I have encountered quite a few students with autistic spectrum conditions in the UK HE. They were all male with Asperger Syndrome. This could be because the courses I have taught were predominately attractive to males. While I have helped many students, I have to admit that I have not had a formal training about how to support people with autistic spectrum conditions until yesterday. It could not be more timely to learn more about asperger syndrome given the recent news about the murder of Andrew Young who had Asperger’s syndrome.
The instructor, Sarah, from Hendrickx Associates told us that, usually, people with Asperger Syndrome have poorer short-term memory (but excellent long-term memory), slower information processing, slow at responding to intuitive conversation. They don’t know much about social cues, and they usually lack bigger picture, flexibility. They are not good at adapting to changes; they tend like to apply rules, seek certainty, need parameters, something that can help them predict outcomes / consequences. They need to know what happens next.
Knowing this piece of information is really helpful. Now I understand why some of my students struggled with team work. Usually it was not because they themselves could not complete their tasks on time; it was more like they could not cope with the changes during the course of the project. For example, if some team members’ circumstances changed and the whole project needed to be re-focused and re-planned, they could not adapt that quickly. In other words, students with Asperger Syndrome would struggle with ‘agile management’, when everything was up in the air and needed to be managed in an agile manner.
Sarah also told us that people with Asperger Syndrome tend to take things literally. They are not great team players because their lack of empathy (what the instructor called ‘the theory of mind’. It’s hard for them to compromise and negotiate. They could appear to be selfish because they don’t know much about others and about social rules. They don’t have ability to put self in someone else’s position. It’s hard for them to understand that others may have their own thoughts and feelings and we need to see perspectives of others. They usually like to predict and infer behaviours. Sometimes they could be seen as ‘selfish’ or ‘unempathic’, or lack of ‘remorse’. They are practical; top priority is to solve the problem, not being emotional. If someone is crying, they would give them a tissue, instead of a hug. As a result, it was hard for them to understand why some people could not complete their tasks on time.
To help the students with Asperger Syndrome with team work, it is important to let them have routines and a defined role. They like schedules – just like the young character by the name of Errol in the BBC comedy ‘Uncle‘ who has OCD and seems to be on the autistic spectrum. They can role learning, learn different tutors, they need advance warning – allowing them to prepare. Making things visual and making things concrete will help them (verbal communication is too changeable and abstract to them). When everything is black and white on paper, they know it’s concrete and it’s the rule / instruction. They can trust what you say then. But here comes another problem – a role defined or a routine establish in the beginning of the project will not stay the same over the course of the project. Often, we need to multi-task – in a student team of four developing a computer video game, the team members may play various different roles. For example, a programmer may also need to do a bit game design or project manage. It is difficult for the students with Asperger Syndrome to grasp the idea of ‘agile management’. They are easily overloaded and suffer anxiety and stress.
We usually assume that a room full of colours would reflect the creative arts and media environment the best, but the instructor pointed out that this kind of room is the most unfriendly one to people with Asperger Syndrome because they don’t like any unexpected sensory (may it be noise, touch, taste, smell, movement). So a room with less distractions, less stimulus (less colourful, less bright) is good. The fashionable ‘open plan’ office, increasingly popular in a design studio or co-working environment, is not friendly to people with ASD.
Despite having poorer short term memory, they have excellent memory for facts (great long term memory). So being a tutor, we need to make a student with ASD realise they are a big fish in a small fish bowl. Their specialist knowledge will earn respect from mates, and become their strength.
If they forgot something, it’s not deliberate. They are easily overloaded, smaller capacity, and usually poorer short term memory.
The sessions also leave us with lots of questions. For example, where do students with ASD socialise (if canteen is too noisy for them, where can they go and relax)? Whether male students with ASD behave different from the female?
I think it’s invaluable when the instructor pointed out to me that what I called ‘they’ is not a totalitarian ‘they’. Every individual student is unique; they have different needs and have different conditions. I should never think that there is one single solution for ‘them’. But it’s good to be mindful of these possible conditions.
I wondered how Asperger Syndrome is diagnosed? Feels like a lot of people living in modern urban environments suffering from anxiety and stress could fit into the description of ASD as well. Perhaps, we are all a little bit autistic. Perhaps, we are all a little bit mental. Perhaps, we are all a little bit mad. It’s all about being mindful about the surroundings, how we manage, deal with these conditions. I’d definitely recommend fellow course leaders to attend such trainings in the future.