The fastest-growing developmental disability is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There is an interesting debate about whether this growth is a product of increased autism incidence or what has been dubbed “diagnostic substitution” (i.e., moving people from one diagnostic category, such as “language impairment,” to the autism category). Regardless, the number of students arriving on college campuses with an ASD diagnosis is substantially higher now than it has ever been and will undoubtedly continue to grow over time. The disability accommodations process triggered by such a diagnosis is unique and will continue to present challenges to professors and administrators.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder is a brain development disorder, which as the phrase suggests, results in a spectrum of difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

According to the DSM-V, people with ASD demonstrate deficits in the following areas:

  • Social–emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication, to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures, to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  • Developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts, to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends, to absence of interest in peers.

What are the legal obligations?

There are two federal laws that prohibit disability discrimination in the context of education programs. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits programs that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of disability against otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities. It further requires that these programs provide reasonable accommodations as part of the nondiscrimination prohibition. Because virtually all higher education institutions receive federal financial assistance through student loan programs and/or federal grants, these educational programs are covered by Section 504. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides similar protections and mandates on public higher education institutions.

In addition to barring discrimination, these laws create affirmative obligations for colleges and universities to accommodate students with disabilities. Specifically, schools are required to provide appropriate academic adjustments as necessary to ensure they do not discriminate on the basis of disability. Those “appropriate academic adjustments” require an individualized determination of the student’s disability and needs. Academic adjustments include auxiliary aids and services, as well as modifications to academic requirements, as necessary to ensure equal educational opportunity. The Department of Education has identified the following examples as required adjustments: arranging for priority registration; reducing a course load; substituting one course for another; providing note takers, recording devices, sign language interpreters, and extended time for testing; and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice-recognition, or other adaptive software or hardware.

In providing these academic adjustments, schools are not required to lower or substantially modify essential academic requirements; or make adjustments that would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program, or activity; or that would result in an undue financial or administrative burden. Finally, higher education institutions do not have to provide personal attendants; individually prescribed devices; readers for personal use or study; or other devices or services of a personal nature, such as tutoring and typing.

In almost all instances, students with ASD are going to be covered by these disability laws because they have a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities.

Getting practical

Most schools have disability services offices that register student disabilities and work with the students and professors to identify effective accommodations. For many disabilities, the process of identifying appropriate accommodations is routine and repetitive. For instance, students with attention-deficit disorder typically require extra time for test taking, students with hearing problems typically require assistive listening devices, and students with vision disabilities often require tape-recorded lectures.

Because an ASD diagnosis covers a wide range of unique possible impairments, the consideration of appropriate accommodations will be similarly diverse. The following table is designed as a helpful guide to show the various social challenges a student with ASD may be experiencing and suggest accommodations institutions and professors may find themselves considering:

Impairment Possible Accommodations
Social Challenges (understanding others’ perspectives, sharing space, making eye contact, difficulty working on teams, understanding social etiquette) -Allow short class breaks and/or allow the student to have a “social buffering” object, which might include a computer, book, or other object that initially might seem distracting or “out of place”

-Respect the student’s chosen level of eye contact without negative judgment

-If there is group work, the faculty may assist in the formation and monitoring of pairs or groups to help promote inclusion of the student

-Share written rules for asking questions or participating in class discussion and other classroom logistics

Sensory Challenges (over- or undersensitivity to environmental inputs) -Allow hats, sunglasses, tinted lens glasses, ear plugs, or ear phones to be worn

-Allow student to choose seat and help to assure it is always available

-If requested by the student, provide an alternative writing instrument for tests and assignments and/or a computer for in-class work, tests, and assignments

-Allow a small sensory item if it brings comfort

Communication -Provide the instructor’s lecture notes or a note taker to focus on important information

-Provide study guides for tests

-Allow a longer verbal response time

-Allow important exchanges of information to be in written form

-Encourage instructors to be clear, concise, concrete, and logical when communicating

Coping with Anxiety and Stress (may engage in stress-relief activities that look odd or make others feel discomfort) -Discretely ask the student whether something is overwhelming and/or ask whether the student needs help or wants to leave

-Do not discourage or interrupt behavior unless truly disruptive, and understand that the student does not intend to be disrespectful

-Allow sensory items and/or other “comfort” objects

-Agree on a cue that the instructor can give to signal to the student that it is okay/time to leave

-Agree on a signal to inform the instructor when the student is overwhelmed or confused.

Scott D. Schneider, JD, heads the Higher Education Practice Group for Fisher & Phillips LLP. He is an award-winning professor at Tulane University, where he teaches courses in both the law and business schools on, among other things, Higher Education Law and Labor and Employment Law.

Reprinted from “Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder” in Academic Leader  33.1(2017)3 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.