Autism and Asperger Syndrome - Understanding disabilities, impairments and specific learning difficulties - University of Derby

Autistic Spectrum Disorders

People with autism conditions (including Asperger Syndrome) share some common difficulties such as finding it more difficult to read social cues and difficulties with communication, social relationships, sensory overload, and managing change or unexpected situations. However, the extent of this experience varies greatly hence the reason that autism is known as a spectrum condition. Some people on the autistic spectrum also experience other conditions alongside such as mental health concerns or learning differences.

When working with a student on the autistic spectrum it is important to be aware of the language used as there may be difficulties in interpreting and processing. Students may interpret your communication in its most literal sense and comments such as "if you plagiarise, it will cost you an arm and a leg” may be interpreted as a true statement. It is therefore important to use clear, unambiguous language with students and check understanding.

Everyone is unique; however, some autistic people may demonstrate the following:

  • Difficulty with eye contact 
  • A change to routines can be difficult to manage and sudden change can cause anxiety
  • May prefer established routines 
  • Difficulty with organisation and managing time effectively – particularly with unstructured learning time at university 
  • Social or unstructured interaction can be challenging
  • May find certain learning activities such as group work more challenging to manage. This may be due to difficulty with social interaction or with other group members not seeming to follow ‘rules’ in relation to completion of tasks. 
  • Sensory overload can be problematic for some. This may cause problems with learning activities where a higher than usual level of noise is generated (such as small group work discussion); flickering or very bright overhead lights; background building works noise (such as drills); strong smells (such as paint or chemicals).

Working with students with Autism / Asperger Syndrome

When working with a student who is autistic it is helpful to consider the following:


  • Use clear, unambiguous language and try to avoid sarcasm, irony and metaphors
  • Learners may avoid eye contact but this does not mean they are not engaging with the learning. 
  • Due to the difficulty in relating to other people, one-to-one tutorials may be more appropriate. 
  • Learners may find it difficult to adapt to change and should be notified in plenty of time if a room or timetable change occurs. Similarly, an unexpected task that requires completion in class may cause anxiety. Giving plenty of notice will help to prepare students. 
  • If it is possible, allow small group work to take place outside the classroom and give a time limit for the group to return back to the main room. Alternatively, ask the groups to make full use of the far corners of each room to maximise the space between the groups. If possible, dim the lights or have one area of the room where the lights are not switched on.

Practical sessions

  • The student might struggle with group work and may need support with this, for example, facilitation of the group work or the option to work with a technician instead. Group projects and assessments can be especially difficult for students to manage. Where possible allow the student to self-select so that they are able to work with student colleagues they are already familiar with.


  • A separate room may be necessary to complete the exam (which the student may need to see prior to the exam to help reduce anxiety levels in relation to change) 
  • A reader may be required to interpret any ambiguous language and ensure that the questions are understood. 
  • Extra time may be required to complete an exam. 
  • Consider whether an alternative method of assessment can be used which will equally demonstrate the learning outcomes or competence requirements.

Preparation for University
Student Wellbeing offers individual appointments to potential students and their carers on Open days. We also offer a campus and Halls tour during quieter periods at the University and individual appointments over the summer.

Summer School
Student Wellbeing runs a summer school every July for students who have applied to university to study in the following academic year. It is open to any student and provides the opportunity for the following:

  • Experience a lecture and develop academic skills
  • A two night stay in the Halls of Residence and the opportunity to prepare a meal (this part is optional). Alternatively, attendees may choose to attend day events and stay at home.
  • A talk from current students who have lived experience of autism / Asperger syndrome, who attended the summer school last year, to hear about their experiences of university so far
  • An opportunity to begin to get to know other students and discover what is provided by the Students Union
  • A focus on different types of support available and how to make best use of these
  • An opportunity for a one to one meeting with someone from the Student Wellbeing Team to talk through any concerns and to develop an action plan for preparing for university
  • An invite to a workshop for parents/carers about preparing for the transition to university.

Where can I find out more?

What's Happening ...

Academic Practice Programme (APP) 2018

The Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) is pleased to announce the launch of the Academic Practice Programme (APP) 2018. This programme of workshops, activities and events is available to all staff, and is designed around current strategic priorities for the University.