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Blog post Part of series: Uncharted terrain: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Digital equity: Learning in lockdown for the autistic student

Elizabeth Aylott Andrew Veasey

Many of us in the higher education sector are frantically working to place our modules online. This digital transformation at pace can result in short-term decisions, so it is imperative that at this curriculum design phase we take account of all students, including those with hidden disabilities.

Not all autistic students will identify themselves as ‘disabled’; some may identify themselves as ‘different’, some may not be self-aware enough to recognise their autism, and some may have a formal diagnosis of autism (MacLeod, Allan, Ann Lewis, & Robertson, 2018). Students with autism start with a disadvantage whether learning face-to-face or online. Autism has been described as ‘running on Windows, when everyone else is a Mac’ (Vincent et al., 2017). This social exclusion and propensity to loneliness, anxiety and depression (Mazurek, 2014; Klin & Volkmar, 1996; Lugnegård, Hallerbäck, & Gillberg, 2011) can inhibit these students to reach their potential. Yet they have a real potential – the focus, persistence and determination that autistic students can demonstrate is clear but not academically founded.

‘Autism has been described as “running on Windows, when everyone else is a Mac”. This social exclusion and propensity to loneliness, anxiety and depression can inhibit these students to reach their potential.’

Online provision has been mooted as a panacea to classroom inequity (Becker et al., 2018), but only if online provision empowers rather than restricts learning. And yet we have a diverse student body, with diverse needs, and should not make decisions based on a narrow view of requirements.

Those of us with autism may feel that we have been functioning with poor bandwidth all our lives, and it is a relief to find that others are now experiencing their own ‘connectivity’ issues. Asynchronous learning gives control to students, enabling them to choose when to engage and post on forums – many autistic students may thrive in the online space.

Yet students can also experience high levels of disorientation online (Meyers & Bagnall, 2015). If we can simplify navigation, we can prevent what is described by Jeffery, who has ADHD and autism:

‘You start following a link, and it takes you to a page with a paragraph and half a dozen links, that takes you to another page with a paragraph of information, that takes you to half a dozen other links. … So, it ends up like a spider web, and a maze, where you’ve got no idea where you’re going, or the rationale’.
(Meyers & Bagnall, 2015, p. 211).

Clarifying the context of learning activities helps students place value and relevance to tasks, and so manage the time spent on different activities effectively, while clarifying procedures ensures that students are able to recognise what is expected of them. We can also think about how we can connect with our students and not be remote. We need to build immersive learning experiences, but we do not want our students to drown.

The last word goes to Jeffery, who describes his experience as very isolating and ‘stumbling around in the dark’ and reminds us that ‘a teacher, instructor, a lecturer … is there to lead’ (Meyers & Bagnall, 2015, p. 215). Let us develop university modules that enable us to lead all our students through their learning journey.


References

Adams, D., Simpson, K., Davies, L., Campbell, C., & Macdonald, L. (2019). Online learning for university students on the autism spectrum: A systematic review and questionnaire study. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology35(6), 111–131. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.5483

Becker, S. A., Brown, M., Dahlstrom, E., Davis, A., DePaul, K., Diaz, V., & Pomerantz, J. (2018). The NMC horizon report: 2018 higher education edition. Louisville, CO: Educause.

Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. R. (1996). Asperger syndrome: Treatment and intervention – Some guidelines for parents. Learning Disabilities Association of America.

Lugnegård, T., Hallerbäck, M. U., & Gillberg, C. (2011). Psychiatric comorbidity in young adults with a clinical diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 32(5), 1910–1917.

MacLeod, A., Allan, J., Ann Lewis, A., & Robertson, C. (2018). ‘Here I come again’: The cost of success for higher education students diagnosed with autism. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 22(6), 683–697. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2017.1396502

Mazurek, M. (2014). Loneliness, friendship, and well-being in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 18, 223–232. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361312474121

Meyers, C. A., & Bagnall, R. G. (2015). A case study of an adult learner with ASD and ADHD in an undergraduate online learning environment. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 31(2), 208–219. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.1600

Vincent, J., Potts, M., Fletcher, D., Hodges, S., Howells, J., Mitchell, A., Mallon B., & Ledger, T. (2017). ‘I think autism is like running on Windows while everyone else is a Mac’: Using a participatory action research approach with students on the autistic spectrum to rearticulate autism and the lived experience of university. Educational Action Research, 25(2), 300–315. https://doi.org/10.1080/09650792.2016.1153978