Navigating College
A Project of The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Talking About Autism in Higher Ed: When Professors Get it Wrong

by Sarah Pripas

We live in a paradox. Talk of autism is everywhere, yet the voices of actual autistic people are frequently marginalized or absent altogether. While one would hope that academia would be more inclusive, this is not necessarily the case. Too often the conversation about how best to help and accommodate autistic people in higher education is occurring with minimal to no input from autistic people. Moreover, commentaries on autistic people in higher ed written by non-autistic people are too often replete with problematic assumptions.

Take two examples from very different formats: David Yoder’s 2008 Inside Higher Ed blog entry, “My Semester with an Asperger’s Syndrome Student,” and Ann Jurecic’s academic article, “Neurodiversity” (College English Vol. 69 No. 5: May 2007). Despite the obvious differences between an academic article and a blog entry, and the vast differences between Yoder (a professor of business) and Jurecic (a professor of composition), the two pieces are remarkably similar. Both professors take it upon themselves to diagnose a student as autistic. They carefully record behaviors that appear “odd.” Neither actually approaches the student in question, but privately they research autism. They speculate as to which of their teaching methods, if any, may positively impact the student. And, of course, they discuss their experiences with the student in a public venue, suggesting that their experiences have larger implications for how faculty members can help autistic college students. This is in spite of the fact that neither student is actually confirmed to be autistic, and in any event the publication of this information is arguably an unacceptable violation of student privacy.

See any problems here?

I propose a radical course of action for instructors who know or suspect that a student is autistic and may require additional accommodations. Instead of idly speculating about the situation, wasting time reading materials about autism which may or may not be relevant, and commenting about their students’ supposed oddities in public, how about actually talking to the students themselves?

This idea seems strange, I know, but I believe that autistic students know ourselves best, and that we have the right to participate in all matters concerning our education. While Professors Yoder and Jurecic may believe they are being considerate and well-intentioned, in fact their actions are paternalistic at best, while their words contribute to the marginalization of autistic people. Before assuming that a given autistic student thinks in pictures, why not ask that student if this is so? Instead of ignorantly speculating as to what a student needs, why not ask the student what accommodations may be of use to them? Like non-autistic students, autistic students are individuals who require different things. Simply reading a Temple Grandin book, or a random Internet site about how to accommodate autistic students, isn’t going to tell an instructor what they need to know about that particular student. Such problems are further compounded by the fact that information about autism, especially that written by non-autistic people, is often riddled with flaws and misrepresentations. Jurecic, for instance, spends quite a bit of time considering how “mind-blindness” may affect autistic student writing. But many autistic people would strongly disagree with the notion that we are “mind-blind”! Such are the pitfalls of relying on outsider information. Hence the reason why autistic college students need to actively participate in the process of attaining appropriate accommodations and, when necessary, explaining our differences and disabilities to faculty, administrators, and others. No other substitute will suffice.

We also need to be included in discussions regarding disability and higher education from the very outset. As these two examples illustrate, often the discourse about autism and higher education can be highly alienating to autistic people, in and of itself. We are too often seen as problems to be solved rather than students to be educated and served. That needs to change, and we need to be there for that change to happen.

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