Supporting College Students with Asperger Syndrome: Possible Strategies for Academic Advisers to Use

Jennifer L. Hughes
Agnes Scott College

Volume: 11
Article first published online: October 28, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161532


An increase in the identification of Asperger syndrome cases and provision of early academic accommodations to support them have led to increasing numbers of young people with Asperger attending college. It follows that academic advisers need guidelines to effectively work with these students. This paper reviews and synthesizes strategies for advisers to use. These strategies go beyond the typical accommodations and include a list that was developed based on a comprehensive review of the applicable literature on Asperger's. If academic advising and student affairs professionals work proactively and collaboratively, more students with Asperger's can be successful in college.

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, Asperger, autism, college students

Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Vincent van Gogh, Issac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lewis Carroll, Andy Warhol, and Thomas Jefferson all showed symptoms of Asperger syndrome (AS), which is one of the autism spectrum disorders (Hapur, Lawlor, & Fitzgerald, 2004). Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician, first classified the disorder in 1944 (Farrell, 2004). However, an awareness of this disorder in the United States did not happen until 1994 when it was listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and this short span of time has limited the amount of information published about the disorder (Farrell; Smith, 2007).

As for the prevalence of AS, current estimates range from 2 to 6 cases per 1,000 individuals (Strock, 2004). Males have been diagnosed with AS more often than females with ratios ranging from 1.6 to 4 males for every female (Mattila et al., 2007). However, some believe that the numbers of women with AS are much higher than those reported. Ernsperger and Wendel (2007) believe this is because a male prototype is used to diagnose people, leading to fewer diagnoses of women or diagnoses later in their lives. Also, often women receive incorrect diagnoses, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or anxiety (Bashe, Kirby, Baron-Cohen, & Attwood, 2005).

People with AS typically are able to function in society, but often are seen as eccentric or odd (Attwood et al., 2006; Kirby, n.d.). Many with the disorder have social difficulties, verbal and nonverbal communication problems, and repetitive and restricted activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). For example, those with AS often perceive the world differently than those without it; are unable to understand others' plans, thoughts, and points of view; have problems with language pragmatics, voice inflection, and modulation; have problems grasping abstract language or idiomatic expressions; have difficulty making sense of changes and adjusting; have sensory sensitivity; and are preoccupied with certain subjects (American Psychiatric Association).

Hans Asperger believed that people with AS had the potential to be successful and make contributions to society (Jamieson & Jamieson, 2007). Some of the typical positive qualities of those with AS include possessing a passionate commitment to ideas, original ways of approaching problems, the capacity to diligently work in a routine, and a strong pursuit of knowledge in areas of interest (Hapur et al., 2004). Many people with AS often take rules seriously, tend to be unbiased when judging others, have a strong sense of equality and justice, are very loyal to their friends, and enjoy spending time alone (Yoshida, 2007). Many have a wide vocabulary, are good visual and spatial learners, have good long-term memory, have a strong ability for acquiring system-based knowledge, and are not swayed much by peer pressure (Jamieson & Jamieson). Finally, many people with AS have normal or above average IQ and an exceptional talent in one specific area, and, because of this, they typically want to attend college (Kirby, n.d.).

An increase in early identification of AS and subsequent academic accommodations have led to increasing numbers of students diagnosed with AS in college (Farrell, 2004; Smith, 2007). Farrell writes “as more students with Asperger's are getting the help they need in elementary and secondary schools and making it to college, campus health professionals are struggling to determine how to help them” (p. A35). In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also has contributed to more students being mainstreamed and has led to greater numbers of AS students considering college as an option (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 1994; Smith). However, no definitive statistics track the number of college students who have the disorder, but in the past few years disability offices have reported greater numbers of students receiving accommodations for the disorder (Farrell).

Once a diagnosis is disclosed, the college or university is required to provide the AS student with support if he or she requests it (Glennon, 2001). In the United States, the ADA has set forth guidelines for colleges and universities regarding the allocation of funding and support for those with documented disabilities (Glennon). The ADA defines a disability as an impairment that substantially limits major life activity (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 1994). While the law is clear that academic accommodations must be provided, there are not clear requirements for what are considered to be reasonable accommodations (Farrell, 2004; Smith, 2007). Often academic advisers must determine this, which has generated great variations in accommodations (Farrell; Smith).

Smith (2007) conducted a research study of the most common accommodations used by colleges and universities for students with AS. She found that the most common ones were additional time on examinations, alternative examination locations, tutoring, and a mentor from the office of student disabilities. However, much more can be done to help college students with AS.

No available research synthesizes all of the various methods to help AS college students besides the typical accommodations; therefore this paper fills that gap in the literature. The goal of this article is to develop a list of strategies for academic advisers to use to help AS students with problems of adjustment, organization, social interactions, sensory overload, and literal thinking. However, advisers should also be aware that some students with AS have additional learning disabilities that can make college even more difficult and may require additional strategies (Jacobsen, 2005).

Academic advisers are at a disadvantage developing plans to assist AS students, because many advisers have little knowledge about this relatively new diagnosis in the United States (Glennon, 2001). Another problem is that these students often do not ask for help outside of their accommodations (Glennon; Myers & Simpson, 1998), leaving academic advisers as perhaps the only people with whom they meet. Therefore, knowledge of AS is critical for an academic adviser, who often serves as a point person for these students.

Two strategies for academic advisers to keep in mind when meeting with AS students involve summarizing the meetings and getting progress reports. First, advisers should take notes during meetings with these students, and afterward they should e-mail summaries of the discussions to the students (Palmer, 2006). These summaries should include specific steps to take to resolve issues and should help to keep the students on task and focused. Second, progress reports before the end of the semester also are especially beneficial. Many AS students have a hard time predicting what their grades will be in a course and are surprised when they receive their final grades (Palmer). Academic advisers should inquire about these students' progress during the semester. Palmer suggests that they ask students to keep records of their grades to date in each course, so they can analyze the grades together.

Some academic topics that advisers may want to discuss with AS students include selecting courses, selecting a major, classroom etiquette, testing, meeting with instructors, and time management. These topics are important factors in the success of students.

cademic advisers should be aware of several issues when discussing course selection with AS students. First, these students often have issues when taking courses in the core curriculum (Burrows & Wagner, 2004). Courses with a lot of word problems, estimation, algebra, or geometry can be difficult for many students with AS because of the high-level thinking and abstraction (Burrows & Wagner). Because of their literal thinking, AS students have difficulty with literature that has implied meanings (Jacobsen, 2005). Creative writing assignments without much structure or formula can be difficult as well (Jacobsen). Academic advisers will want to help AS students collect information about the courses available for them to take and the professors that teach them. Professors with structured teaching styles are most beneficial for students with AS (Burrows & Wagner). Also, priority registration can help to ensure that these students will get into the courses that will benefit them the most (Grossman, 2001; Smith, 2007). Advisers should inquire about the student's strengths, such as subjects in which the student did well during high school, and encourage the student to take those subjects (Bedrossian & Pennamon, 2007).

Second, AS students often have difficulty with physical education courses because of loud gymnasiums and whistles, clumsiness, and difficulty conforming to the social expectations associated with team sports (Bashe et al., 2005). Academic advisers can help by advising these students to take courses, such as power walking, that are noncompetitive and are not team sports.

Finally, academic advisers should consider suggesting that AS students schedule breaks between their courses, so they will have time to mentally prepare for the next course (Palmer, 2006). The adviser might also suggest taking a lighter load, especially in the beginning of these students' academic careers, so they can get used to college life.

Many students with AS have especially strong skills in a few areas and therefore will know what major they want. If the student does not know this, the academic adviser can suggest taking a career interest inventory (Bedrossian & Pennamon, 2007). These inventories can be valuable tools when selecting future career options.

Some AS students have difficulty in classroom settings, though the types of challenges often vary greatly from one AS student to the next. For example, some may talk all the time in class and prevent discussions by others, while some may never talk (Dillon, 2007). Some may miss class because they got lost or lost track of time, and others might arrive early to class in order to sit in their favorite desks (Dillon). The academic adviser may want to discuss the classroom environment with them and encourage appropriate behaviors such as how much to talk in class. Advisers also should suggest that the students select seats where distractions will be minimal (Carley, 2008).

AS students often receive extended time on tests and take tests in a location outside of the classroom (Smith, 2007). However, academic advisers might suggest the use of noise-reducing devices if the place where the student takes the tests is not a quiet environment (Smith). Noise-reducing devices can include earplugs or boxes that produce white noise. Advisers also might consider having them take the test or exam in a location close to the instructor, so that the AS student can ask for clarification if he or she has questions (Pike, 2006).

If the AS student discloses his or her disability and receives accommodations, then the instructors will know that classroom modifications may be necessary, but the instructors will not know the official diagnosis. The academic adviser should encourage the students to meet with their instructors to discuss courses before the semester begins (Carley, 2008). They should discuss their learning and classroom challenges and ask if the instructor thinks those challenges will be an issue for that particular course (Carley).

Time management also is a problem for many students with AS. If the student has time-management issues, advisers can suggest that the student program his or her cell phone or computer to send reminders prior to classes (Dillon, 2007). The adviser can help the student to learn to budget time to complete assignments for his or her courses. If the student needs additional support, friends or family members can help. The student can give them copies of the syllabi and ask for reminders about assignment due dates (Willey, 1999).

Academic advisers also will want to help AS students by discussing their support networks and psychological health. They should talk about safe spaces, which can be used to calm students when things are not going well.

Most AS students do not have many friends and instead have relied on families for support (Glennon, 2001). If family members are not accessible now, the student is more likely to experience stress. Generally, AS students do not want to be popular and have many friends, but they do want to be accepted and have a few friends (Jacobsen, 2005). Advisers might want to encourage these students to join organizations or clubs that tend to be supportive of students, such as service or religious organizations (Luckett, & Powell, 2003). If the college has a special interest group that matches the student's interest, the adviser can recommend that group. The majority of AS individuals also have issues with anxiety and depression (Bedrossian & Pennamon, 2007; Browning & Miron, 2006). Many develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors or eating disorders as well (Bedrossian & Pennamon). If the student has problems with issues regarding support, social connections, or mental health, the adviser should recommend the student see a personal counselor.

When AS students encounter unpredictable situations or situations that create sensory overload, they desire order, routine, and a calm place (Glennon, 2001). Academic advisers should discuss safe places for the students to go when they feel out of sorts, which could include a counselor's office, learning support centers, their dorm rooms, or any place where they feel safe.

Many of those with AS share some behavioral characteristics, but they are as different from each other in aptitude, personality, and attitudes as other people are without the disorder (Jamieson & Jamieson, 2007). Therefore, advisers should view each AS student as an individual and when trying to help, several strategies should be used. Jamieson and Jamieson also note that people with AS tend to be analytical about the way they behave and feel. They also tend to analyze how they are different from others, and this insight helps them to be more receptive to counseling and training. If advice is clearly rationalized, they often are willing to accept support.

The number of AS students attending college is increasing (Farrell, 2004; Smith, 2007). This means that more faculty and staff will work with students who have AS. College faculty and staff need to learn about AS (Smith). If they do not understand it, they will be at a disadvantage when working with students who have it (Smith).

The strategies listed in this paper represent options that academic advisers can use to try to help AS students. By working proactively, they can prevent frustration for these students and thereby help with both retention and graduation (Bedrossian & Pennamon, 2007).


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About the Author(s)

Jennifer L. Hughes is an associate professor of psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She can be reached at