ASD Symptoms' Impact on Student's Educational Performance

How can behaviors associated with ASD impact a student’s educational performance?

We suggest that the concept of “impact on a student’s educational performance” can be thought about by considering these 4 aspects of the public education experience which are highly valued in IDEA and other relevant legislation and policies:

Health/Safety

Some features of ASD pose a risk to a student’s health and safety.  For example:

  • if a student is not yet able to indicate to others when she is sick or hurt, her communication challenges pose a potential risk to her health
  • if a student does not understand the motives of others (i.e., a social cognitive deficit), he or she could be particularly vulnerable to bullying
  • if a student has an overly focused interest/obsession with license plates, then he or she could impulsively run into a parking lot without noticing traffic

Setting

Some features of ASD impact the restrictiveness of a student’s educational placement.  For example:
if a student isn’t socially aware of his or her impact on other students in the classroom, then he/she may require additional supports to engage appropriately in general education activities, or may not be able to remain in large group activities for as long as his or her peers.

if a student’s behavioral responses to changes, transitions, mistakes, or unexpected events are so intense that they require additional adult resources, structures, and/or plans to maintain safety, then a more restrictive educational placement may be required.

Access

As a consequence of the core features, some students with autism miss out on learning opportunities that their peers engage in on a regular basis.  For example:

  • if a student with autism doesn’t learn well through imitation, then he or she will miss many opportunities to learn from others without direct intervention.
  • if a student with autism has difficulty engaging in reciprocal social interactions, then participation in cooperative learning activities will be significantly compromised, resulting in lost opportunities to learn academic content and develop social-emotional competence.
  • if a student doesn’t understand the social rules and conventions for behavior in a particular setting (such as visiting the library, or sitting in circle time) then he or she may not be offered as many opportunities to learn in that setting.

Reasonable benefit

Some students with autism learn in a qualitatively different way than their peers.  Without intervention to provide instruction in a manner that matches a student’s unique learning style, learning can be significantly compromised, such that one could suggest that the student has not been given the opportunity to experience “reasonable benefit” from public education.  For example:
if a student with autism has communication challenges (in expressive, receptive or social language) or attentional/organizational challenges,  then modifications could be necessary across any academic content area.   Because autism affects higher-order thinking, as well as what a person pays attention to, and what he or she thinks is important to know about a topic – it is likely to impact a student’s development of literacy, critical thinking and mastery of math concepts.  For example:

  • attentional features of ASD (such as focusing too much on details and not unifying concepts with a “big picture”) impacts a student’s ability to write a coherent paragraph.
  • limited perspective-taking (or poor social understanding) can make it difficult for a student to understand what he/she is reading.
  • insistence on sameness can make it difficult for a student to apply a flexible problem-solving strategy in math or science.

The table below provides some examples of how features of autism can impact a student’s educational performance.  Although this is not an exhaustive list, it may prompt some productive discussions in a team meeting.

How features of ASD can impact educational participation and outcome

Features of ASD

Possible Adverse Impacts on Educational Participation

Possible Adverse Impacts on Education Outcomes

Social-communication

 

Limited conversational skills impacts opportunities to learn from others.

 

Interpersonal skills are necessary to be successful in many vocations.

Poor social skills can limit a person’s opportunities at work.

Verbal language

Student has difficulty understanding how symbol systems work – for example, how a word can “stand” for an object.

Problems in oral and/or written communication make it difficult to engage in language-based instruction.

Difficulty following verbal directions compromises student’s ability to engage in learning opportunities

Difficulty visualizing novel, unseen concepts could be at the root of reading comprehension struggles for many students with ASD.

Literacy skills improve vocational options and are associated with enhanced potential for independent living.

Nonverbal communication

Lack of development of an effective, spontaneous way of getting basic needs met

Self-determined is significantly compromised by a lack of functional communication.

Social understanding

Student may not recognize when another person is attempting to deceive or manipulate him.

A young adults’ safety is partially reliant on sound basic social judgment.

 

Student may have trouble understanding another person’s perspective.

Poor perspective-taking is associated with poor social problem-solving, which is associated with aggressive and disruptive behaviors in adults.

Limited social flexibility

Student may have difficulty sharing, compromising, and collaborating with other students.

 

Collaboration is essential for many social and vocational aspects of adult life.

Young adults who struggle to work well with others face significant challenges in keeping a job.

Literal, rigid thinking style (cognitive inflexibility)

Student may not be open to learning new academic content or new ways to solve problems.  For example, a 5th grader with ASD who mastered addition, did not make the shift easily to do multiplication problems.

Flexibility in thinking is essential for independent living and mental health in young adults.

Poor motor coordination

Student may struggle with handwriting, learning through imitation, organizing materials, and transitioning between activities.

Coordination difficulties can restrict vocational options, and capacity to complete self-care activities.