Creating inclusive classrooms for students with autism

  • Creating inclusive classrooms
    Creating inclusive classrooms
    The professors who were involved in the University Teaching Project included (left to right): Cheryl Dickter, Karin Wulf, Joshua Burk and Janice Zeman.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

Discussions about autism often focus on children, but what happens when those same children grow up and head to college?

Since 2012, William & Mary’s Neurodiversity Working Group has been working to explore and celebrate the neurological differences in the College’s population. Last year, a University Teaching Project (UTP) grew out of the group, with the aim to focus on the classroom experience for students. Now, the members of the UTP are providing guidance to those students and the professors who teach them.

“We wanted to have these tools that other faculty could use to try to create more inclusive classrooms and try to create a better classroom climate for students who are neurologically diverse,” said Karin Wulf, associate professor of history and American studies.

Sponsored by the Charles Center with the support of Dean Joel Schwartz, UTPs allow faculty members to explore new ways of teaching. Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Neuroscience Josh Burk, who organized the UTP entitled “Strategies for Enhancing the Educational Experience of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Implications for the W&M Student Body,” said that the idea sprang from a need of the Neurodiversity Working Group.

“We have a lot of contributors who are part of the Neurodiversity Working Group on campus,” he said, “but one component that we saw was missing was the classroom component.”

Understanding W&M’s population

Burk, Wulf and the other members of the UTP – Assistant Professor of Psychology Cheryl Dickter and Chair and Professor of Psychology Janice Zeman -- started their work last summer by looking at what the few other universities working on these issues have been doing, and collecting data from William & Mary’s own community.

“Although we can look at best practices at other universities, it is also important that we understand what our population at William & Mary looks like,” Burk said.

Dickter, an assistant professor of psychology, said that they collected data from a group of approximately 600 students at the College.

“As part of this, we assessed one specific measure that has been linked to autistic characteristics, the Autism Quotient,” Dickter said. “It’s a self-report questionnaire that assesses these autistic characteristics and behaviors, and so we got an idea of how many students have these autistic tendencies. It’s not a diagnosis, but just gives us an idea of the characteristics of our student population.”

The researchers also asked the students how many had been formally diagnosed with autism and whether students without diagnoses had experiences with other students whom they thought might have autism.

Because the Autism Quotient isn’t a diagnostic measure, the professors must be careful in how they interpret their findings. However, they did say that some students scored above the reported cut-off for clinically significant autistic attributes. Extrapolated to the campus community, those numbers could equal approximately 70 to 100 students in the total undergraduate population. However, Dickter pointed out, “the average score of our students looks to be about the average score of students nationwide, so it doesn’t seem like we have a greater or lesser prevalence of these self-reported traits or behaviors.”

The researchers also found that people who said that they had been diagnosed with autism and the people who scored high on the Autism Quotient were two separate groups of people.

“There was nobody who said they had been diagnosed who scored high, and all of the students who scored high had never been diagnosed, so it could also be the case that there are individuals on campus who have autistic tendencies and are on the autism spectrum but have never been diagnosed,” said Dickter.

Explaining the ‘hidden rules’

In order to help students with autism succeed in the classroom, the members of the UTP created a presentation on their research and findings, which they have given to faculty members across campus. In it, the professors suggest things like making clear course and classroom expectations, said Burk.

The UTP members also created “hidden rules” guidelines for students.

“It’s an instrument for people to use in their classrooms to help students adapt to a particular kind of classroom setting because that is one thing we know from our literature review that is missing,” said Wulf. “It’s those hidden or implicit rules that may not be available to students on the autism spectrum.”

For example, Wulf continued, they explain social space rules.

“Neurotypical people will know I’m supposed to be sitting this far from Josh, that I’m not supposed to be squished up to him,” she said. “We say in the hidden rules, your chair should be spaced accordingly. Your stuff should be spaced on the table so that you aren’t taking up too much room, for example. Things like that that are implicit rules of social behavior and expectations that will not be clear to people who don’t pick up on social cues.”

The tools that the UTP members have created do not just benefit students with autism but represent best practices for creating an inclusive classroom that can benefit most, if not all, students, Zeman added.

“We know that many of the pedagogical strategies that are appropriate to people who are on the autism spectrum will be beneficial to most people,” said Wulf. “If they are autistic or dealing with social phobias, they will be super-useful. The idea of best practices is that it will target a specific group, but it’s helpful to everyone.”

For example, having professors provide a clear, organized plan for the semester and even for each class can provide the type of structure and predictability that students on the spectrum as well as neurotypical students can use to be successful. Understanding that group work often presents students with autism and those with social anxiety with unique challenges and concerns can help professors to tailor these types of assignments or respond with more understanding and flexibility should issues arise. 

Enriching the community

The members of the UTP have received positive feedback on their efforts from both faculty members and students, the professors said. They have been asked by other universities to share their findings and tools, and they have included their presentation and “hidden rules” guidelines on the Neurodiversity Working Group’s website. But their work still isn’t done.

“One of the things we’re hoping to do is develop a one-credit course to educate and create a climate of greater acceptance,” said Burk.

“We know that all kinds of diversity enrich our community,” said Wulf. “Neurodiversity enriches our community in the same way that racial diversity, gender diversity and ethnic diversity do.”