Skip to main content

Confronting Asperger's in the classroom

They’ve been called “odd ducks,” “eccentrics” or “little professors.” Now these often brilliant but socially awkward students, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, are flocking to postsecondary classrooms in greater numbers than ever before. Here’s how faculty are meeting the challenge.

by Moira Farr

Illustration by Shout.

It’s just a gesture and a sequence of words, a private signal between James Wright, an associate professor of music at Carleton University, and his student, Maureen Pytlik, to remind her not to dominate the class question period. They worked it out together, so she doesn’t become so absorbed in the discussion that she forgets she’s in a classroom with other students, and that they need the professor’s attention too. Ms. Pytlik, 23, has Asperger’s Syndrome, and she doesn’t pick up social cues as easily as other students would.

Asperger’s, or AS, is a neurological disorder first identified by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944 as a cluster of characteristics exhibited by children, predominantly boys (a four-to-one ratio), on the high-functioning end of autistic spectrum disorders. The highly accomplished but socially inept Dr. Asperger thought he had it himself. The term was barely in use, however, until the 1980s; since then, it has become an increasingly common diagnosis.

Like most people diagnosed with AS, Ms. Pytlik is very intelligent and academically inclined. “The quality of her work and insights is breathtaking,” says Dr. Wright. When it comes to music theory, “I’ve never seen anything like her ability to see mathematical patterns. It’s right off the scale. Her research skills are second to none.”

Despite her academic triumphs, adjusting to life as a postsecondary student has not been easy for Ms. Pytlik, who uses words like “hypersensitive” and “obsessive” to describe herself. She was diagnosed as a member of the AS tribe as a teenager. Bullying at school had made her withdrawn, anxious and depressed. At Carleton, though, she’s blossomed into a well-appreciated member of the music program. “The department of fine arts is a nice, open environment,” says Dr. Wright. “We’re used to eccentrics.”

Used to eccentrics or not, university faculty members across the country, and in particular in the Ottawa area, are finding themselves faced with increasing numbers of students with Asperger’s Syndrome and are feeling their impact on classroom dynamics. (Why Ottawa? No one knows for sure, although researchers suggest genetics may be a factor; studies have shown that in regions with a large population of people working in high-tech industries, such as California’s Silicon Valley and parts of the Netherlands, a higher than average number of children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.)

“We’ve seen a phenomenal rise in the numbers [of AS students], from zero to 50 in five years, and we expect to see many more,” says Larry McCloskey, director of Carleton’s Paul Menton Centre, known for its groundbreaking work over the past two decades helping students who have disabilities succeed at university as well as educating the general campus population about these students’ needs.

That education includes seminars and workshops for faculty who want to understand AS better and to learn how best to work with such students so they can succeed academically. That’s how I ended up with a dozen or so colleagues from various disciplines at a late June workshop at Algonquin College and another one in early September at Carleton. (I teach at both institutions, and have begun encountering a number of AS students, with differing and sometimes challenging needs.) We were gathered to learn from the well-versed campus specialists who deal with this group of students in their growing numbers each day.

“We find that there tend to be two types, one very chatty, the other very reserved,” says Laura Brawn, a disabilities coordinator with the Paul Menton Centre. “It is a question of social abilities,” she adds, “either too much communication or too little.”

Source: “Identifying Trends and Supports for Students with Autism
Spectrum Disorder in Post-Secondary Education,” 2010.

Students with AS may behave in an extremely literal way, favouring unchanging routines, clear-cut instruction and external structure. Sometimes they are – to be blunt – obnoxious. They may blurt sarcastic comments in class, ask annoying questions or make observations best kept to themselves, an unfortunate factor contributing to possible social isolation. Their quick wits and academic talents, on the other hand, may win them praise and endearment, or at least tolerance, from classmates and faculty.

At Carleton, associate mathematics professor Michael J. Moore found himself with three AS students who had problems fitting in with his classes last year – a first, he says, in more than 40 years of teaching. One student was very quiet and withdrawn, another made inappropriate remarks in class (“I talked to him about it one or two times, with only moderate success”) and the third had difficulty with the course but became belligerent when Dr. Moore advised him that he must do the work in order to pass.

The situation prompted Dr. Moore to offer his services to the Paul Menton Centre. This past summer, he led a seminar for about a dozen incoming AS students (and some of their parents) on what to expect in a university classroom.

“Basically I said ‘this is how I do a lecture, here is a course outline, this is what a deadline means, and this is how you behave. You don’t yell out answers, you put up your hand. You call me Professor Moore.’ It went quite well. Whether it will help, I don’t know. But I did run into one of the students at a barbecue and he told me some math jokes.”

In general, faculty are becoming more aware of how to deal with AS students, says Heather Fawcett, an Ottawa-based spokesperson for Autism Ontario, whose own daughter attends Carleton. But there’s still a long way to go in getting everyone on board in helping such students adjust. “I know universities can only do so much, but we need to educate people, not just academics but the wider community as well.” The goal, she notes, is to help these young people eventually enter the work force.

Faculty members and the Paul Menton or any other centre can only document and help those students who self-identify as having AS and who’ve had testing and medical documentation to prove it. There are, without doubt, many students with AS at colleges and universities who don’t formally announce themselves or use the support services offered. That is their right.

As for academic accommodations, these may range from allowing extra time for exams and quiet rooms in which to do them to allowing note-takers or recording devices in class. Sometimes, people with AS are also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), making these accommodations even more critical to success with course work.

As with other disabilities though, accommodation does not mean expecting less of a student with AS or providing extra instruction not given to others, Mr. McCloskey is quick to point out. Rather, it means leveling the playing field.

Source: “Identifying Trends and Supports for Students with Autism
Spectrum Disorder in Post-Secondary Education,” 2010.

“We’ve fought so hard for no special treatment [at the Menton Centre] and we want faculty to know what we do and feel supported,” says Mr. McCloskey. “Accommodation is not based on the whim of a student asking for an extension and using excuses. A letter of accommodation is very clear about what is being asked for, and it doesn’t go beyond that.”

Others in the field of helping postsecondary students with disabilities agree. “I don’t think it’s our job to modify every program to every student,” says Susan Alcorn MacKay, director of disability services at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario. Ms. MacKay is the author of a 2010 study, “Identifying Trends and Supports for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Post-Secondary Education,” (PDF) for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. In it, she reveals the dramatic increases in the numbers of students at the province’s universities and colleges, in particular Ottawa and eastern Ontario. It is a trend seen across the country, with each province and most educational institutions now providing supports for this group of students, as is their legislated duty with these and all students with disabilities.

Ms. MacKay’s study also revealed gaps in support, pointing out what a giant leap it is for students going from high school to university or college. At the secondary level, AS students may have had access to “well-trained special educators,” while at university, the training for faculty in how to deal with disabilities is optional. Many high schools with AS students have “safe areas,” quiet spots where a student can go to chill out, but university campuses generally don’t cater to that need specifically. And secondary school curriculums are modified for AS students, while universities expect all students to complete the same course work.

In the best-case scenario, you have a conscientious and likeable student like Maureen Pytlik, aware of and open about her problems, willing to work with faculty and use support services to solve them, and in the end capable of exceptional work.

Sometimes, however, highly verbal, intense, socially inept students with AS can be disruptive, defiant and disorganized – or, they fly so beneath the radar that in a large first-year class, their failure to thrive may not be noticed until it’s too late.

Alexander Coculuzzi, age 20, admits that his first year as a student at the University of Ottawa was a bit of a disaster. As is typical for many with AS, he is disarmingly frank about his experience. Diagnosed with AS at age 13 (he also has ADHD), he’d been severely bullied and had problems in the classroom throughout high school; in one incident he punched a teacher. After being assigned an educational assistant in Grade 10, his attitude and school work turned around. With high marks in math, he was eager to start university and live in a dorm.

In hindsight, he reflects on what went wrong. “Academically I was ready, but I wasn’t mature enough to live on my own.” That meant not making it to class much of the time, partying and ignoring assignments. “I don’t remember January,” he confesses. When he did attend class, he tended to monopolize discussion, something he wasn’t even aware he was doing until a girl he’d befriended told him that people wanted him to stop talking so much. “I wasn’t offended,” he says.

While slacking off isn’t an activity unique to AS students, Mr. Coculuzzi’s problems were compounded by AS. Despite being given extra time to write exams, he ended up failing two courses. “I just wasn’t in the right mindset and didn’t realize the challenges until I was there,” he says now. “I needed help organizing my day, getting into a routine. Things that other people do naturally, I have to be taught.” It’s not only university centres that offer this kind of life coaching. In Ottawa, the Y’s Owl Maclure Cooperative Centre, a non-profit agency, helps young people with autism and AS cope at the postsecondary level, whether it’s organizing a schedule or making sure they eat properly.

Ms. Pytlik is the first to acknowledge that she’s needed lots of support – extra time and quiet rooms for exams, a peer mentor and one-on-one interaction with professors have all helped. In fact, she came to the university accompanied by her mother, before she even had begun classes, and met individually with Dr. Wright and other faculty members.

“I didn’t really know what Asperger’s Syndrome was at the time,” says Dr. Wright. “It’s Maureen who has taught me.” Since then, he has been more than accommodating with his signaling system and encouragements, making sure she feels comfortable and accepted in the classroom, and getting her through roadblocks she has encountered in some of her studies. “It’s a subtle business to make sure you don’t marginalize someone,” says Dr. Wright.

While Ms. Pytlik has excelled at the mathematical aspects of music theory, assignments involving creativity have caused her extreme anxiety. “To invent and create, explore human expressivity, this was new for her and she was a bit at sea,” says Dr. Wright. While at first he felt “at a loss” on how to help with this aspect of her course work, talking about it with her, helping her discover her own ideas, laying out the assignment more explicitly than he was used to doing for students, all meant a lot to Ms. Pytlik.

“I guess he thought I was worth putting up with,” she says with a shy smile, during an interview in a quiet conference room at Carleton’s Paul Menton Centre.

It’s the same room where Aspirations, a group of up to a dozen students with AS, meets biweekly to socialize. Sometimes they’ll watch a movie or TV show, talk and eat popcorn, or sometimes just relax in a safe haven of people who share similar challenges and experiences.

Now in her fifth year of study, Ms. Pytlik has fourth-year standing and expects to graduate with an honours bachelor of music in the fall of 2013, and with an honours bachelor of mathematics the following spring. She wants to pursue graduate studies in the field of music perception and cognition at McGill University. Like many with AS, she has much to contribute to society. “What Maureen brings to us,” says Dr. Wright, “more than counterbalances the challenges.”

Moira Farr is a writer and journalist who teaches magazine writing to college and university students in Ottawa.

Other stories that might be of interest:

Print Comments (16) Post a comment
Email Reprint Share Share

Comments on this Article

From a young age my friends and I could tell I was eccentric. I studied accounting at a local college. I've also helped many company's from a young age achieve great success. I was wondering if there are any teachers or students out there that could use a teaching assistant or could direct me to a place I could work with other eccentric people, I would really appreciate it. I love learning, helping others and working. I live in the Toronto. Thanks for your time. Spence.

Posted by Spence, Apr 22, 2014 4:38 PM

This comment is primarily directed to Laura (who posted her comment on Jan. 10, 2012 at 2:19 PM), but also to any other post-secondary employee with similarly specific questions/concerns.

In my opinion, one of the best approaches to take in figuring out how to help university and college students with Asperger's Syndrome (or an ASD more generally; or, for that matter, any other "diff-ability") is to learn what has been helpful for other students with similar challenges. Yes, in the case of helping students with AS this researching potentially helpful strategies is somewhat time-consuming; it is also particularly difficult to know where to start or what sources to turn to for information, as specific success stories of post-secondary students with Asperger's are rarely widely available.

It was my intent in eagerly volunteering to be interviewed for this article that at least some specific information about the challenges that are frequently presented by students with an AS diagnosis in the post-secondary setting would be made available to professors and support staff at universities and colleges across Canada.

Since the publication of this article, I have had the marvellous opportunity to be in contact with a university staff member outside of Ontario who sought my advice on how best to help the students with AS whom she interacts with in her work on campus. I was able to share my insights into the sometimes peculiar behaviours of students on the autism spectrum and to suggest helpful strategies to try when dealing with students with the same diagnosis as myself. This experience validated the idea that I had harboured for a while that one of the greatest sources of information on assisting students with AS is other students with AS who have themselves experienced successes (and numerous challenges along the way) in the university or college setting.

If there are other readers of this article who are wondering how to assist students with AS in their own work on a post-secondary campus, may I suggest directing your questions to a student (or former student) with AS who may be willing to brainstorm ideas with you. This student need not be me -- as I am only one person, and other successful students and graduates with AS are out there -- however, for educators and staff members in Canada whose own disability centres are unable to forward any specific questions to a suitable (and willing) individual, I would be willing to share my advice and ideas. As I have once before been contacted through Carleton's Paul Menton Centre because of this article, I'm sure similar requests for my input can reach me again.

My response to the question on how higher education can advise students with AS when it comes to the job search and entering the working world is that, like any other student on campus, someone with AS who needs assistance in matters of career counselling needs to turn to one of the career counsellors made available to them on campus. I can think of many reasons why approaching the career counselling centre on campus would be anxiety-provoking for a student with AS, or why they may not realize that they need to seek this type of assistance. This only means that such students will likely need some support in learning to use the appropriate services.

Posted by Maureen Pytlik, Aug 15, 2013 3:07 PM

Concerned Citizen, please see my previous comment.
Laura, thank you for taking an objective view of this. I can tell you that that problem is being worked on.

Thank you Janic D, rm, Anne-MArie and Hedlo

The rest of you, re-examine what you wrote. I am a student of the woman that wrote this article, and she doesn't deserve the flak you're giving her. Have hearts, people.

Posted by Shelley L., Feb 28, 2012 3:23 PM

To No Apologies,

How DARE You! YOu have no right to judge something with which you have had little or no experience, and even then you must tread carefully. Reading your comment was a really harsh reminder of why I and others with AS were and still are unwilling to discuss our problems for fear of being 'labelled' as it were.

Shame on you. Try to keep an open mind.

Posted by Shelley L., Feb 28, 2012 3:18 PM

What ever happened to 'your problem isn't mine, get over it'? Post-secondary (the subject of this article) is a place where student pay good money to attend. They *choose* to be there, unlike schoolage children. While I don't have too much problem with K-5 schools erring on the side of caution re: peanut allergy, beyond that age if those kids haven't learned to be careful (and they can only control themselves, not others), then Darwin will eventually take care of things.

Recent research suggests that for the vast majority of even severe sufferers, simply touching a peanut-contaminated surface or cannot cause anaphylaxis (but can cause hives) unless the face is touched.

RMs child will eventually have to accept that s/he must be incredibly careful. S/he must not sit at the table without having it wiped down first. Must avoid shared playground equipment.

I hope RM will not let him/her touch any uncertain surface without having it wiped down. Because that's how we teach our children to be safe, after all.

Posted by No Apologies, Jan 26, 2012 2:53 AM

This is a thoughtful and helpful article: thank you for running it.

Further to the other responses to "Concerned Citizen," there is no "right" to eat peanuts: happily, there are many other snacking options! You can't really mean that a student's taste for peanuts should trump the right of a student with a severe allergy to a safe learning environment? Or, to get back to the topic of the piece, that extremely bright, creative students who face the very real challenges recognized by an AS diagnosis don't deserve the help and support of their teachers--and peers--in receiving an education and making their own valuable contributions to the university and to society? In any case, as others have pointed out, the article emphasizes the things those students need to do themselves to succeed.

Posted by rm, Jan 23, 2012 11:47 AM

(Continued from my previous comment, submitted Jan 10, 2012 7:41 PM)

I am one of the 300 and I have had AS kids in my class. Some of them do talk too much at first, usually some rules work. A professor can ask for comments from the right side of the room the left side front or back or ask for the feminine perspective... and engage more students. Professors can approach the AS student and ask them to limit their comments to x number in a spirit of fairness to other students. Remember a lot of the AS students had aids in public school and they never learned their place in an unassisted classroom. A professor can find out if it is OK to disclose the AS diagnosis a lot, not all, of students are perfectly fine with that. Then the fellow students are free to offer assistance to the student with a disability and many of them do. Universities need more contacts for proctors (not in the University budget). They could be senior or graduate students they could get paid to help with their studies or it could fulfill a volunteer requirement. The Universities and the Autism foundations could partner to Identify issues and supply a liaison and for feed back from professors and the AS students. I know the ability/disability centers are under-funded and swamped but I can think of at least one external source that would grant funds for "Kids at risk" in my town. A special initiation day that is designed for AS kids would go a long way to identify resources and common problems and set up connections, we do it for international students. Yes there are problems and yet I have found some the ideas of the AS students the most compelling. When you listen to the ideas out of the mainstream it helps to identify the perspective of your own views. I am glad you have opened this dialogue that has been so Taboo in the neurotypical world.

Posted by Janice D, Jan 11, 2012 11:54 AM

I am the mother of a 9yo boy with Aspergers. I was married to an Aspie for 20 years. I am also a college prof.

This article is hopeful. There are many educators, people, and kind strangers who take the time to see that each student brings his or her own challenges and strengths to the classroom. Thank goodness for them. Each gesture, each kindness, each understanding, each encouragement, and each honest interaction makes a difference.

There are also many people like "Concerned Citizen" who, while supporting the same cause featured in this article -- to ensure that every student has access to respect in an environment where he or she can earn a solid education -- has dismissed Aspergers as "the psych diagnosis de jour". Yes, it has gained attention over the past decade, no question, but the suggestion that this is some kind of trend, as opposed to a real neurological condition is like saying that babies born with birth defects because their mothers had been prescribed Thalidomide was the medical diagnosis de jour.

With all due respect to "Concerned Citizen" and anyone who nodded in agreement to his or her plea that those who do not face their day challenged by sensory issues coupled with the knowledge that a good number of people with whom their paths cross daily will make comments insulting their neurological stimming, funny facial gestures, speech challenges, different styles of processing, and take advantage of their inability to read facial expression and intonation in speech deserve the same amount of understanding and individual attention as people like my son, I ask, respectfully, for you to consider, respectfully, that each person is individual, and not every challenge is marked by a wheelchair or a seeing-eye dog. Please. Compassion and understanding that you might not know what you don't yet know can go a long way to making the world better for everyone.

There is enough to go around. A person with Aspergers getting what he or she needs to feel safe and able to learn does not take from another's ability to do the same, in fact, it grows the pile of resources for each and every one of us.

Posted by Hedlo, Jan 10, 2012 8:15 PM

What about the rights of the other 300 students!! Concerned Citizen YOU HAVE NO IDEA. Your kids were always able to participate in every subsidized program and you thought nothing of it. You did not have to adapt any program that was not suitable for your kid and make it work because they don't make anything special for Asperger kids. These Kids think different they are creative and awkward... they will not get jobs if they don't graduate and then you will pay with your tax dollar to support them if they don't go to school. They always have to change to fit in you almost never have to... Is it their fault that no programming was there to help them with social skill in high school? This is not just a fantasy diagnosis... these people are real and if they get appropriate interventions they go on to be great citizens... People like you are the reason the problem is not getting solved because you don't even admit to a problem.

Posted by Janice D, Jan 10, 2012 7:41 PM

Anne-Marie, I think Concerned Citizen was responding to Manon's comment. That said, (s)he seems to be fairly biased and in favour of hyperbole, too.

I will say that "in my day" is a pretty poor way to support any argument against change, and those who have a general understanding of history know this.

Life isn't fair. People with disabilities are well aware of this. Some of us care enough to give up our less important "rights" to ensure society doesn't have the same unfeeling approach to human vulnerability that is intrinsic to nature's gift.

All this pettiness aside, I think Laura's comment is worth further consideration. Good article though.

Posted by Cole, Jan 10, 2012 4:29 PM

"Confronting"? What an odd choice of word for the headline.

Posted by Tanyz, Jan 10, 2012 2:46 PM

What I want to know is how higher education is advising these students about going on to join the working world. I've learned to navigate a classroom with AS students, but am baffled as to how to advise them about the job hunt. The ones I've had in class have wildly unrealistic occupational ambitions and our disabilities services helps students operate in the classroom; their job does not include career counseling. Neither does mine, but I want to help. What to do?

Posted by Laura, Jan 10, 2012 2:19 PM

Gee I wish I'd read Concerned Citizen's comment before leaving my own. I'm wondering if you read the same article I did? I didn't read about other students being asked to adapt. What I read about was a professor who spent extra time getting to know a student and their needs and was enriched by the process. And I read about a student who was willing/able to adapt as well so they could grow and learn. Forgive me but 'in my day' that's what school was about: those special teachers who went the extra mile and the students who responded to that call.

Posted by Anne-Marie, Jan 10, 2012 1:11 PM

Ah, Aspergers. The psych diagnosis de jour. This is just another example of educators being asked to accommodate every student's individual issue. What about the rights of those other 10, 50 or 300 students (in the case of a typical undergrad class) to fidget, chew gum, snack on peanuts or--gasp!--breathe? We are drowning in 'special cases'. In my day, if one had a special issue one dealt with it privately and, yes, informing the teacher. But certainly not by requiring my peers to accommodate me. Presumably they are busy with their own issues and challenges. Awareness should be encouraged but when an entire class is expected to adapt to a single student this crosses a boundary from 'understanding' to unfair.

Posted by Concerned Citizen, Jan 10, 2012 12:39 PM

I am the parent of a very bright, very scientifically minded high school student with AS. He also suffers from acute misophonia, a not uncommon co-morbid affliction. Misophonia is the inability to tolerate certain sounds. In most cases, as in my child's, the offending noise is other people eating. His anxiety levels hit the roof when he sees people with food.

When accommodating students with AS, there must be readiness to accommodate when possible beyond academics. In my son's case, a simple request to refrain from eating or chewing gum in the classroom is the difference between success and failure.

Posted by manon, Jan 10, 2012 9:28 AM

As the parent of a young son with AS (and a Carleton grad)my heart leapt as I read this article. Thank you Moira for raising these issues and sharing a little bit of the Carleton U experience.

Posted by Anne-Marie, Jan 10, 2012 9:02 AM

Post a comment

University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.