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International Foundation Diploma and Autistic Spectrum Disorders

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Challenges - this link takes you to more specific challenges associated with learning.

International Foundation Diploma and Students with Autism

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.

Individuals may often interupt inappropriately and be unable to interpret any cues that such interruptions are unwelcome. They may also appear non-compliant at times, as they often have difficulty taking direction and coping with negative feedback. Students with autistic spectrum disorders may often be perceived as being rude or arrogant - and it is important that academic staff are aware that the student has impaired communication and that any rudeness is unintentional. Tutorial participation may present problems for some students and allowances for these communication difficulties may be necessary.

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 mathematics and/or computers - both of these can give a student a head start in these aspects of a geography degree.
  • 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 and work through problems.
  • 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.

Read more detailed information about this impairment. Remember you can use the back button to return to this page.

Teaching strategies associated with Autism

These strategies are suggestions for inclusive teaching. This list should not be considered exhaustive and it is important to remember that all students are individuals and what is considered to be good practice for one student may not necessarily be good practice for another. You may also like to contact the Disability Specialist in your institution for further information. If you have any good practice that you would like to add to this list, please email your suggestions to

  • Provide sufficient time to discuss needs with the student before/during their initial teaching session.

Students with autistic spectrum disorders are likely to need support and assistance in the areas of: transition and induction, in lectures and tutorials, with organisation, with flexibility (e.g. examination arrangements), technical support, peer support and awareness raising, mentors and social skills development.

Transition and Induction

Students may require:

  • Longer periods of induction to the institution and during periods of change such as work placements.
  • Help with orientation such as maps of routes between teaching venues.
  • Help with timetables e.g. written clarification of information such as tutors and rooms.

In certain situations, students may require personal assistants to help with areas of their study, such as:

  • Providing support during lectures.
  • Providing support with organisational issues.
  • Providing support during private study such as library work.
  • Facilitating communication with staff and peers.
Support in Taught Sessions and Tutorials
  • Reduce potential distractions e.g. light and sounds.
  • Consider seating arrangements and check with students about their individual needs, some students may need to sit with their back to the wall or near to a door.
  • Highlight essential and relevant information e.g. in lecture notes and reading lists.
  • Provide written summaries / bulleted lists of main points e.g. in meetings and discussions.
  • Email communication and written communication.
  • Provide regular breaks for students if necessary.
Organisational Support
  • Schedules or timetables.
  • To do lists.

Flexibility may need to be expressed in terms of:

  • Assignments.
  • Examination arrangements - e.g. time allowed, colour of paper and ink.
  • Rooms.
  • Breaks.
  • Calming techniques that students may need to employ.
Social Support

In addition to learning and teaching support, students with autistic spectrum disorders may need additional support. This could be achieved through the assignment of a peer mentor. Mentors can provide social support within the academic setting, but some students may also require additional support to develop social skills in context, e.g. money, shopping, clothes, hygiene, etc. Sources of support need to be identified in order to ensure that students receive effective social support in all situations.


Potential Challenges to the Achievement of Learning

Last modified 2007-09-26 09:20 AM

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