Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Challenges and Subjects – this link takes you to challenges and subjects associated with autistic spectrum disorders.

Brief description of Autistic Spectrum Disorders


Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects the way an individual communicates and relates to people around them. Children and adults with autism experience difficulties with everyday social interaction. Their ability to develop friendships is generally limited due to their capacity to understand other people’s emotional expression.

Detailed description of Autistic Spectrum Disorders

People with autism often have accompanying learning difficulties but all individuals share the same common difficulty in making sense of the world around them.

Students with autistic spectrum disorders can experience a number of difficulties which may affect their studies.

People with autism generally experience three main areas of difficulty; these are known as the triad of impairments:

  • Social interaction – difficulty with social relationships, e.g. appearing aloof and indifferent to others.
  • Social communication – difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, e.g. not fully understanding the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice.
  • Imagination – difficulty in the development of interpersonal skills and imagination, e.g. having a limited range of imaginative abilities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively.

In addition to this triad, repetitive behaviour patterns and resistance to change in routine are often also characteristic.

Asperger Syndrome

Individuals with Asperger syndrome find it difficult to read communication signals that most of us take for granted and, as a result, find it more difficult to communicate and interact with others. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism, and a number of traits of autism are common to Asperger syndrom, including:

  • difficulty communicating – individuals may speak fluently but they may not take much notice of the reaction of the people listening to them; they may talk on an on regardless of the listener’s interest or they may appear insensitive to their feelings. Despite having good language skills, people with Asperger syndrome may sound over-precise or over-literal jokes can cause problems as can exaggerated language, turns of phrase and metaphors.
  • difficulty forming social relationships – unlike the individual with classic autism, who often appears withdrawn and uninterested in the world around them, many people with Asperger syndrome want to be sociable and enjoy human contact. Although they do still find it hard to understand non-verbal signals, including facial expressions, which makes it more difficult for them to form and maintain social relationships with people unaware of their needs.
  • lack of imagination and creativity – while they often excel at learning facts and figures, individuals with Asperger syndrome often find it hard to think in abstract ways.

However, people with Asperger syndrom usually have fewer problems with language than those with autism, often speaking fluently, though their words can sometimes sound formal or stilted. People with Asperger syndrome do not usually have the accompanying learning disabilities that can be associated with autism.

Because of this, many individuals who have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as children, have often been through mainstream schooling and, with the right support and encouragement, have made good educational progress.

Individuals with Asperger syndrome often develop an almost obsessive interest in a hobby or collecting. Usually their interest involves arranging or memorising facts about a special subject, such as train timetables, Derby winners or the dimensions of cathedrals, for example. With the right encouragement, interests can be developed so that people with Asperger syndrome can go on to work or to study their area of interest.

Individuals can also find change unsettling and upsetting and often prefer to order their day according to a set pattern. If they work set hours then any unexpected delay, such as a traffic hold-up, or a late train, can make them anxious or upset.

These are the main characteristics of the condition, but it is important to remember that all individuals are different and these characteristics will vary greatly and some may be demonstrated more strongly than others.

Characteristics Impacting on Learning and Teaching

Students with autistic spectrum disorders may have certain advantages over other students in relation to some areas of their university experience, for example:

  • Most students find that a busy social life interferes with their studies. This is one problem that students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders generally don’t have.
  • Some individuals with autistic spectrum disorders have unusual memories 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 conversation.
  • They generally have the ability to study an area in great depth.
  • They can be very motivated and independent in their study.
  • They can be very single minded in working to set goals.
  • Students are often original and creative in their thought patterns and have good attention to detail and precision.

However, students with autistic spectrum disorders may also have a number of characteristics that have a negative impact on the way they learn; these can include any or all of the following:

  • Difficulty interacting with other students and tutors.
  • Misunderstanding or naivety within social interactions.
  • Anxiety within social interactions.
  • Reliance on routines and a dislike of sudden changes.
  • Poor organisational skills.
  • Easily distracted.
  • Confusion of relevant and irrelevant information.
  • Focusing on inappropriate details.

Students with autistic spectrum disorders may find group work situations problematic due to their difficulties with social interaction, specific group work difficulties might include: missing unspoken messages given through body language, facial expression, or tone of voice, making remarks that appear to be inappropriate to the context of the conversation, and difficulty accommodating to different audiences.

Students with autistic spectrum disorders are more likely to use language literally, finding it difficult to understand metaphors, jokes or abstract concepts. Their difficulty with the abstract and their inflexibility in thinking can extend to other areas, for example reliance on fixed routines or demonstrating repetitive behaviour, such as wishing to sit in the same seat, they may experience distress when these routines are disrupted.

Potential challenges to the achievement of learning


External resources