The number of college students with documented learning differences is rising. However, most staff members do not have the benefit of being trained on how to work with diverse learners. Additionally, students who face learning difficulties vary greatly in their need for support. This spectrum of needs can lead to uncertainty on behalf of staff who are attempting to provide accommodations in their work with students. Our goal is to have staff feel equipped and knowledgeable about ways to design courses/programs while considering learning differences of all students.

It has been found that neurodiverse and ASD students in addition to students with behaviors consistent with ASD can vary in their levels of functioning among key academic skill areas such as:

  • Communication Skills– difficulties may occur with individual’s receptive or expressive communication. Some of these differences are subtle and can lead to misunderstandings that are misinterpreted by the receiver.
  • Social Skills– including problems understanding others perspectives, sharing space, and making eye contact. Individuals may not understand the “unwritten rules” or etiquette of the classroom.
  • Sensory Differences– individuals may have an over sensitivity/under sensitivity to environmental stimuli (e.g. sights, sounds, smells).
  • Motor Skills– differences in abilities to write, draw, and turn pages may vary. Some student may experience additional challenges with walking, running, sitting, and/or and balancing.
  • Coping Skills- individuals who experience the above concerns can also suffer from anxiety and stress. Sensory sensitivities, social and communication expectations as well as transitions and unexpected changes often trigger these feelings.

There are particular considerations that can promote a more inclusive and inviting learning environment. For example,

  • Due to auditory processing concerns, be mindful of the pace of instruction. Stopping and sharing examples or asking for questions can allow students to maintain focus on the current topic of discussion. Students with auditory processing challenges also benefit from having all relevant information provided to them visually on presentation slides or handouts.
  • Clarify messages that are literal and those which may have meaning beyond the words expressed. Students with learning difficulties may struggle with the interplay and iterations of words expressed with meaning beyond what is explicitly stated.
  • Whenever possible, add graphs, charts, and other visual representations of lecture content to your notes. These images will provide excellent examples of the concepts being taught to all students.
  • Design courses and syllabi using Universal Design of Learning (UDL) principles. More information regarding UDL can be found here

Generally, communication can be an area of relative difficulty for neurodiverse and ASD students in addition to students with behaviors consistent with ASD. For example, students may not know how to ask for help, may not check/respond to email as expected, and may struggle with self-advocacy. Instructors can promote better communication by explicitly encouraging students who have questions or concerns to see them after class when going through the syllabus, and by requesting the student meet with them when they observe that the student is failing to meet academic or behavioral expectations in class. It is important to remember that neurodiverse and ASD students in addition to students with behaviors consistent with ASD might have trouble initiating these conversations, and they can benefit from having their instructors take the first step in developing plans.

For specific questions related to documentation and accommodations, please refer to the Student Disability Services website: https://sds.studentlife.uiowa.edu/instructors/

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