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I have a classmate who frequently disrupts class by asking nonsensical or unrelated questions, or by making nonsensical or unrelated interjections to the professor. He is autistic, and all the professors I have shared with this classmate (he and I are the same year in the same field of study) have followed the same pattern of humoring him to an extent by attempting to answer his questions, or by thanking him for his interjections, but eventually just ignoring him. I'm sure he has good intent (thinks his questions and comments are relevant or useful) but he doesn't seem to catch on when the professors no longer reply to him (and all of his classmates are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads).

Today in lecture, he sat at the far back of the auditorium (there were tens of empty rows in front of him) and then asked the professor to speak louder. The professor responded by asking my classmate to move closer, as he could not be loud enough to be heard in the very back. My classmate replied by stating that he was comfortable, and then asked a series of questions about whether the lecture material was available online, in the textbook, etc., all of which had been covered in previous lectures anyway, and were on the class website and syllabus.

It has become apparent (after three years of being with this classmate) that the department and/or professors do not have any intent of trying to encourage acceptable class behavior with my classmate. Is it safe to assume that they are aware of his disruptive behavior, and are simply not addressing it due to his mental condition, or should I bring it up with the professors or the department? Would such a report be frowned upon as insensitive due to the classmate's mental condition?

Edit 14 January 2017

In regards to the linked question, the student is not actually being offensive, just disruptive. Being offensive (specifically in regards to racial slurs) would merit additional discipline.

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    The code of many modern universities will likely expect a high degree of efforts towards full inclusion; depending on legislation, it is possible that the lecturers are not allowed to be enforcing compliance to specific rules of a lecture hall. If the student is disruptive to a large class, there may be procedures of recourse offered by your department, but that may likely require action from the the students' rather than the lecturer's side - ensure, though, that a legitimate request for a productive lecture time may not be be misconstrued as the attempt to bully a disadvantaged co-student. – Captain Emacs Jan 12 '17 at 15:54
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    What makes you so certain that "professors do not have any intent of trying to encourage acceptable class behavior"? It's possible that they have been working on this outside of your view. What is it that you believe they should be doing but are not? It's possible that what you as (apparently) a layman believe to be the right way to deal with this situation is known to be ineffective and is against some policy for good reason. – user34258 Jan 12 '17 at 16:36
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/68113/40589 – Dan Romik Jan 12 '17 at 16:49
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    I'm not autistic, but I was one of those students who loved asking questions in undergrad to the annoyance of my peers (whoops). Eventually, I learned to write my questions down on the side of my notes and go pick the professor's mind after class/during office hours. I wonder if a similar approach would work well here for that student. Note: this does not mean I advocate saying this to the student. – tonysdg Jan 12 '17 at 17:10
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    Are you paying for your education? Is the disruption diminishing your education to the degree that you could seek some form of compensation from the school for not having supplied an adequate learning environment? – Inquisitive Jan 16 '17 at 18:42
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It sounds like everyone who's dealt with it decided the student's behavior was a minor annoyance at most, or even that their questions were valid and worth answering. Repeating material that was covered in previous lectures, in the syllabus, or on the website is...well, part of the job, and many professors explicitly welcome questions about past material or any general course questions of that nature. It is generally assumed that students aren't tape recorders with perfect memory, and if a professor is really bothered by it they are free to answer with "that's covered in the syllabus". Off-topic questions are typically easily handled with "that's beyond the scope of this course, so questions like that would need to be asked in office hours/email/someone else." If the professor goes off on 30-minute tangents about meatballs because a student asked a question about them that has nothing to do with the course, well then you'd have a valid issue to raise with the professor.

Based on your descriptions, all the past professors found minimally disruptive ways of handling less-than-perfect questions - such as limited answering, ignoring comments that did not need a response, etc - and found a way to move past it. If there is regular behavior by another student that rises to the level of such a disruption that you feel you are materially harmed in your education by being subject to it, by all means bring it up to the appropriate faculty/administrative contact.

However, I must point out that there is a baseline reality that standard deviation in the human population is greater than 0; people are not all the same. This means that your standard of behavior will not be followed by everyone, and others will have different standards of behavior than you do. It often pays to first ask yourself: "is this so far out of line that it I really need it to be dealt with?" If it's just an annoyance, or something that really isn't really that big of a deal, empathy and patience might be a more useful strategy than complaint.

As to how a potential complaint would be received, that rather depends on what you are complaining about. If you complain that a fellow student asks questions about the class that are already covered in the course materials, some professors will agree (they wish students read the syllabus too), and some will think "that's a weird complaint, I wish more students asked, because it sure isn't like the ones that don't ask actually read it all". If you complain that the student is a bit odd, well, yes, they probably got that idea by now. If you complained that a student was, as an example, yelling racial slurs in the middle of class, then that would certainly be seen as a valid complaint, while another complaint about a student with tremors shaking and you find that distracting...not so much.

So in the end, I would advise you to consider the seriousness of your complaint. If you feel that what you've witnessed/experienced is materially harmful and wish to make a complaint, make sure you specifically address exactly what is the issue and what you would like done about it, such as: "a student regularly asks questions that are not pertinent to the course, and the professor allows the distractions to cut into class timer, or ignores continued talking and comments instead of telling the student to stop."

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Today in lecture, he sat at the far back of the auditorium (there were tens of empty rows in front of him) and then asked the professor to speak louder. The professor responded by asking my classmate to move closer, as he could not be loud enough to be heard in the very back. My classmate replied by stating that he was comfortable.

There's no guarantee of success for what I'm going to suggest, but here goes. Have you tried making some friendly overtures? It would be much easier to model desired behavior and guide this young man if you and he had an established rapport. You are probably modeling desired behavior already, but if he's not tuned into you yet, then your modeling is probably not making as much of an impact as it might.

If you two get in the habit of arriving a little early and having a brief greeting and chat, maybe he will be comfortable sitting near you (not in the back!).

(In the long run, what would help him would be to jot down his questions. But it might be difficult to teach him to do that.)

It might be helpful for you to think a little bit about what sorts of relationships and connections make inclusion work in a classroom.

Here is a series of videos about inclusion that I have found helpful in my own learning: http://worldofinclusion.com/videos/

Maybe it's time to invite him for to have a cup of coffee with you after class? Or go for a little walk and talk around campus?

I hope you will keep us posted.

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    I didn't downvote, but the OP never mentioned the classmate saying he was uncomfortable, but rather that he was "comfortable". I took this to mean that the professor asked him to move closer to hear better, and the student basically said he was comfortable where he is, then moved on. – BrianH Jan 13 '17 at 15:14
  • @BrianDHall - Ha ha - I completely misread that sentence! I will re-think my answer. Hmm. I wonder if can delete it for now, and then edit it and undelete it later? – aparente001 Jan 13 '17 at 20:16
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    I do appreciate your empathy. I have tried connecting with this other student, but he has made it explicitly clear in the past that he has no interest in forming friendships or even carrying on conversations with other students. He talks to the professors (during class) as if they were his friends, but neither I nor anyone else in my major have had success actually being friends with him. The best I have seen is a casual greeting between him and one other classmate, but that was the extent of it. – Michael Brandon Morris Jan 15 '17 at 0:24
  • @MichaelBrandonMorris - That makes it tough. It may be that none of your cohort will be able to form an actual friendship with him. But maybe the Student Disability office at your university could help make some connections. (You could make an appointment to ask for guidance about ways to reach out to him, and in the conversation with the person, you could describe your motivation.) Where I live, there is a support group for people with autism and their families. It was started by a young man with high functioning autism. Such a group can function kind of like a gay-straight alliance. – aparente001 Jan 15 '17 at 3:46
  • There is a teen with autism in my town, I guess I could say he's medium functioning. He is verbal but one doesn't always understand what he says, and he has rather low cognition. He is included in a couple of classes at his high school, but with quite a bit of assistance. I used to run into him at places like the library and the grocery store, where he would come up to me and make intrusive, repetitive questions that I couldn't understand. But later, when I was collaborating with a parent of his on a project, I made an effort, and took the initiative to have a couple of short but... – aparente001 Jan 15 '17 at 3:49
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I definitely can understand and relate. While I was reading it my first thought was this student must be autistic and thought maybe you didn't know. Saw the following line that you stated he was, so at least you know! That is very important. I have also been in a class that had an autistic student. No one was made aware, nor was the teacher informed due to this student apparently being the son of someone who had to maintain a political image. Unfortunate that parents care about their career over the right help for the child. Anyways, he too would randomly outburst in this class. Usually quoting a star trek episode right down to saying the name of the episode and which episode number it was. He meant it in good form trying to provide the class lecture to something he can relate to as a way for him to learn. Some times though he would go completely off topic with talking about BBQ foods. I think the class enjoyed the break to discuss food because hey who doesn't like a good BBQ?

Was it annoying and disruptive? yes very. Did he slow down the class? yes. I felt bad because some days our class mates would be laughing AT him due to his tendencies. One time he hit his knee on his desk and ran out crying and everyone kind of just sat there not knowing what to do.

It honestly is a sensitive subject. But sometimes, there are things that even teachers cannot do. If he isn't listed as having a disability, it really handcuffs the school on what they can do. At the same time, they don't want to deny him his right to education just like everyone else. Usually handicap and or students with disabilities get extra test time or will take the tests on another day in a supervised testing hall but that doesn't mean they cannot be a part of the lecture. It sucks being in class with this situation, but ultimately all you can do is go to the deans or someone higher up and explain how you are not getting the proper level of education and see if they can either transfer you to a different class time for the same subject or at the extreme drop it for a new semester. But like I said, there isn't much the school can do because everyone has equal right to education regardless of their mental health.

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I know this situation because I'm exactly such one, and it was diagnosed by medical professionals.

Making a humor, or "avoiding" by neglecting; would not give any positive outcome if your friend is unable to understand unwritten social norms and what you "pretend" with your neglecting.

Tell him; straightly yet friendly; the professor and some people in the class is not liking it. Best if you can friendly explain, exactly where exactly why you/the professor are feeling it irritating. May be the professor forget what to tell when the question is coming. Or may be the friend's voice is loud, Or may be the professor have an ego problem (might be; a bitter truth. Everyone do have it). Avoid sign-languages and gestures to talk with her/him.

If a question seems very stupid or irrelevant to you; maybe the question is actually on-topic; and you/ your professor failed to realize why it was linked to topic. Or maybe you and your professor simply failed to go out of track. Unique-most questions look silly. Such as "Of an empty, white, coverless notebook; Which would be the front side and which one is back-side?" or for say "Why two light-beams cross each-other without any collision?" or "why roundish is used as most arbitrary shape?" or "is your red same as my?" or "why bicycle doesn't fall when the wheels rotate?"

In fact, Newton's question, why the apple fall to down; was funny enough, at least to me. Who doesn't know apple falls to down. Why he didn't thought to ate the apple. And it is that only-difference between our kettle and James Watt's kettle.

Or even not on-topic; the question do have some value to the asker's own.

You may suggest that friend to write the questions, but that would not solve the student's problem because soon he was going to ask about. That will cause a great misery to the student. Suggest him to develope some brief/symbolic/graphical notation so that he can quickly write it down. In fact. I had to and have to do this. There exist more modern option... Record the lecture with a smartphone/ electronic recorder, if the student can afford it and the institute permit it using in the class. Then the student could more calmly write down the question, and if he miss a portion of lecture, that portion could be later on found from the recorder.


It's gone what could we do about that student. Now what can we do about US? Is it the the student's fault? Actually it is our-fault. But what is a problem of mass, is considered as "normal". Only what is a problem for rare group of people (and sometimes not at all a problem); it could be "distinguished" (and as a problem, by norm).

In the above case (as told by OP); we the majority actually doing some mistake:

  1. We're forgetting that everyone here in the institute, is for learning. It may apparently seems to "the student is interfering our learning". Actually it is opposite... we are learning less... only what the teacher is saying, and just passing-by the class for the day. But the autistic student in OP is simply want to learn much more than us, in his own way; and actually we're interfering that student's learning. (with providing a disrespectful and wrong (opposite) feedback).

  2. We're getting 'irritated' so easily when someone doing a 'silly question'. That means we're not only intolerant to slightest disturb, we're unable to think about links between subjects or topics. In other hand, that student alone is tolerating the angry professor, the angry classmates, and attending the class everyday; just to learn.

  3. If we the group-of-animal can't tolerate another group-of animal's inability to learn customs rituals and and mannerisms; it is plainly our fault. The other group of animal is constitutively different.

  4. Many soft-teachers too sometimes doesn't allow students to interfere in lecture, there is a cause. If we start give the right to everyone to interfere the professor's talk; only that one autistic student would use it properly. Many other will really use to make disturb. If we allow bring electronic recorder to class; only that one autistic student would use the time to note the question. Many-others would start gossip or start practice inattentiveness. So, simply, even if the case is this; the problem is not of that 1 particular student. The problem is inside the mass.

So the one and only positive solution is, if we all could change ourselves instead changing or manipulating that one.

I know; this solution might not be possible to implement, but it is the bitter truth... only 'positive' solution.


There are some intermediate solutions ; where, we too can accept our fault as well as could request some compromise with the student.

"all the professors I have shared with this classmate (he and I are the same year in the same field of study) have followed the same pattern of humoring him to an extent by attempting to answer his questions, or by thanking him for his interjections, but eventually just ignoring him."

  1. If the professor do not listen the questions by the students carefully; then certainly the professor is bad as teacher; maybe excellent as researcher. Research and teaching is not exactly same thing. But We can't blame for it to the professor- just because it is the biological-nature of that professor- just like the uniqueness of the student. We can tell this fact to the student. So we can request the student to study the behavior of the teacher,and behave accordingly, so that the student can continue "taking" from the teacher without going into conflict with the teacher. Especially in a research-institute, professors are usually employed for only the research-quality or research-talent. So very unfortunately, sometimes the teaching-psychology and sympathy get disconnected from academic-practice. But there is no reason for you to think what the professor is concluding, is ultimate. If the professor advocates for not to do questions, that is surely harmful.

  2. For an autistic person; it is really difficult to understand/ predict some-other person's behaviour. So best if the student get some support about interpreting tonal-languages (talk-tones, pauses, speed etc) and body-language, etc, from a professional and good counsellor/ psychologist expert in autism. (in fact I would suggest this as the must-to do. Because this include clinical-professional advise). For him; than behave correctly; it is much more important to understand and predict the others' behaviour; at least to some extent.


No-one in this universe is more sillier or smarter than any other. Maybe, whom we all are thinking as silly; contains ability to flourish into wonderful one. It depends upon the rest of the world (including all of us) , that whether it will flourish, or ged destroyed with time.

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