Department of Things They Don’t Teach in Graduate School: Students With Autism and Higher Ed

September 26, 2011, 7:34 am

In Saturday’s Daily Beast, author Priscilla Gilman writes about “Autism’s Back To School Anxiety.” The parent of a young teenager, Gilman notes that the kinds of discipline and new-ness that can be a source of expectation and excitement for some kids creates anxiety and stress for children on the autism spectrum. “Children with autism typically struggle with novelty,” she writes, “and a new school year can bring an overwhelming flood of novelty—new teachers and classmates, a new physical space to become acclimated to, a new schedule and routine, new demands and expectations both academically and behaviorally.”

It is debatable what kinds of changes are producing a growing population of children who fall into the autism spectrum.  Research will likely produce more evidence to show that this disorder is produced in a multi-causal way that implicates genetics, the environment, and spikes in immune function from vaccines.  It also seems likely that increased diagnosis is a factor in raising awareness that behavior that has been perceived as peculiar to stigmatizing is related to brain differences that can now be understood and labeled.

What seems not debatable is that our sense of fairness, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is way ahead of any conversation about what it will mean for young people who need a great deal of support to realize their human potential to attend college.  It seems certain is that increasing numbers of children on the autism spectrum — many of whom have unusual abilities — will go to college. As USA Today reported three years ago, they are already in our classrooms.  This is happening in a context in which there is little to no attention being paid to giving full-time faculty the training to teach students who have a wide range of capacities when it comes to what counts for normal classroom discipline:  sitting still for an hour and taking notes, being in crowded rooms where they risk being bumped and touched, overcoming obsessive behavior to get to class or hand in a paper on time, working in small groups with other students, or being in large classes with crowds of strangers.  It is also happening in a context in which being full-time faculty is becoming anomalous, and the financial “flexibility” of running higher education on per-course labor makes it unlikely that the vast majority of faculty will be eligible, or open to making unpaid time available, for the training that would make their classrooms accessible to autistic students.

The challenges are somewhat different from the vast category of “learning disabilities” for which responsible colleges and universities provide learning centers to provide the support that makes what we euphemistically call “accommodation” useful.  As Gilman writes about the middle schoolers with whom she is currently most familiar:

Once in school, the children are confronted with a flood of confusing and potentially upsetting stimuli. One autistic teen told me that getting used to new faces is especially challenging for her: “I have to learn how to decode the expressions.” Another said that the pitch, volume, and timbre of a slew of new voices always take a good deal of getting used to. Bells signaling the end or beginning of classes, whistles, and fire alarms are all new and aversive noises to children who suffer from acute sound sensitivity. We’ve often come to school to walk Benj through fire drills, and whenever there’s a new gym teacher, we’ve asked him or her to warn Benj before blowing a whistle.

Imagine what it would be like to an easily startled child to be in a class where using clickers in integral to the pedagogy. People with autism, Gilman notes, also tend to have disordered sleep, affecting the capacity to function at high-stress times of the semester when we assume that most students are pulling all-nighters.  They have difficulty relating to someone they are intimate with (much less an impatient, overworked faculty member who wants all students to act like the adults they appear to be), what they are experiencing and what is wrong, which would make even the most generous office hours not useful.

So when we are putting together arguments for hiring full-time faculty in the next round of budget cuts and declarations from foundations that tenure is holding us back, think about adding this one in.  The demands on faculty to be well-trained, knowledgeable, creative and flexible teachers are growing — not subsiding — and attention to this will make all the difference in keeping our classrooms truly inclusive.

Late afternoon celebration edit: I just realized that this is the 750th post at Tenured Radical.

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