Autism Spectrum Disorder

A close-up of a young woman in semi-profile with her hand at her mouth, looking out a window apprehensively.

It was Julie’s first semester at college. It was also her first time living away from home. She was excited about attending college, but she was also somewhat nervous about all of the changes. Three weeks into the term, her instructor stood in front of the class and pulled out the course syllabus.

“I am thinking about changing the next assignment,” the instructor said. “Instead of actually researching the topic, I would like you to write a personal reflection piece that just talks about how you feel about it. No research is needed. I am more interested in what this topic means to you, rather than what you can find out about it at the library or on the Internet. I want your own thoughts, your own feelings. A personal reflection piece.”

The students around Julie all smiled and expressed relief at what they thought was going to be an easy assignment. But Julie immediately felt extremely anxious and angry. She raised her hand and loudly said: “But that is not what the course syllabus says! It says we are supposed to do a research project! Now you say you want something else, but that is not what the syllabus says! You can’t just go and change it!” Julie was almost yelling now.

Not sure what to do next, and feeling hugely frustrated and afraid, Julie burst into tears. She scooped up her books and ran from the classroom. Later that day, when she had finally calmed down, Julie approached the college’s Disability Services Office (DSO). She was known to them because on admission she had registered with the DSO and let them know that she had Autism Spectrum Disorder. Because her condition did not affect her cognitive abilities, she had not requested any formal academic accommodation, and until this point she had been quite successful in college. Together Julie and the DSO counsellor discussed strategies for better managing her anxiety when she felt stressed in class.

The instructor, recalling having received a form from the DSO earlier in the year about Julie’s possible needs, also reached out to the DSO staff.

Staff from the DSO met with Julie and the instructor together, and, with Julie’s permission, explained to the instructor some of the dynamics of ASD. The instructor learned that people who have ASD often have a strong need for predictability in their lives, and they are not always aware of how their behaviour comes across to others – that Julie had intended no offense, and that the change in assignment had overwhelmed her. Together, the instructor, the DSO counsellor, and Julie put together a plan to help Julie manage her anxiety, including a pledge from the instructor to be more cautious about changing course expectations.