Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a “complex developmental disorder that typically affects a person’s ability to  communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to his or her  environment” (Alcorn, 2010, p. 4). It’s generally associated with difficulty reading social cues and situations, and often involves a heightened sensitivity to the environment.

Generally, students with a diagnosis of ASD attending university are at the high-functioning end of the spectrum. People diagnosed with ASD may have comorbid conditions including anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, obsessive compulsive disorder, bi-polar disorder, tourette syndrome and epilepsy.

People with ASD can present in very different ways. They may appear very shy or may monopolize discussions. They may be independent or require support, hyper-focused or distracted. A common phrase is, “If you’ve met one person with Asperger’s, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s.”

Signs and symptoms

  • Awkward eye contact, posture or gestures.
  • Display sensory sensitivities to light, sound, touch, smells (may wear sunglasses or headphones in class).
  • Have difficulty with change.
  • Not understand jokes, sarcasm, facial expressions or sub-textual information.
  • Be easily distracted.
  • Have an excellent memory.
  • Monopolize conversations or ask frequent questions.
  • Appear socially withdrawn.
  • Display literal thinking.
  • Have in-depth knowledge or interest in a specific topic.
  • Use calming or focusing techniques like tapping or rocking (known as stimming).
  • Become overwhelmed easily.
  • Have superior verbal skills/vocabulary.
  • Have difficulty shifting between tasks.
  • Have difficulty with time management or task completion.


Various treatments and therapies can benefit people with ASD, but need to address unique symptoms, abilities and medical comorbidities.



Students with ASD may face a variety of challenges at university

  • Academic Challenges – Some academic expectations may pose challenges for students with ASD, particularly until they learn how to manage these expectations/situations.
  • Social/Behavioural Challenges – Difficulties with reading social cues and situations can lead to problems in day-to-day interactions.
  • Environmental Challenges – Many students with ASD experience hypersensitivity to light, sounds, smells etc.

However, people with ASD bring many and varied skills to their coursework and university life.