree program.
Are there scholarships for students with autism spectrum disorder?
There are a variety of scholarships available specifically to help students with autism spectrum disorder pay for college. The three listed below, however, are not the only ones that are available. Do an internet search of your own to learn about other scholarship options.
- The KFM Making A Difference Scholarship awards $500 to high school and college students with autism who are pursuing postsecondary education
- The Rise Scholarship Foundation offers scholarships ranging from $500 to $2,500 to high school students with autism who will be attending college the next year.
- The Organization for Autism Research offers $3,000 scholarships to students who will be attending a two- or four-year college, trade school, or life skills program. The organization offers one scholarship opportunity to those diagnosed with high-functioning autism, and another opportunity to those with a more severe diagnosis. Up to 40 scholarships are awarded between the two categories.
Page last updated: 03/2018