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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Common Characteristics

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a life-long neurological disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to the people and world around them. ASD can affect behaviour, social interactions, and communication. ASD is a spectrum disorder, which means that while all people with ASD will experience certain difficulties, the degree to which each person on the spectrum experiences their challenges differs, as do their strengths. ASD crosses all cultural, ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic boundaries.

Regardless of the severity of the disorder, people on the Autism spectrum might at times have difficulty verbalizing their thoughts, managing their anxiety, dealing with change, or participating in group activities.

According to the National Epidemiological Database for the Study of Autism in Canada (NEDSAC), ASD is one of the most common developmental disabilities. In Canada, 1 in 94 children is diagnosed with ASD. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, approximately 1% of the Canadian population is affected by ASD, which means there are approximately 100,000 Ontarians on the Autism spectrum.

Common Concerns and Struggles

Challenges for students with ASD are often more pronounced because of the differences between high school and post-secondary academically, administratively, and socially.  In addition, students with ASD have often found ways of coping in high school and have difficulty generalizing and changing those coping skills to fit the post-secondary environment.

Interpreting assignment expectations

Sometimes, what is interesting or important to individuals with ASD is different from what is interesting or important to others.  As a result, students with ASD may have difficulty interpreting assignment expectations. Students might struggle to determine what a professor or instructor expects regarding topic selection, how much detail to include for specific sections, and which information is more important.

Behaviour and communication

There are many ‘unwritten rules’ of classroom conduct and the academic and social environments. Sometimes students with ASD struggle to know what constitutes appropriate behaviour. Examples of missteps in classroom conduct include asking too many questions, answering rhetorical questions (questions that are not meant to be answered), answering with too much detail, going ‘off-topic’ and speaking too much or too little in tutorials.

Group work

Group work is challenging in and of itself.  What can be amplified as a challenge for some students with ASD includes: reading the social dynamics, turn-taking, dividing tasks, and integrating individual work into the group's project.   Labs are complex and dynamic settings that require processing instructions relating to unfamiliar tasks, transitioning between stations, performing fine motor tasks, and coordinating with other students – often within tight time constraints. This can be challenging for students with ASD because of social, communication, sensory and information-processing differences.

Engaging with professors

Post-secondary students with ASD often have difficulty reaching out by email or in person to professors, instructors, administrative staff or student services.  This challenge may present itself as a difficulty reaching out in the first place, or if the outreach is unclear or ineffectual.  In particular, identifying a need for help and explaining what help is required may be challenging and therefore can limit a student’s ability to get their needs met in a timely way.


Students with ASD frequently enter post-secondary with less experience related to friendships and romantic relationships than their peers, and have had fewer opportunities for social engagement.  Students with ASD often have unique and intense interests that are different from their peers. In addition, the communication style of these students is often different.  As a result, interacting with other students can be challenging since the post-secondary environment includes both explicit and “unwritten rules” related to social engagement and interactions (i.e., dating, maintaining romantic relationships, friendships).  


Many students with ASD have difficulty making decisions in relation to their program choice, course load, whether to continue taking or to drop a course (in cases when grades are low), whether to ask for help, what to ask for and when to ask. For students with ASD, imagining possible outcomes, difficulties with executive functioning, general difficulties with interpersonal communication, anxiety, and understanding time sensitivity can impact their decision making abilities.

Accessibility Services

All students with disabilities should register with Accessibility Services in order to arrange academic accommodations for their courses.  Accommodations are meant to be matched to specific functional limitations of a student’s disability (as outlined in their documentation), in order to provide students with an equal opportunity to participate in the coursework.


Accommodations that may be available for students with ASD may include:

  • Learning Strategist or Academic Coach, to provide support such as understanding course expectations, managing group work, time management
  • Note-taking, to support executive functioning challenges
  • Exam accommodations, such as extra time or private room to support executive functioning challenges
  • Assistive technology, to support challenges with reading or writing

Documentation Requirements

The following information outlines common documentation requirements.  Visit our Colleges or Universities section and contact your post-secondary school’s Accessibility Office to learn what documentation is required at your school. Requirements can vary widely from school to school, and it is important to learn what specific documentation is required, especially before arranging or paying for an assessment or expecting reimbursement. 

  • At some post-secondary institutions, a medical form or letter from a qualified practitioner (physician, psychologist, specialist, etc.) is sufficient documentation
  • At other institutions, a more comprehensive psycho-educational assessment conducted by a psychologist is required.  Psycho-educational assessments can cost $2,000-4,000, however funding may be available through OSAP (and the Bursary for Students with Disabilities) or another source.  For institutions that do require a psycho-educational assessment, accessibility counselors in the Accessibility Services office can assist in making a referral and investigate financial aid options.
  • Documentation should ideally outline the functional limitations that are caused by ASD and how they apply to an academic setting.  The documentation may also make recommendations around academic accommodations to address those limitations.  

Student Support Services

There are a variety of student support services to meet the many needs of post-secondary students, in addition to those provided by Accessibility Services (see above).  Some of the services that may be particularly appropriate for students with ASD are listed below.

Orientation programs

Orientation programs provide opportunities for students with ASD to:

  • Meet new people
  • Meet support staff and learn about the roles and how help is structured in a post-secondary environment
  • Learn where services are and how things work
  • Students with ASD might want to connect with their DSO to see how to best navigate events which initially might feel overwhelming

Transition programs

In addition to the resources and benefits of orientation programs, transition programs help students:

  • Prepare for the differences between high school and post-secondary school,
  • Anticipate and address potential problems, and
  • Provide an avenue for students to connect with school supports 

ASD specific support groups

ASD specific support groups provides a space for students with similar interests, concerns, and communication styles to connect.  These are not available at all colleges and universities. 

Peer mentoring

Mentorship programs help introduce students to the school community and navigate the services offered within the school.  Mentors can help familiarize students with new environments and potentially answer questions. 

Peer tutoring and academic support

Peer tutoring and academic support services can provide:

  • Support for students in completing assignments or essays 
  • Support for students who need help with reviewing or general support with coursework

Academic advising

Academic advisors can assist students in choosing courses and planning their academic paths.  

Community Support Services

There are a variety of national, provincial, and local organizations in the community to support individuals with ASD.  The services provided by these organization varies, but generally they are able to help support and advocate for individuals with ASD, and to help connect people with additional services and resources to support them with education, employment, government services or other support they may need. 

National and Provincial Organizations

  • Asperger's Society of Ontario is devoted to serving those with Asperger Syndrome, their families and other interested individuals. www.aspergers.ca
  • Autism Ontario helps people on the autism spectrum and their families by advocating on their behalf, providing services & programs, and raising awareness. Autism Ontario represents thousands of families across the province through 25 Chapters that are under the leadership of committed and skilled volunteers who provide expertise and guidance to the organization and their communities. www.autismontario.com
  • Autism Speaks is dedicated to funding global research into the causes, prevention, and treatments for autism; to raising public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and society; and to bring hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder. www.autismspeaks.ca
  • Kerry's Place Autism Services offers services to individuals with ASD in the Toronto region, as well as in Central and Eastern Ontario. www.kerrysplace.org


Local Chapters & Community Organizations

Autism Ontario has 25 local chapters in communities across Ontario. Chapters are arranged by geographical region:

  • South West: Windsor, Chatham, Sarnia, London, Owen Sound
  • Hamilton Niagara: Hamilton, St. Catherines
  • Central West: Waterloo, Guelph, Oakville, Mississauga, Brampton
  • Toronto: Greater Toronto Area
  • Central East: Barrie, Orillia, York, Oshawa, Peterborough, Lindsay, Cobourg
  • South East: Belleville, Bancroft, Kingston, Brockville
  • Eastern: Ottawa, Cornwall
  • North East: Cochrane, Timmins, Temiskaming, North Bay, Parry Sound
  • Northern: Kenora, Rainy River, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste Marie


Other community organizations: 

Greater Toronto Area

  • The Redpath Centre is a private mental health organization specializing in ASD and other neurodevelopmental conditions, across the lifespan. In addition to providing a range of clinical services, they carry out research, educate stakeholders, and advocate for systems change. www.redpathcentre.ca
  • The Geneva Centre for Autism offers a wide range of clinical services which are determined individually for each person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and supported by a multi-disciplinary team of trained, experienced and empathic professionals. www.autism.net
  • Reach Toronto offers a range of services for adults and youth with ASD, such as life skills training, social skills as well as specific knowledge required to prepare transitioning high school students and young adults for either college, the workforce or simply to gain independence. www.reachtoronto.ca



  • WAVE (Work and Volunteer Experience for Adults with Autism) Ottawa promotes autonomy for adults on the Autism spectrum through transferable skills training, volunteer experiences, and recreation opportunities so that they may reach their own unique levels of independence. www.waveottawa.ca


These resources have been developed by various different college and university accessibility offices, in partnership with their local school boards. They are specifically for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

  • Frequently Asked Questions (PDF): Collection of frequently asked questions and answers from incoming students with ASD (and their parents), compiled by York University.  Please note, policies and services outlined in this document are specific to York University, during the 2015-2016 school year, and may be different at other institutions or in other school years.
  • Post-Secondary Language Dictionary (PDF): Information and explanations about the language used in the post-secondary environment, as it compares to the language used in post-secondary, with a specific focus on students with ASD, compiled by York University. 
  • College Readiness Assessment Tool (PDF): Self-assessment tool developed by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board for secondary students to evaluate their college readiness skills. 
  • Transition Readiness Student Checklist (PDF): Student checklists developed by the Toronto Catholic District School Board and Surrey Place Centre, in partnership with York University. Students can use these checklists to evaluate various transition readiness skills and set goals to focus on different skills.