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Can Online Higher Education Help Bridge the Gap for Autistic Adults?

Jessica Guire’s presentation, “You Don’t Outgrow Autism: Supporting a New Type of Learner,” really hit close to home for me, so I made sure I didn’t miss it. As the parent of an adult with autism who is considering college and what it might offer for him, I was very interested in what Jessica had to say.

When you have a kid with special needs in school, you at least know where to start asking questions. Once that kid becomes an adult, however, where to find those answers becomes much less clear. Jessica quoted Dr. Stephen Shore, “Once you’ve met on person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Of course, this fact complicates the support of an adult with autism, because what works for one might or might not work for another. Maneuvering your way through the ins and outs of college admissions and what I have come to think of as “the BIG transition” to college campus life seems insurmountable as a parent, much less as an autistic adult. Jessica shared that only about 1/3 of autistic students enter college, and with the difficulties experienced by adults with autism in many of the aspects of transitioning to college, it was surprising to me that the number was so high.

The silver lining came when Jessica started talking about how online colleges, like Ashford University, can be the bridge to higher education for these adults with autism. While each adult with autism is unique, as a group, they do share some common difficulties: social awkwardness, sensory overload, emotional dysregulation, and executive dysfunction. By pursuing online education, this student population can often take steps to minimize these difficulties because they are in the comfort of their own spaces. Some of these difficulties are symptoms of other learning difficulties, as well, so the things we do to support adults with autism would support other special needs populations as well.

Jessica suggested some strategies for our classrooms that would help adults with autism be more successful. Being mindful of learning styles, such as providing checklists, review sheets, and assignment reminders. Communicating clearly and providing additional documents for students for assignments. Monitor social skills by ensuring no one gets left out in group assignments, making sure your communications are clear and concise, and setting class rules that are specific and concrete. To minimize sensory overload, use less video components and graphics to convey information, and I would add here that following the Universal Design for Learning and providing information in multiple formats to accommodate all kinds of learners. Wait, you say, these autistic students are not identified to us, so how can we know if we are helping them? Many of these strategies are shown to increase student engagement in all populations, and research shows they are best practices in online courses already.

After hearing Jessica’s presentation, I am more hopeful than ever that college is a viable option for students like my son, if we can provide the right support for them. The number of adults with autism looking to move forward in education is only going to increase in the future, and as we have led the way in so many other areas of online education, I think this is another opportunity – let’s pave the way for special needs adults in online education.

Rebecca Hayes

Learning Design Specialist

Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

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