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There is a student at a university of a friend of mine who has Asperger's Syndrome, which is a milder form of Autism. My friend, who is a teacher there, has told me that the student mostly does OK work but he is not always aware of socially acceptable behavior.

The major problem, and I mean major, is that he has literally shouted racial slurs at the teacher in the middle of class (over 5 times) as a way of expressing "friendship" with the teacher (not out of malice). Normally, this is grounds for having to be dropped from the course and even be removed from the campus even if the purpose is to try and be "friends". However, because the student is a special needs student with distinct problems and does not truly understand the impact of such behavior, my friend wants to seek alternatives. This is a challenging situation as it is still mostly uncommon for students of this nature to enrolled at university.

What disciplinary/counselling measures are appropriate for a teacher to take, in the case of a special-needs student whose actions are detrimental to the learning environment?

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    If (s)he is diagnosed, then the student probably already has the counseling. As this amateur understands it, there is no cure, and neither disciplinary or counseling measures will prevent this disruptive behaviour in the future. What might help is to go to the office that is responsible for students with disabilities, and get their input on how to deal with this situation. – Maarten Buis May 3 '16 at 8:59
  • Why did you put the word friendship in quotes? It indicates that you do not believe that this student has good intentions. That said, I think a little understanding will go a long way toward smoothing this out. Perhaps the students and the teacher do understand, and the behavior is not as disruptive as you seem to assume? – Michael J. May 3 '16 at 12:02
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    Have you or your friend talked to the student? People with limited social skills often benefit from being told directly about their behaviour. As you said the student "does not truly understand the impact of such behavior", maybe tell them? – Sam May 3 '16 at 13:51
  • Thanks, @User001 :) This conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal May 4 '16 at 1:34
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    I agree with @Sam. In my (admittedly very limited) experience with students who have Asperger's syndrome, they have a hard time figuring out that certain behavior is inappropriate, but they can learn when told very specifically "don't do X." In the case at hand, it would probably not be enough to say "don't use racial slurs"; your friend will probably need to specify particular words and phrases that must be avoided. – Andreas Blass May 5 '16 at 21:45
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A professor in this situation should consult with the university office that is responsible for students with disabilities, let them handle the situation, and follow their recommendations regarding what to do if it happens again. Anything else is beyond the scope of the professor's role.

Professors are not qualified to "counsel" students with disabilities, and shouldn't try to (amateur psychology can be very harmful to the "patient.")

In some parts of the world, there are legal issues related to disciplining students with disabilities.1 Again, the office that deals with students with disabilities should be aware of these legal issues and are best placed to advise the professor.


1 For example, in the US:

IDEA requires that a student’s disability be taken into account when considering disciplinary action resulting from a violation of the school code of conduct [in high school]. This is not the case in higher education

(Source). Other jurisdictions will have varying legal protections for students with disabilities.

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    Your IDEA link seems to only apply to high school, not University. – Nzall May 3 '16 at 12:13
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    @Nate yes, isn't that what I wrote? – ff524 May 3 '16 at 14:07
  • I misunderstood the link and thought it was the relevant article for the paragraph above, instead of a clarification for an exception on the paragraph. – Nzall May 3 '16 at 14:13
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    Your answer leaves out talking to the kid first. I really dislike the fact that you are going to authorities immediately, maybe getting this on the kid's record. Depending on the institution, the "office" in charge of this may take a "help first" attitude and not even make a note of it, or it may take a "get it on record to limit liability" kind of attitude. This kid, because of his disability, should not be deprived of the benefit of personal correction before things are taken further. We all need it sometimes, before things are turned into a legal issue. – AgapwIesu May 3 '16 at 19:28
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    @yo' Somebody could ask for advice without actually starting an official procedure. Generally, anything formal would need something written from the teacher. Calling the office for students with disabilities and asking how to handle a situation in which ... without even specifying the student involved might be a good approach. It is unlikely the teacher has any knowledge of how to handle the situation - unless, that is, their training has equipped them far better than mine! Most training is, indeed, non-existent. Where it does exist, it is largely useless. – cfr May 4 '16 at 1:35
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What disciplinary/counseling measures are appropriate in the case of a special needs student who actions are detrimental to the learning environment

1) Follow @ff524 advice

2) What your friend can directly do?

First, have a private talk with the student. Calmly tell to student which behavior is inappropriate and why his behavior isn't appropriate, e.g "I know you have a good intentions (or something similar) but you shouldn't do xy because it is ... and people perceive it as...".

With people with Autism Spectrum Disorders you should be direct and specific otherwise they probably won't know what is the issue. Of course, you should tell them in an assertive way. You may feel strange because you need to tell someone obvious thing but that is okay because they have challenges with Theory of Mind and this is kind of the only way. If you don't tell them than 1) everyone around them will have a hard time; 2) they will have a hard time as well.

You will find similar advise on this website:

Provide sensitive but direct feedback. People with autism often find it difficult to pick up on social cues, so make sure your feedback is honest, constructive and consistent. If the person completes a task incorrectly, don't allude to, or imply, any problems – instead, explain tactfully but clearly why it is wrong, check that they have understood, and set out exactly what they should do instead. Be aware that the person may have low self-esteem or experience of being bullied, so ensure that any criticism is sensitive, and give positive feedback wherever appropriate.

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    I like your answer, but I would reverse the two points. First, talk with the student, then if that does not work, follow @ff524's advice. I especially like what you say about needing to explain the obvious. That is so true with kids with Autism. Their social blindness makes so much that is "obvious" to the rest of us completely invisible to them. – AgapwIesu May 3 '16 at 19:38
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    @AgapwIesu I'm going to disagree with you here. The person should first talk with the office of disabilities or equivalent. A direct conversation with the student without understanding the subtleties of the underlying issue could make the problem worse, not better. – Joel May 4 '16 at 0:32
  • @AgapwIesu, I may agree with you but generally I think it is better to firstly seek advice from the support office. I think it is a quite easy to deal with students with autism (i.e. you usually just need to be direct and emphatic) but I guess lecturer will feel more comfortable if (s)he asks direct advice from support section. Also, people can perceive direct approach differently. E.g. some teacher may just say "Don't say xy because it is an inappropriate word" which indeed is direct talk but they will not know that they additionally need to explain to student why is it inappropriate. – Enasi May 5 '16 at 12:09
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I don't have special insight into how specifically to deal with the student (other answers already have a good discussion of this aspect of the question). However, I wanted to stress the importance of the point (mentioned briefly in some of the comments) that the other students in the class have a right to learn in a calm, safe environment.

I would therefore argue that, as much as I would want to see this special needs student successfully integrating into the school environment in order to get an education and fully realize his potential, it should be made as clear as possible to the student (by the professor directly, or through appropriately qualified intermediaries such as the disabilities office) that he is forbidden from engaging in this sort of offensive speech in class (or outside class for that matter). If he truly cannot restrain himself and repeats the behavior, then regardless of whether he is well-intentioned and whether he understands that his behavior is wrong, I would sadly conclude that he must be removed from the class to protect the rights of the other students.

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The short version

  1. Talk to the kid - help him understand that what he is doing is not only inappropriate, but also wrong. He truly may not understand that as autism makes a kid incapable of picking up the subtle clues that are intuitive to those without this disability. Sometimes things in writing help kids with autism spectrum disorders (something about seeing things in black and white and the authority of the written word helps them cement the knowledge), so having something like that might help. Be encouraging and positive; expect full understanding (Asperger kids are fully verbal) but check on it by having the kid explain it back, and listen to their replay very carefully and literally - "do not shout racial slurs" does not mean "never use racial slurs, at any volume." A kid with an Autism spectrum disorder is forced to be that literal by the make up of their brain, so go there with them.
  2. Once the expectation is communicated clearly, expect compliance and apply the same discipline you would if the child did not have Asperger's. If there are further violations, you will need to check to make sure there was not something missed in the understanding of the expectation, but if there is not, if the kid understood fully and still chose to do wrong, as we all sometimes do, you are not doing them any favors by giving them any lesser consequences because of their disability. The allowance is made with the extra communication and teaching, not with lower expectations or discipline measures.

The background

My son has a form of Autism which is worse than Asperger's. At four years old he was diagnosed as severely impaired in speech comprehension and production. He almost did not learn to speak. I still remember the sad look on the psychologist's face when, after several sessions and an examination by a neurologist, she had to inform us of the diagnosis.

Over the following years, we took it upon ourselves to help our son. The books said to let psychologists do the therapy so we could concentrate on being mom and dad. We said NO, no doctor is going to put the love, effort, tears and sweat into helping him that we could put into it. My wife and I did extensive research. She put together a regimen of speech therapy, six sessions a day, half hour each session, every weekday. It took us three weeks to teach him the meaning of "yesterday", "today", and "tomorrow". My wife taught him to read (phonics) before he could even understand what he was reading.

One of the things about Autism spectrum disorders is that the person sees other individuals as things. Because you are out there, you are more like the other things in the room (chair, table, person), than like themselves. You are a thing that produces sound and moves around, so they look at your mouth, not your eyes. In this, Autism resembles (but IS NOT) psychopathic disorders. So we took it as our duty to teach our son to "love others as you love yourself".

As we have worked with him, the doctors and his teachers and others around him have been amazed at the transformation. Today, he is a junior in high-school, being recruited by top universities like MIT, Caltech, Harvard, West-Point. He placed in the top 1% in his PSAT test not only in math, but also in the language parts (reading and writing) and is a straight A student, taking regular classes - well, actually honors and AP classes. He is awkward socially, and gets along better with much older adults or much younger kids. He is respected by his teachers, and he volunteers, tutoring and overseeing activities at a center for disadvantaged youth. The adults who have known him since childhood can hardly believe the progress he has made.

But here is the thing that answers your question. There is behavior that can be labeled a mistake - spilling milk, inadvertently slamming a door on someone's hand. Then there is behavior which is sin like hitting someone on purpose or, most definitely, calling someone a racial slur. A kid like this may need to be taught that this is not funny or friendly and needs to stop. But after being told this ONCE, they totally have the capacity to remember it. And we have the obligation not to tolerate it. For their own good, so they may develop into the men and women that they CAN develop into, into the persons that God means for them to develop into, we must not tolerate such behavior.

I assume your friend has told this young man that this is not acceptable behavior. I would say that is step one. (if the young man was not disabled, I would skip this step and go straight to reporting him to the authorities in the University). I can totally see a kid like this doing something like this as a way to relate, not realizing what they are doing is totally wrong, so do take the trouble to teach them, but once they have been told, expect 100% compliance to what is right. Step two, if the behavior continues, even once more, is to go to the authorities in the University and report it. At the very least, an authority figure (advisor? dean?) besides your friend needs to sit with your friend and the student and make clear that if this happens even one more time, the student will be removed from the class with a failing grade, and that if this happens in any other class, ever again, the student could be suspended for the rest of the semester or even expelled from the university.

As a person like this is confronted hard with negative consequences to their wrong behavior, they learn to treat others as they would want to be treated. You actually are able to rewire their brain to see other people as they see themselves. This will lead to a happier, fuller life for them. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you are doing them a favor by tolerating their behavior - that is the worst thing you could do for them, leaving them locked in their disconnected world. When we learn to love others as we love ourselves, it is actually we who benefit the most, and kids like this need that lesson as much as any of us.

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    This is advice that I don't consider great, which is even hidden in a long personal story. I very much suggest the OP should go with @ff524's answer. – xLeitix May 3 '16 at 15:56
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    @xLeitix - And you don't consider it great because...? – AgapwIesu May 3 '16 at 16:00
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    ... because it boils down to "punish him to teach him", which I think is really not the way how this should be handled. – xLeitix May 3 '16 at 16:07
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    I also don't consider this great advice. As a parent, you are very familiar with your child's needs and how best to work with him, but other children may need a different approach. (I suspect at the beginning there was a fair bit of trial and error for you to see what worked and what didn't...) Since (unlike you in your interactions with your child) the professor is not intimately familiar with the students' history, has not done extensive research, and does not have much experience working with this population, the professor should really seek help from people who are better equipped. – ff524 May 3 '16 at 16:11
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    I like the answer since I know it is the correct approach for Aspergers, and it is something that can be done by a non-psychologist. However, it is written too personally and contains a lot of unrelated contents. Make it clearer and less personal (I wouldn't call a university student "a kid" for instance) and make also clear that this is not some deep psychological knowledge, and it will be fine. – yo' May 3 '16 at 21:41
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I think a few commenters need to read The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 with Amendments in it entirety.

There is no disciplinary action to be taken against a student Asperger's. It is the University role to provide for the disabled student as per the Law.

The professor may ask for help from the University Administration or the Department with the situation but if they "kick out" the student or even remove him from class it could be costly for the University. And No, I am not a lawyer but I was right in the middle of a similar lawsuit.

Counseling for the professor and or the other students in the class on handling/dealing with behavior that a person with Asperger's can't control, would be my first priority.

  • "I think a few commenters need to read The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 with Amendments in it entirety. There is no disciplinary action to be taken against a student Asperger's." - While I agree that there may be legal complication in some jurisdictions, your statement as written is not strictly true in the US. See e.g. Tylicki v. St. Onge (2d Cir. (N.Y.) 2008: "The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act permit [a university] to discipline a student even if the student's misconduct is the result of disability" – ff524 May 4 '16 at 22:35
  • For reference: Here is a recent reference on legal matters affecting discipline of students with disabilities in the US. See especially Section III, "Current Law, Policy, and Practice in Higher Education." A particularly relevant quote: "Students with disabilities in higher education may, therefore, be disciplined to the same extent as any other student, up to and including dismissal, regardless of whether or not the offending behavior was a manifestation of their disability." – ff524 May 4 '16 at 22:42
  • Very often students with Autism Spectrum Disorders are just not aware of social context and behavior and that is it. With that students, after you/ support section explain them the situation, it is easy to deal with them. They will probably make again some minor mistakes but nothing more. In some extreme cases you're actually dealing not just with ASD but with additional deviant behavior. University can discipline that student but it may be tricky/ time wasting if (s)he "pulls his disability card". – Enasi May 5 '16 at 13:02
  • Old post, but had to post. As someone with A.S. informally Aspie, the whole unaware of social context and behavior is an overused excuse. Yes, Aspies can be at different levels socially, but generally, with therapy and counseling, can develop an understanding of what is expected in situations. At least from my experience. I still have issues reading people and seeing if someone is serious or sarcastic at times, but context is much easier than it was for me in high school. – NZKshatriya Nov 30 '16 at 15:59

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