Autism Overview


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a general term for a group of complex conditions of brain development. These conditions are characterized, in varying degrees,  by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. With the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, all autism disorders were merged into one umbrella diagnosis of ASD. Previously, they were recognized as distinct subtypes, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive development disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills.

Tips for Supporting Students on the Autism Spectrum

The following tips were generated by the students in the SF State Autism Spectrum Support Group. Taking into account the multifarious and changing abilities and needs of each individual on the autism spectrum, there is no single method or approach that will support an individual at any given time. Thus, any guidance or accommodation that we provide must be rooted in an understanding of each individual’s unique experience.

Increase open communication and consistency; limit unexpected changes.

  • Maintain a structure that is consistent throughout the course of the semester and provide reasonable room or accommodations for incorporating any new changes to the curriculum. For example, a clear well-organized syllabus including a calendar of assignments and due dates.
  • Prepare students for participation; announce topics that will be covered, expectations for the participation, providing exam review sheets or sample papers/test questions.
  • If an issue arises, address it in a courteous manner (e.g., pull the student aside; encourage the student to come to office hours or make an appointment to discuss the issue). For additional support contact the San Francisco State University Disability Programs & Resource Center at (415) 338-2472 and/or Counseling & Psychological Services Center at (415) 338-2208.

Create a space for diverse ways of information processing and expression.

  • Make sure directions and questions are clear, direct and concise.
  • Present information through multiple methods and modalities (e.g., using illustrations, simulations, graphics, lists, models, videos, or writing in addition to verbal).
  • Allow additional time for students to process directions/questions (sometimes up to 30 seconds).
  • Some students may be very detail oriented and may need help seeing the bigger picture. Help students to make connections between texts, themselves, others, and the world.

Make your expectations for communication, participation, and student conduct explicit.

  • Make explicit the expected classroom behaviors with the whole class. These may include rules for mobile phone use, attendance, eating/drinking in class, or verbal participation. Work out a class arrangement to give an equal opportunity for students to contribute to class discussion.
  • Facilitate equitable in-class participation. Set a reasonable time limit for students to speak. Use agreed upon signals to alert students to a need for topic or speaker change. Provide discussion prompts in advance & assign lead discussants for different questions. Offer alternatives to face-to-face discussions.
  • Provide frequent and varied assessments of performance, which allow students to know how they are doing over time and to make adjustments. Diverse assessment approaches (e.g., oral presentations, case studies, take-home exams, in-class quizzes, and papers) allow different ways to demonstrate learning.

Create a comfortable sensory environment for learning.

  • Talk with the student and find out what makes a comfortable learning environment for them and make reasonable changes to the environment– e.g., asking the class to avoid wearing scented products or bringing pungent food to class; keeping the lights dim or using natural light; and reducing noise levels.

Additional Resources