Saturday 11 July 2020

Students with Asperger’s Syndrome in higher education.

Students with Asperger’s Syndrome in higher education.

Box, M. (2020). Students with Asperger’s Syndrome in higher education. Retrieved from

The purpose of this paper is to explore a contemporary issue which is impacting upon the higher educational sector: such an issue is the increase number of students with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and High Functioning Autism navigating the transition from secondary school and attending higher education. Although both these disorders are now placed within the wider Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) it will be argued they remain an important subset as many students may have received a diagnosed under the previous regime  and identify as such (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, 2013). Attending university – as well as being an educational experience – is a social phenomenon and hence this paper will take a constructionist interpretivist epistemological approach (Halperin & Heath, 2012; Matthews & Ross, 2010; Moses & Knutsen, 2007). A constructionist approach – as a posed to the purist naturalist approach – takes account and recognises that the social researcher will bring their own meaning, understanding and experience to any research: having also taught, tutored and mentored others with this diagnose my experiences will naturally influence this analysis (Matthews & Ross, 2010).

The paper will begin with a discussion of the historical context of Asperger’s Syndrome including an exploration of the prevalence of the syndrome in general and higher education in particular.  This will be followed by an exploration of the impact the syndrome has on students – both the student with the diagnose and their peers – which will cover issues such as social, sensory and self-care issues including strategies higher education institutions have used to assist with these impacts. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the impact the issues have had on teaching pedagogy.

Historical context and Prevalence of Asperger’s Syndrome

  Asperger’s Syndrome has its origins in the work of an Austrian physician Dr Hans Asperger who wrote in the aftermath of the Second World War about his observations in treating boys with simular traits: impaired social interactions coupled with repetitive and near obsessed focus on hobbies and interests (Highlen, 2016). The work of Asperger was lost in the chaos of the time: his work was ‘rediscovered’ when it was published in English in the 1980s and finally recognised as a disorder by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1994 (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Highlen, 2016; Luckett & Powell, 2003).  Although initially recognised in its own right, Asperger’s Syndrome was subsumed into the wider ASD in the most recent APA manual due to similarities in diagnostic criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Glennon, 2001; Highlen, 2016). Nevertheless, Asperger’s Syndrome (and High Functioning Autism) remains popular in describing people who fall within the ‘mild’ end of the ASD spectrum: those with above average intelligence and focused interests with no significant delay in language or cognitive development (Barnhill, 2014; Gelbar, Smith, & Reichow, 2014; Norris & Dixson, 2011). Nevertheless, each person follows their own unique trajectory based upon their individual strengths and weaknesses and hence it is possible only to generalise in broad terms (Gelbar et al., 2014; McLeod & Harrison, 2013). Norris and Dixson (2011, p. 39) argue that in many ways students with Asperger’s Syndrome are ‘twice exceptional’ in “… that they compensate so well for processing deficits is a credit to their intelligence …” and their overall prospects to achieve success (See also McLeod & Harrison, 2013).

This incorporation of Asperger’s Syndrome within the wider ASD category makes determining the prevenance of the disorder somewhat difficult. Around one percent of the population have a diagnosis of ASD with many falling within the ‘high functioning’ above normal intelligence category which previously would have led to a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome: this number has been increasing (Gelbar et al., 2014; Lorenc et al., 2018). In studies assessed as part of this research around seven to eight percent of the student population identify as having a disability in their first year of studies in higher education: only a small proportion of which have Asperger’s Syndrome or the wider ADS traits (Barnhill, 2014; Knott & Taylor, 2013). Barnhill (2014) as attributed such an increase to the growth of antidiscrimination laws and also the general widening of access (See also Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016; Knott & Taylor, 2013).  This is further complicated due to the trajectory of the disorder in that many people are often diagnosed in latter childhood and into adulthood as a consequence they may come to an institution being newly diagnosed and some not even having received a diagnosis (Barnhill, 2014; Glennon, 2001; Norris & Dixson, 2011).  Moreover, even those with a diagnose may choose not to make a disclosure due to fears of segmentation and discrimination.

This section has outlined the background to Asperger’s Syndrome and the prevalence of it within the community: it will now conclude by discussing the reason for classifying it as a contemporary issue for higher education. In a nutshell this is because due to supports provided to students, with or without a diagnosis, through their secondary education many are in a position to be admitted to higher education based upon their excellent academic scholarship (Barnhill, 2014; Highlen, 2016). Therefore, educators have a duty to endure that they succeed. However, given these developments it is somewhat concerning there appears to be a consensus among the literature consulted that there is a significant  ‘gap’ in the research for people with Asperger’s Syndrome other than children (Barnhill, 2014; Gelbar et al., 2014; Lorenc et al., 2018). It is this very gap in knowledge which justifies this issue as one worthy of contemporary scholarly research.

Impact of Asperger’s Syndrome on students

When looking at the impact Asperger’s Syndrome has on students (the stakeholder chosen for the focus of this paper) it is important to highlight at the beginning that this is made up of two distinct groups: the person with the diagnosis and their wider peer group. This section will deal with each group separately: beginning by discussing the individual and then widening that discussion to the student population as a whole. Asperger’s Syndrome very much effects social interactions (the inability to read social cues) and attention deficits (sustaining, filtering, shifting and remembering) (Madriaga, 2010; Norris & Dixson, 2011). As previously outlined, no two people’s experience with Asperger’s Syndrome are alike (Glennon, 2001). Nevertheless, in reviewing the literature there does seem to be three distinct areas where the syndrome impacts on individuals within this higher education sector: mental health, accessibility and self-care. These are not stereotypical disability manifestations as in many cases a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, Glennon (2001) explains, can outwardly appear ‘normal’.

Madriaga (2010, p. 40) highlights that “… physical access into buildings and spaces have always been at the forefront of discussions when exploring barriers if disabled students in higher education …”; however, for the student with Asperger’s Syndrome physical access to facilities is not a problem. One of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome is hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli such as noise, light and sound (Gelbar et al., 2014). This can lead to students self-excluding themselves from such places as university cafés, bars/pubs and increasingly even the library to avoid sensory overload (Knott & Taylor, 2013; Madriaga, 2010). Madriaga (2010, p. 48) argues that “having to exclude oneself from certain university spaces due to institutional misrecognition of one’s impairment is not reflective of inclusive practice …” as universities under discrimination legislation must take positive steps to eliminate such circumstances. Given that interchanges in such places are as much a part of the university experience as study itself. Although the context which Madriaga was writing was the United States, such ‘reasonable adjustments’ are a hallmark of discrimination law in Australia (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016).

“Once a student has arrived on campus, the social demands quickly become apparent...” (Glennon, 2001, p. 186). This statement is quite clear to see when one looks at the long list of events and activities associated with orientation week at most institutions. These are activities, Madriaga (2010, p. 48) argues, for many students are the “… springboards for social relationships …” which can be inaccessible for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. Lack of ability to read and process social interactions is a typical characteristic of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome and also something which can preclude them from these important events in their student life (Glennon, 2001; Knott & Taylor, 2013; Madriaga, 2010). However, some institutions have found that structured activities tailored to the needs of people with Asperger’s Syndrome -- such as societies focusing on games, Anime, computers and history --  can be a useful way to facilitate the formation of a peer network amongst this cohort (Highlen, 2016; Knott & Taylor, 2013; Madriaga, 2010). However, as Madriaga (2010) highlights, care needs to be taken in planning and developing such activities so as not to partition the students from their peers. Lack of these supports can see students increasingly isolating themselves, becoming increasingly lonely,  which can lead to a spiral of mental health issues (Madriaga, 2010).

So far this section has examined the impacts which Asperger’s Syndrome has on those with a diagnose. However, there is another group of students who it would be remiss not to mention: their peers. With social relationships being problematic in a place where they are a central part of academic live of an undergraduate this can place undue stress on all concerned if adequate consideration is not undertaken early (Gelbar et al., 2014; Knott & Taylor, 2013). As tertiary institutions in a time of austerity are turning more and more to peer mentoring this can be somewhat problematic if students are confronted with some of the more challenging reactions students with Asperger’s Syndrome may present (McLeod & Harrison, 2013). In implementing a strategy to overcome a crisis situation in a residential college at the Australian National University, McLeod and Harrison (2013) found that the best approach to this type of situation is to bring the peers in as partners but not to require them to actually be involved in any responses. The program which they developed aimed to “… transition students … into university life. … It hopes to assist the student to develop the skills required to successfully engage and participate in academic and accommodation environments…” (p. 38). It is argued that developing such a transition program with support from practitioners is as beneficial to the student’s peers as it is to the individual and help with inclusion.

Impact of Asperger’s Syndrome on pedagogy

The final area to be examined is the impact of having students with Asperger’s Syndrome has on pedagogy: although this paper up until now has focused upon the impact on students rather than the institution it is argued that a change in pedagogy has a direct impact on students. After all the prime purpose of their university engagement is to learn through the delivery of the pedagogy. Although it is conservable that Asperger’s Syndrome can have numerous impacts pedagogy a literature survey highlights two key areas: adjustments/supports and delivery.

It is outlined by Glennon (2001), to be accepted into university it is highly probable that the student will have received supports and adjustments throughout their educational career. In some respects these supports may have been so successful that the school environment becomes an safe place (Lorenc et al., 2018). However, entering higher education can be what  Lorenc et al. (2018, pp. 654-655) describe as going off a “… ‘service cliff’ when eligibility for these services ceases abruptly…” which for some can be an extremely frightening experience (Glennon, 2001). McLeod and Harrison (2013) further highlight that such a ‘service cliff’ can result in a crisis which can escalate to such an extent that the whole cohort is affected (as discussed in the previous section). However, although students with Asperger’s Syndrome would benefit from traditional adjustments – such as alternative means of demonstrating competence – their needs are somewhat unique in comparison with the traditional approach to accommodating learning difficulties (Barnhill, 2014; Highlen, 2016). This is because the adjustments required relate to social interactions: the heart of an Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. Just providing alternative assessment methods can undermine some of the ‘job ready’ skills which have been scaffolded into the paedology in activities such as most group work. With this in mind, Madriaga (2010) argues that there needs to be a rethink in how such accommodations are made with more emphasis on supporting students to participate in social interactions rather than find alternatives to it and hence avoid ‘ghettoisation’. The literature supports this notion that the best approach to accommodating students with Asperger’s Syndrome is to provide such supports (Barnhill, 2014; McLeod & Harrison, 2013).

Nevertheless, there are impacts on the manner in which content is delivered that can effect students with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is compounded by the manner in which the student has progressed through their education: the gifted or special needs scheme. Norris and Dixson (2011) argue that this can very much effect how they have experienced learning with their strengths being developed in the former whilst their deficits the focus of intense intervention in the latter. Without the focus and development of their strengths they might in fact appear disinterested and tuned out whist it is that they don’t have the skills to absorb what is going occurring  (Glennon, 2001). Barnhill (2014) is forthright in arguing that there needs to be a change to education to adjust to such diverse skills. As has been a common theme throughout this paper, adjustments for this cohort need to go further than traditional access. There is consensus in the literature that the classroom needs to be welcoming of diverse styles of expression and particularly the provision of structure (Barnhill, 2014; Glennon, 2001; Highlen, 2016). Such an approach has multiple benefits across the whole cohort: for instance making their peers more appreciative of the diversity they will encounter within the workforce. In essence, very much promoting an essential ‘job ready’ attribute. Nevertheless, there is also a common theme that the studies this are based upon have relatively low sample sizes, lack robust methodology and are part of an area which requires wider research (Knott & Taylor, 2013; Lorenc et al., 2018; Madriaga, 2010).


This paper has examined the impact of growing numbers of students with Asperger’s Syndrome – diagnosed, undiagnosed and freshly diagnosed -- attending tertiary institutions. Asperger’s Syndrome is now a subset of ASD with its main characteristics effecting social development and hence a student might be academically gifted but not be able to reach their full potential without supports. Unlike the traditional supports of access and learning support, Asperger’s Syndrome requires a new approach which a focus on social and life skills which are in some respects an extension of the ‘job ready’ skills now being embedded in pedagogy. This paper focused on students and it should be remembered that Asperger’s Syndrome affects both the individual and their peers due to the disruptions which can occur. Therefore, it is important that pedagogy be adapted so as to support students with Asperger’s Syndrome without removing the embedded job ready skills: this requires academic and disability support staff to work closely together. Such support has a benefit for the wider cohort as it will expose them to the diversity of the workforce. Finally, despite the impact Asperger’s Syndrome on the lives of students there is a significant gap in research with the majority of studies with a strong scientific methodology focused on children.


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