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I have a student who's on the autistic spectrum. He exhibits several disruptive behaviors in class, such as

  1. Inability to moderate his volume/interjections: he will shout out questions and comments irrespective of whether others are speaking (be it myself or other students).
  2. Unintentionally mocking other students: when other students ask questions, he will sometimes say things like "you should know this stuff by now!"
  3. Physically inappropriate behavior: he will lie down on the floor in front of his seat, or sneeze loudly. He will sit in the front row and at times pick up stuff from my table (e.g. my notes or my markers) and play with them.

I recognize that he cannot control most of these things, and that they're not done with ill intent. Thus, my inclination is to handle it in a more forgiving manner than I would a normal disruptive student, but this is not a straightforward solution. First, there are many other students who shouldn't suffer because of one disruptive student. Second, when I do make a harsher comment he often completely shuts down for the rest of the class, which makes me feel really guilty.

The undergraduate office is aware of the situation and has already received numerous complaints from other courses he attended. The problem is that their hands are mostly tied as he is not registered as a special needs student (I'm guessing his parents are refusing to do this for their own reasons), though he is officially diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. Other lecturers have basically been treating him increasingly harshly, or ignoring him.

I am wondering whether anyone here has any experience with these kinds of situations, and how did you approach it. I am more than happy to accommodate him, but would not want to compromise the course quality for everyone else.

Edit: thank you all for the great suggestions. The other question mentioned here is somewhat similar but the behavior pattern strikes me as sufficiently different to warrant a separate discussion. In any case, I have scheduled a personal meeting with him and we’ll try to establish a better interaction dynamic. I will definitely try to strike a positive tone rather than a disciplinary one. He told me his parents will kick him out of the house if I contact them so that’s definitely not happening. The undergraduate office is sympathetic but is limited in what they can do...

Second Edit: I had a talk with the student and things are much better. He’s been a positive force in the class since (albeit a slightly loud one). Thank you for the suggestions!

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Aug 26 at 14:37
  • Does the special needs office require that the parents be involved in registering him as a special needs student, or could he choose to do so himself were you to recommend it? – Ray Aug 26 at 17:14
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    Well in the US at the College level parents are not allowed to be involved in any of this. – Elin Aug 27 at 12:18
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    Well done Spark. I am having a difficult issue with a colleague with newly diagnosed ADHD, complicated... – Poidah Sep 18 at 0:08
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    Really glad this has worked out well! – Flyto Sep 18 at 3:25
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"they're not done with ill intent"

Although disruptive behaviours by people with autism/autistic people are not done with ill intent, they do usually respond well to clear boundaries and feedback. A useful concept to consider here is Theory of Mind (ToM), something that is almost always impaired in this group.

Individuals with autism are impaired in ToM; the ability to understand mental states such as thoughts, intentions and beliefs that influence human behavior. ToM is about the mind and how it is needed for all human interactions, such as understanding, explaining, predicting, and manipulating the behavior of others (Adibsereshki et al., 2015)

As the result, firm communication about the impact on others is worthwhile, "I am not sure whether you are aware that I (or X) was speaking, I would like to finish my point please". You should offer explicit, clear boundaries around disruptive behaviours, so consider emailing the appropriate policies and refer to the code of conduct and describe clear behaviours that will result in an escalation process. Avoid irony and sarcasm as concrete and literal thinking is common; ironic/sarcastic negativity may be misinterpreted causing damage to the relationship. Consider asking whether he would like to contact anyone else when you email, which may be a good way to get his parents involved if they are preventing support.

Having said that, praising seems to be effective with people with autism. Praising has been shown to decrease disruptive behaviour in a study of 73 self-contained autism support classrooms (Piotrowski et al). Try to squeeze in as much positive reinforcement on non-disruptive behavior as you can, without being too awkward. Piotroski's study (unpublished) found the minimal increase from 1.3 to 1.7 praises (on average) produced a significant change in disruptive behaviour (p<0.01).

Gelbar, Smith & Reichow (2014) did a systematic review of college support for students with autism. They found 20 articles that had first-hand description of services or experiences of the individuals. "Non-academic" interventions were found in 45%, 9 out of 20 studies examined -

  • Peer mentorship programs (5 of 9, 56 %)
  • Assigned counselors, aides, or liaisons (5 of 9, 56 %)
  • Parental involvement (3 of 9, 33 %)
  • Single instances using Social Stories, disability teams, support groups, video modeling and cognitive behavioral interventions were also described.

A study from Belgium which examined over 23 student by Van Hees, Moyson & Roeyers (2015) recommended "more extensive and effective coaching of students with ASD". That the usual "academic" support structures are not sufficient for ASD students, so if coaching is available at your institution, it may be worth making sure that your student and any decision-makers are aware of that useful option.

References:

Adibsereshki, N., Nesayan, A., Asadi Gandomani, R., & Karimlou, M. (2015). The Effectiveness of Theory of Mind Training On the Social Skills of Children with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Iranian Journal of Child Neurology, 9(3), 40–49.

Gelbar, N. W., Smith, I., & Reichow, B. (2014). Systematic Review of Articles Describing Experience and Supports of Individuals with Autism Enrolled in College and University Programs. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(10), 2593–2601.

Piotrowski, Z., Erhart, A., Cidav, Z., Reisinger, E., Locke, J., Downey, M., & Mandell, D. S. (n.d.). The Effects of Increasing Teachers’ Praise-to-Behavior Correction Ratios on Disruptive Behaviors Among Students with Autism. Conference poster.

Van Hees, V., Moyson, T., & Roeyers, H. (2015). Higher Education Experiences of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Challenges, Benefits and Support Needs. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(6), 1673–1688.

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    Oh wow that’s an excellent overview, thanks! – Spark Aug 23 at 13:33
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    That's an excellent answer. Strongly considering deleting my own. – xLeitix Aug 23 at 16:31
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    Please don't xLeitix. The issue about decision-making and guardianship is an important discussion. I did not raise in my comments as you covered the complex issue of consent and power quite well. Also in America, the student may require their parents to pay for their college, the parent's internalised shame or ableism might be a significant issue at play here. – Poidah Aug 23 at 16:34
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    @Poidah I ended up deleting my answer. Stack Exchange has a tendency that easy early answers like my own float to the top, and I truly believe that yours covers the topic much better than mine did. – xLeitix Aug 24 at 15:19
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    @einpoklum. Omg. I missed the next paragraph of Geblar's review of "non-academic" interventions, which I thought was not related to the college experience for some reason. But on re-reading it again, it is highly relevant as it describe useful social interventions that would help in Spark's situation. I wished it was labelled "social" rather than "non-academic". Sorry about that error. Thanks for pushing the point though. Much appreciated. – Poidah Aug 24 at 21:50
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Perhaps the key part of your question is that he student is not registered as a special needs student. Check your faculty handbook, student code of conduct, etc. to see what remedies are available for disruptive behavior in class. I've read your remark that "he cannot control most of these things," but he's impinging on the rights of the other students to get the most out of classes. At the institutions where I've taught, there were provisions for removing disruptive students from a class.

While that may seem very harsh, perhaps it will get the attention of the student's parents and maybe even begin to get the student the help he needs. At a minimum, it will remove a source of disruption from your classroom.

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    Disciplinary action is very likely to end poorly. Navigating a disciplinary process is very difficult for a person with autism and stressful for any student. Disciplinary systems are rarely set up to deal with the needs of people with disabilities. Additional stress tends to make dealing with difficulties resulting from autism and could result in greater rather then less disruption. In addition A solution that privileges the rights of the abled over that of the disabled has access to education implications, it goes against the responsibilities of the institution and in some places the law. – Q the Platypus Aug 26 at 6:50
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    @QthePlatypus Would this apply to a person not officially registered as such? The OP stated that the student has not been identified as a special needs student, and thus I would imagine that there are no exemptions to university policy in effect for them. It sounds as if the student and/or their parents are trying to 'have their cake and eat it too' by requesting special treatment without following procedure. Perhaps initiating administrative action would be enough to cause the student to become forcibly identified as special needs in order to prevent the action from coming to fruition.. – Brian R Aug 26 at 18:05
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    @QthePlatypus From your position, anyone can act out and claim immunity from response. 1. Unless OP has qualifications not stated, no one at the university has diagnosed this student as disabled, nor has the student asserted that status. 2. A solution that impinges upon the rights of many to tolerate the bad behavior of one goes against the responsibilities of the institution. 3. Removing the disruptive student may increase the student's distress, but it will make the classroom once again a peaceful place in which teaching and learning can happen. – Bob Brown Aug 27 at 10:46
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I don't believe that the "unintentional" outbursts of such a student are inevitable and uncontrollable. An autistic student isn't a deterministic mechanism, just as no other student is. Such a student can learn to behave appropriately. The problem is that for some (at least) such people, they just don't recognize the societal signals that others find natural.

But anyone can learn. And, like any sort of learning they may need to be taught. They may also need to be given non disruptive ways to meet their own needs. You can be part of that, though it would be your choice to do so. I'd hesitate to suggest that it is a requirement, since you already have so many requirements to the other students.

But I've had success with other sorts of "odd" student behavior by "adopting" the student as special project. If you hold regular office hours they may not be well attended. In that case you can invite, or even require, them to come to you frequently. I once had a couple of students who were basically camped in my office for a semester and it changed their learning behavior. In this case the problem wasn't disruption of others but just detachment and a seeming inability to learn.

Out of class you can, gently if possible, let the student know that their actions are not acceptable and need to be redirected in a better direction. You can let them know that you will call them out in class for outbursts. ("John. Stop!". "John. Apologize".) They can learn only if they can be made (a) to recognize the issue, and (b) to redirect/sublimate their "natural" reactions.

Ignoring the outbursts won't help. Getting angry won't help. But you can try to make the inevitable as non-disruptive as possible.

One trick that I would try in this situation is to give the student a few index cards on which they can write questions, etc. during class. Convince them that if they write the questions and comments, rather than shouting them, that you will deal with them (office hours, hallway...). If they shout out a question, just hold up a blank card as a signal to them to write. Make the signal obvious, since they aren't processing the normal subtle signals, due to their condition. They are, for example, unlikely to recognize your frown.

Of course, I can't guarantee success, and different people will react differently. In fact, if you make a "pet" of the student the other students may resent it (as happened in the case I described).

But you need to understand that there are many successful academics on the autistic spectrum. Through various means they have learned to act in a way that others don't find issue with. But for some of them, at least, it means specifically learning to play a role as a "normal" person. One, in my experience, learned this by joining a theatre group.

Perhaps not a real solution here, but, I hope, a different way to think about the issues. Good luck.

  • Having them “camp” in your office is admirable, but if you have many teaching hours a week that won’t be a useful solution. – Solar Mike Aug 23 at 15:36
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    @SolarMike, it was only during posted office hours. It doesn't work, of course, if those hours are normally filled with lots of students. – Buffy Aug 23 at 15:44
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My experience with autistic students and colleagues is that if they are aware that they are on the spectrum, they generally appreciate having straightforward feedback given to them -- it's difficult for them to understand nuance or "suggestions" and being given clear rules about things not to do actually helps them quite a lot.

Do you have a way to schedule an after-class one-on-one conference with the student so that you can discuss the situation directly and lay out some specific rules?

Some of the behaviors (such as loud sneezing and the like) will be very difficult for the student to curtail, but interjections can be responded to with a direct statement such as "Please wait your turn," and for physical stimming behavior it is certainly okay to ask them to find a different behavior such as using a fidget toy, or to go outside to take a break if they're simply feeling overwhelmed. It will probably never be possible to prevent the behavior, but there are absolutely approaches that can reduce their impact on others.

  • Thanks fluffy. Great point. Do you have any advice on how to handle that feeling of being "rude" because you are direct? Not sure whether softening statements after the directness (for the benefit of everyone else would add confusion?) - medium.com/@AshleaMcKay/… – Poidah Aug 24 at 6:14
  • @Poidah Unfortunately, that part I haven't figured out yet. – fluffy Aug 24 at 18:45
  • What about arranging a visual signal like Buffy suggested that the student in question would recognize (because OP of course would talk with them about it beforehand), but that the rest of the class wouldn't notice. Or perhaps better yet, simply make it a signal that OP gives to the entire class (when I hold up a "red" card to you, it means write down your question and I'll talk to you about it later) and that way the student isn't singled out and the rest of the class doesn't think OP is being rude. Appearing to be rude could create a toxic environment in the classroom. – bob Aug 26 at 17:03
  • Of course it probably shouldn't be a red card because of color-blindness; maybe a card with some clear pattern on it? – bob Aug 26 at 17:04
  • I would think that holding up a card requires the student to always be looking for the card, which is not a good assumption and probably would cause a lot more stress on the student. – fluffy Aug 26 at 19:09
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I would like to comment an aspect of the question which is not directly addressed by other answers.

Physically inappropriate behavior: he will lie down on the floor in front of his seat [...].

Perhaps I should mention that he laid down on the floor in front of his seat in a nearly fetal position after I made a comment. His head was on someone's shoes.

Remembering back when I was in elementary school, I used to have this behavior, but locations being also outside of the class room. Whenever I was stressed or frustrated I would just lay myself on the ground and simply do nothing. While being in that state I would also not answer to anyone, not even to my best friends. You could drag me around and there would be still no reaction from me. I could still clearly listen and see what is going around me, I just had extreme difficulties on communicating and moving. Any Actions I wanted to take was basically blocked at brain level. For the next few hours I would not move until someone took care of me.

However I can't tell if this fully applies as well to your student, mostly because he is older now than I was.

What followed on is hard to remember, but I will give it a try.

  • One time it took so long until the school ended, so someone came by and told me about the school ending. At that time, there was almost no one walking around. I had no other choice than to stand up and go.

  • The other time I guess my teachers dragged me to the next best free room, and left me alone with pencil and paper on a table. I did not start writing right away, but after half an hour there was text on the paper. So that way they could at least find out what was wrong with me.


So yes, I'm on the autism spectrum, but thanks to psychologists I act pretty normal today. I can only share these memories but I can not simulate my old behavior and tell how I would react to X.

Throughout the school time I had what we call here in Germany a "Sozialpädagoge" (translates to "social worker") which would sit in the class in the background capturing situations between the person with autism and the rest of the class. Sometimes we played board or card games together with my best friend. The social worker would later discuss these situations with the person with autism in special lessons or even at home. This helped me to better understand people and make appropriate decisions. However, this might require support from the parents as they have to apply for such help.

He told me his parents will kick him out of the house if I contact them so that’s definitely not happening.

This is unfortunate, but I hope this Information above is still helpful.

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