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Asperger Syndrome / Autism Spectrum Disorders

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a neurobiological disorder; Students who have Asperger Syndrome (AS) or High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have normal to high intelligence but show marked deficits in social skills, hypersensitivity to certain sensory inputs, and may have difficulty with sequencing tasks and general organization both mentally and spatially.
College students who have Asperger Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder (AS / ASD) will appear to be quirky, eccentric, or socially incompetent and possibly very gifted in certain areas. In social interactions, they may not make eye contact, appear to be shy or withdrawn, and respond negatively to physical contact. However, the student may be verbose about a topic of interest and because of a generally low understanding of social cues, fail to acknowledge others' reactions. They may speak loudly, in monotone, or use vocal inflections that seem inappropriate. Students who have AS/ASD have a tendency to interpret language in a very concrete, literal way. In casual or informal speech this can contribute to a misunderstanding of satire, sarcasm, and other figures of speech. In more formal settings, it can make literary interpretation difficult and they may have difficulty understanding that literature could have more than one valid interpretation. People with AS have a general tendency to be highly attuned to details and what others may see as minutiae, and they may perseverate on a particular point and have difficulty changing tasks in the classroom (attention shifting). However, this can be a strong asset where exacting details are critical. Because of its high co-morbidity rates with anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, other mannerisms or physical and cognitive behaviors might be observed that are, in fact, side-effects of medication used to treat those conditions.

Observing Asperger Syndrome / Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Classroom

Faculty might observe the following characteristics in students with Asperger's Syndrome:

  • Difficulty in expressing agreement or disagreement appropriately
  • May have difficulty transitioning from one task to another
  • May make socially inappropriate or abrupt statements
  • May exhibit shyness or reluctance for group work
  • May have difficulty in maintaining communication
  • May not make eye contact
  • May be easily distracted by auditory or visual stimuli
  • May have sensitivity to light or sound
  • May be clumsy with fine motor activities
  • May have difficulty multi-tasking
  • May have difficulty with abstract concepts


Related Functional Characteristics

Anxiety : Students with AS/ASD may exhibit anxiety as a result of their difficulty with sensory overload and their inability to interpret social situations or comprehend abstract concepts.

Attentional Overfocus : Students with AS/ASD may have difficulty transitioning attention from one task to another because of a tendency to look for structure and patterns and to become extremely detail oriented.

Distracting Behavior : Students with AS/ASD may exhibit stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms as well as apparently inflexible adherence to specific, and sometimes nonfunctional routines or rituals. These behaviors may impact their social interactions and may be seen as distracting by others.

Fatigue (Cognitive) : Students with AS/ASD experience cognitive fatigue as a result of the effort required to interact with others, focus on information, and screen out distractions.

Inability to Comprehend Social Cues : Students with AS/ASD have deficits that can manifest as awkward social interactions, inappropriate personal space, or misunderstood communications. They may demonstrate seemingly flat affect, make minimal eye contact, or look mainly at the mouth of the speaker, or may become agitated or overly animated when they don't comprehend a situation.

Information Processing Speed : Sensory processing difficulties can impact the identification and processing of incoming information and retrieval of information from memory.

Obsessive Behavior : Students with AS/ASD often engage in obsessive behavior in response to anxiety or excitement, although the exact reason for repetitive, ritualistic behavior is not yet known.

Perseveration : Perseveration in students with AS/ASD most often manifests as a narrow range of interests and rigid thinking about routines and a tendency to not move past an issue.

Processing Deficit (Auditory) : Students with AS/ASD have difficulties with sensory processing of all kinds and are especially sensitive to loud noises or auditory information that is coming too quickly or is loud.

Processing Deficit (Language) : Students with AS/ASD focus on the order of words and their literal definitions causing them difficulty comprehending irony, jokes, and abstract concepts.

Processing Deficit (Visual) : Students with Asperger's Syndrome/Autism Spectrum Disorders tend to process the parts of a complex object rather than attending to the object as a whole.

Production (Verbal) : Students with AS/ASD may have difficulty expressing themselves in ways that are understandable to others. They will often use archaic language or use strange word choices and are unaware of the impact they have on others when they are blunt or use unusual language.

Sensory Distractibility : Students with AS/ASD can be hypersensitive to sensory stimuli and as a result be unable to tune out irrelevant distractions.

Sequencing Deficit : Students with AS/ASD may have difficulty with sequencing as a result of their tendency to misinterpret incoming sensory stimuli.

Time Management : Students with AS/ASD often struggle with time management because they are preoccupied with narrow topics of interest to the exclusion of all other tasks or assignments.

Touch Oversensitivity : Students with AS/ASD are sensitive to sensory stimuli; this can manifest as touch oversensitivity for some students, making them extremely reactive to certain fabrics or any touching.

The Building Accepting Campus Communities (BACC) project was funded by the US Department of Education Office of Secondary Education grant #P333A080070-09. The University of Nebraska does not discriminate based on gender, age, disability, race, color, religion, marital status, veteran's status, national or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.