What is Asperger Syndrome?
 Is AS more prevalent now than it was twenty years ago?
Potential challenges, strengths, and strategies

What is Asperger Syndrome?

Considered part of the autism spectrum, Asperger syndrome (AS) is a neurological condition that expresses itself differently in each individual. Typically, however, persons with AS share at least some of the following behaviors or characteristics:

a. intense interest in one or more specific topics;
b. well-developed verbal ability, but a tendency to interpret language literally and to miss the import of sarcasm, metaphor, euphemism, implied meanings, etc.
c. trouble understanding nonverbal cues, including body language and facial expressions;
d. difficulty engaging in social interactions and the give-and-take of conversation;
e. challenges adjusting to change or sudden transition;
f. strict adherence to rules;
g. hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli such as lights, color, other visual features, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations; and
h. average to high cognitive abilities.

Video:  “Understanding Asperger Syndrome: A College Professor’s Guide”
Part 1 (9 min.)
Part 2 (6 ½ min.)

Is AS more prevalent now than it was twenty years ago?

The official psychiatric diagnostic manual used in the U.S. did not include AS until 1994 (DSM-IV), so the diagnosis has become more common since then. Students diagnosed with AS in the 1990’s have been receiving academic and social supports throughout elementary and secondary school, and are now better positioned than earlier cohorts to earn a college degree. Faculty and support service providers will therefore need to tune in to the particular needs and strengths of individual students with AS in order to make sure that they have the same opportunities to grow and achieve during college as their more neurotypical peers.

Potential challenges, strengths, and strategies

The table below lists some of the issues that may affect the ability of a student with AS to fulfill his/her potential in your course. The second column offers a variety of strategies that can help to remove barriers to learning and well-being for a student with AS. 
Beside many of the strategies are the letters “UDL” highlighted in yellow. This indicates that the strategy is consistent with Universal Design for Learning. The instructor implements the measure for the whole class, so that not only the student with a disability benefits from it. This also assures that a student with a disability is not singled out or identified as needing special provisions.

Potential Issues Strategies
Communication Issues Communication Strategies

A student with AS is likely to take a relatively literal approach to language. S/he may miss the nuances of meaning carried by irony, idiom, and other creative or abstract expressions. 

Use clear, direct, non-emotional and non-metaphorical language. Get right to the point. You may feel you are speaking too bluntly, but your student will appreciate your unambiguous communication.

Due to insufficient understanding of the reciprocal nature of social interactions, a deficit in picking up on cues, and difficulty internalizing social conventions, a student with AS may dominate class or small-group discussions or may be too anxious to speak up at all.

Speak privately with your student if s/he is monopolizing class time. Convey that you appreciate the student’s interest and engagement, but that you want others to have a chance to ask questions and discuss the topics as well. Agree on “rules” regarding the number of times the student may have the floor during a period. You may also identify a signal that will communicate to the student when s/he should refrain from further questions/comments.

Affirm your student’s successful efforts to participate in appropriate ways. UDL

Monitor activities in which the student with AS is working with other students. Assign groups yourself, and provide clear and explicit roles and tasks for group members.  UDL

If a student with AS fears engaging with classmates in a small group because s/he does not know how to go about it, talk about the specific uncertainties and work out a role s/he would feel comfortable playing in the group, with explicit guidelines for that role.  

Since s/he tends to think in concrete terms and struggles with abstractions, a student with AS may have difficulty following general or lengthy verbal instructions, especially for complicated tasks.  
Sensory Issues Strategies for Sensory Issues
Extreme sensitivity to sounds, movements, light, and other stimuli in the classroom can make a student with AS highly distractible and prone to stress.

Try to avoid sudden loud sounds or sustained noise.

If the student takes exams in the classroom, allow him/her to wear earphones or other devices to muffle ambient sounds. UDL

A student with AS may hit a sensory limit and be unable to function well or behave appropriately in the classroom on a given day. Permit your student to leave the room quietly when s/he feels the need to do so. Tell your student explicitly that this is OK to do.
Dexterity Issues Strategies for Dexterity Issues
Sometimes the neurological origins of AS manifest in motor difficulties related to the physical activity of writing. 

Permit the student to use a computer for taking notes, if that is something s/he feels more comfortable doing. UDL

Incorporate a system in which several students each day – on a voluntary or required basis – post their notes for that class on Blackboard (a wiki or discussion board works well for this). UDL

Help your student to identify another student to serve as a note-taker through DRS.

Cognitive Issues Strategies for Cognitive Support
It often takes a student with AS a longer time to organize his/her thoughts or to grasp the meaning of spoken words.  When combined with the dexterity challenge of handwriting, this factor can interfere with the student’s ability to take notes quickly enough during a lecture.

Post a copy of your lecture notes (and/or PowerPoint or other presentation tool) on Blackboard prior to the class, so that any student, including one with AS, may preview the lecture topics and structure. UDL

Before class, post a skeletal outline, graphic organizer, or other structure for students to fill in or expand on when taking notes. UDL

Incorporate a system in which several students each day – on a voluntary or required basis – post their notes for that class on Blackboard (a wiki or discussion board works well for this). UDL

Capture your class sessions or record your voice on a digital recorder and post it on Bb as a podcast. UDL

Allow the student to record lectures and other important informational segments. UDL

Although they typically have a very good vocabulary, students with AS may not express their thoughts most effectively in written narrative form, as required on an essay test, for example. For assignments in which proficient written expression is not an element of the learning objectives, offer all students options as to what form their final product will take: e.g., video, podcast, concept map, etc. UDL
A student with AS may have difficulty adjusting to change, transition, or unexpected developments. S/he may become confused or resist the change. Explicitly prepare your class for transitions between learning activities:  preview the class session at the beginning; give clear directions for moving to another activity; and give a warning shortly before the end of the activity. UDL
Students with AS often have extraordinary talent and/or interest in one or more areas, and can be very effective at processing and remembering information presented in a systematized way. However, they may have great difficulty knowing how to approach more abstract and open-ended inquiries in unfamiliar areas.

When possible, offer students a choice of topics and formats for assignments.  Students with AS will be more highly motivated and comfortable if they can tie their academic work to an area in which they have a passionate interest. UDL

Break down abstract, complex thought processes, skills, or tasks into smaller steps. Organize these so that each one builds on those before. UDL

Organizational Problems Strategies for Organization
Time management may be a problem for a student with AS. 

Provide a calendar at the beginning of the semester, showing all dates for exams and important assignments, as well as interim dates for completing stages of a complex process (e.g., writing a paper or completing a project). UDL

Give your student with AS specific deadlines instead of open-ended time frames.

Psychological-behavioral Issues Strategies for Psychological Support

AS often occurs in tandem with mental illness --- most commonly depression, anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  In addition, college presents a high-stress environment for many students with AS, and the challenge is heightened for those who are away from their home support network.

These factors may cause a student with AS to exhibit any of a range of behaviors, including absenteeism, agitation, relentless talking, withdrawal, and disrespect. 

If your student’s behavior is disruptive,    consult the Tuttleman Counseling Services pamphlet “Civility on Campus” for guidelines on prevention and intervention. 

If you notice signs of psychological dysfunction or deterioration in the behavior or affect of your student with AS, offer to help him/her arrange an appointment at Tuttleman Counseling Services, or walk over together after class. 

If your student is registered with DRS, contact that office to let a staff member know what you have observed. 

If your concerns about a student’s behavior (words, writing, interactions, absenteeism, etc.) persist, consult the CARE Team webpage and consider a referral.


DO-IT Knowledge Base articles about working with students with Asperger syndrome.

Littlefield, Claire.  “Students with Asperger Syndrome transitioning to postsecondary education: What are the common issues?” (PDF) Rochester Institute of Technology, Master’s thesis, 2010.

Luckett, T. and S. Powell. “Students with autism and Asperger syndrome” in S. Powell, ed., Special Teaching in Higher Education: Successful strategies for access and inclusion.  Herndon, VA: Stylus, 2003: 159-76.

Organization for Autism Research (OAR)

  • OAR, Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Project (GRASP) and Pace University. “Understanding Asperger Syndrome: A College Professor’s Guide,” video in two parts: Part 1 (9 min.); Part 2 (6 ½ min.).

VanBergeijk, Ernst, Ami Klin, and Fred Volkmar.  “Supporting More Able Students on the Autism Spectrum: College and Beyond,” Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders 38 (2008): 1359-70.

University: How to support students with Asperger syndrome.”  Information Sheet from the National Autistic Society, UK.