Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a life-long neurodevelopmental 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 with ASD 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. As reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, approximately 1% of the Canadian population is affected by ASD, which means there are approximately 100,000 Ontarians with this disorder.
Students with ASD can face a range of challenges in the post-secondary setting. These challenges are often more pronounced in college and university because of the differences between secondary and post-secondary academically, administratively, and socially. In addition, while students with ASD often find ways of coping in secondary school, they have difficulty generalizing and changing those coping skills to fit the post-secondary environment. An overview of common concerns is given below. For a more detailed description of these potential challenges, please see the ASD Common Concerns and Struggles (PDF) handout.
Behaviour and Communication
Students with ASD often struggle to understand ‘unwritten rules’ in academic and social environments and may not know what constitutes appropriate or expected behaviour in different settings. Sometimes, what is interesting or important to individuals with ASD is different from what is interesting or important to others. This can pose a challenge in post-secondary environments such as classrooms, seminars, labs, and when interacting with professors/instructors or classmates. In particular, struggles can arise when:
- Interpreting assignment expectations
- Working in a group
- Engaging with professors/instructors
- Learning in a classroom or lab setting
Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that includes skills such as: working memory, impulse control, initiation, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility. Students with ASD can have challenges with some or all of these skills. In particular, struggles can arise with:
- Cognitive flexibility
- Information processing
All students with disabilities whose impairments affect their ability to access the curriculum should register with Accessibility Services in order to arrange academic accommodations for their courses. Accommodations are meant to be matched to the 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, improving time management, etc.
- Note-taking, to support executive functioning challenges.
- Exam accommodations, such as extra time or a private room to support information processing challenges.
- Assistive technology, to support challenges with reading or writing.
The following information outlines common documentation requirements. Visit our Colleges or Universities section and contact your post-secondary school’s AS 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, up-to-date Psychoeducational Assessment conducted by a Psychologist is required. Psychoeducational 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 Psychoeducational Assessment, Accessibility Counsellors in the AS 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 about academic accommodations to address those limitations.
There are a variety of student support services to meet the many needs of post-secondary students, in addition to those provided by the AS office (see above). Some of the services that may be particularly appropriate for students with ASD include:
Orientation & Transition Programs
Orientation programs provide opportunities for students with ASD to familiarize themselves with campus and student services, and meet staff and other students before classes begin. Transition programs help students prepare for the differences between secondary and post-secondary education, anticipate and address potential problems, and provide an avenue for students to connect with available school supports.
ASD Specific Support Groups
ASD-specific support groups provide a space for students with similar interests, concerns, and communication styles to connect. These are not available at all colleges and universities.
Mentorship programs help introduce students to the post-secondary school’s community and navigate the services offered. Mentors can help familiarize students with the campus and potentially answer questions about specific practices and requirements in the post-secondary environment.
Peer Tutoring & Academic Support
Peer tutoring and academic support services can provide support for students in completing assignments or essays, reviewing and studying for tests and exams, as well as general support with coursework.
Academic advisors can assist students in choosing courses and planning their academic path.
There are a variety of national, provincial, and local organizations to support individuals with ASD. The services provided by these organizations vary, but generally they are able to provide information and programs/resources, as well as advocacy services, for individuals with ASD.
National and Provincial Organizations
- Asperger's Society of Ontario is devoted to serving those with Asperger Syndrome (another term for high functioning ASD), their families and other interested individuals.
- Autism Ontario helps people on the autism spectrum and their families by advocating on their behalf, providing services and programs, and raising awareness.
- Autism Speaks Canada is dedicated to funding global research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of autism; raising public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and society; and bringing hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder.
- Kerry's Place Autism Services offers services to individuals with ASD in the Toronto region, as well as in Central and Southeastern Ontario.
- AIDE Canada and partners have created many toolkits, webinars and infographics covering a wide range of topics for educators and individuals with ASD. They have curated a list specifically for the province of Ontario for ease of use, with links and descriptions.
These resources have been developed by various different college and university AS 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 secondary school, 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 with ASD 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 with ASD can use these checklists to evaluate various transition readiness skills and set goals to address skill deficits.