Universities are switching to online learning—and I’m worried for autistic students. Here’s why.

As colleges and universities clamor to switch to online courses in the wake of COVID-19, I find myself worried for their autistic students.

Let me be clear: this shift is important, and during a global pandemic, students should be allowed to remain safely at home. But, well…

Most professors aren’t prepared to teach autistic people.

There. I said it.

Plenty want to be. Plenty care. I was lucky to have professors who (mostly) were good, admirable people. I even had a few who made an unforgettably positive difference in my life. Today, I work closely with some incredible professors who are consistent and passionate in their efforts to connect with their students.

But in a society that systematically silences autistic voices—one where we frequently go undiagnosed, unsupported, unemployed, and abused, where research about us excludes us from the get-go—many well-meaning neurotypical educators enact ableism because they simply don’t know any better. (And as autistics with serious educational trauma can tell you, not every educator is “well-meaning.”)

Compounding the issue: accessibility training for educators is often not governmentally mandated or regulated—even the AODA doesn’t have an education standard—so the decisions to provide accessibility training (or not) is left up to institutions.

Many professors already work well above full-time hours (and for paltry pay if they’re contract profs), leaving little time for self-training. Add in some budget cuts, a forced upheaval of their lifestyle and teaching structure, and professors’ own pandemic-related mental health struggles, and you’ve got a recipe for serious inaccessibility.

This is why, as we autistic folks watch professors scramble to reconstruct their courses from scratch, our heartbeats scramble, too. Our online support groups buzz with students’ predictions:  “We’ll be safer, yes—but we’re going to slip through the cracks. Again.”

Autistic university students 101: we’re a misunderstood bunch.

Although our learning is deeply affected by our differences in sensory processing, executive function, and communication, we rarely fit the public’s perception of what autism “looks like.”

We’re often unilaterally labelled “high-functioning,” if we’re believed to be autistic at all, so we’re forced to watch powerlessly as our needs and struggles—insignificant to others, yet enormous for us—are swept under the rug.

Even at the best of times, I spent my pandemic-free degree feeling sidelined by a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching that, well, didn’t fit me at all.

When my autistic friends and I self-advocated, we quickly learned that too many of the most caring, anti-oppressive educators still didn’t know the difference between “intellectually rigorous” and “inaccessible” or “invisibly disabled” and “lazy.”

Worse, of course, were the ones who simply didn’t give a shit. Detailed slides to assist our auditory processing? No, that would make things too easy. Leaving the room during sensory overload? Sounds like slacker talk. Paper copies of the slides in case we fell behind? Wow, didn’t we even care about copyright?

Although our disability accommodations helped somewhat, they often hinged on documentation that’s difficult to obtain—and they couldn’t actually affect how the professor taught the course in the first place.

Notes from a volunteer note-taker, for instance, were appreciated, but ultimately of limited use if the course was taught and the notes were composed by two people who both didn’t understand autistic learning. Copies of class slides were meaningless if they consisted of little more than a title, a keyword, and a photo of a book.

Online summer courses came with their own set of autistic-unfriendly struggles: arbitrary “attendance” requirements that hinged more on executive function than commitment; stilted class discussions with unclear and shifting rules; professors who outright rejected emails with questions they decided were either too detailed or too simple…

Ultimately, my autistic friends and I spent a large portion of our degrees hearing this message: you are different, so you don’t deserve to learn.

Today, knowing these universities are now making the switch to almost-entirely-online courses—and without the time, resources, or accessibility know-how to do it right—has filled me with a familiar sense of anxiety. I’m long done with my degree, but questions about how online learning will look are battering down the doors of my brain.

It’s not all bad…

To be clear, plenty of things about online learning could be more accessible for autistic students: a consistent sensory environment! Stimming invisibly during lectures! Fewer hours of forced eye contact! Never forgetting schoolwork at home because school is at home!

…But there are some real potential problems.

So in the interest of helping to foster some much-needed compassion for budding autistic scholars, I’d like to share with you just some of the worries that are likely brewing in autistic brains across the post-secondary world.

  1. Will my disability centre have trained its employees in online pedagogy for autistic and other disabled people over the summer? Will I be forced to spend my limited time and resources educating my counselor or professors—which is often a losing battle? Will the education I’m paying for be treated as testing grounds to improve the disability services that, again, I am paying for?
  2. If I obtain new and changing accommodations, will my professors readily accept them or scoff at them? Will my professors mistake not knowing more about disabilities for there being nothing more for them to know? Will they mistake not knowing that I’m autistic for knowing that I’m not autistic?
  3. Will video lectures have text accompaniments, like detailed slides or subtitles, which enable autistics with auditory processing disorder to follow along? Or will professors decide these “make things too easy” or “endanger their copyrighted material”?
  4. Will professors misinterpret my “learning face” as a “bored face” during video chats? Will they silently decide upon social rules for video chat eye contact that I don’t know and can’t comfortably follow? Will they call me out for my differences and demand a contribution I’m not ready to give—thus forcing me to use my energy to “look like I’m learning” rather than to actually learn?
  5. Will the attendance policy for written discussions measure my executive function (e.g: 3 posts a week, each at least 2 days apart) or my commitment to learning (e.g: the depth and breadth of my responses)? Will my professors assume I can remain just as organized in the absence of an externally-enforced schedule as I could in traditional classes? Will they mistake my struggles to stay organized for laziness?
  6. Will the expectations for tone, length, depth, topic, etc. in discussions be detailed explicitly? Or will they be implied or assumed—and thus inaccessible to students like me?
  7. If I ask my professor to reword or clarify their expectations, will I receive an answer, or will I be accused of not reading the class files? Will I be directed to review the same files that I clearly struggle to understand?
  8. If I need to request an extension, will my professor judge the validity of that request on my ability to write a “socially acceptable” email? Will the professor’s preconceived notions of what a struggling student “sounds like” impact whether I receive support?
  9. Will my professor understand that the increased pressure to “perform” in video chats will cause me to take longer to think before speaking, mix up my words, and become exhausted faster? Will they be patient with me or rush me along? Will meaningful alternatives to spoken contributions be allowed for autistics who struggle with speech?
  10. Will my professors ask for student contributions during video chats in a way that enables me to contribute, or will their chosen methods of student contribution be dependent on social ease, assertiveness, and “good timing”? Will I lose marks for being unable to contribute to a chat that privileges neurotypical chatting?

Could I go on forever? Probably. (I mean, hey, I’m autistic. Badum-tss!) But in the interest of soothing these anxieties, I’ve got some hopes to share, too.

Autistic students: I see you.

I’m proud of you. I hope that in the midst of these changes, you’re surrounded with love and support, taking some serious time for self-care, and self-advocating as firmly as you can. I hope you find professors who will listen to that advocacy—they really do make all the difference.

Professors: I know this was likely a difficult read.

Thank you for reading it anyway. I hope you’ll take all the wonderful analytical and critical thinking skills you’ve worked so hard to foster in your students and apply them to an academic culture that, in many ways, remains oppressive and exclusionary. I hope you’ll treat your students as the experts of their own experiences, however strange those experiences might sound to you. I hope you’ll use their feedback—and the worries on this list—to build an accessible curriculum. (And, although this may sound contradictory, I also hope you’ll get some rest.)

As we work to keep ourselves and each other safe from COVID-19, I hope we can also work to welcome each other into academia… because academia can do better. It HAS to do better. We can do this.

Autistic students deserve to be safe, and we deserve to learn.

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11 Responses

  1. I’m an autistic professor who switched to teaching solely online back in 1997, decades before I was diagnosed, because it was the only way I could thrive given my sensory processing and social communication needs. Constructing my classes in a way that’s suited for my own learning and teaching styles allows my autistic and neurodivergent students, most of whom are undiagnosed, to thrive, too. I find that it’s the neurotypical students I need to accommodate, but then I’ve been accommodating neurotypicals all my life, so I kinda get what they need. Course evaluations, feedback, and success rates are consistently high, so I feel that designing the course for neurodivergent students and to be conducted in a way that lets me draw on my strengths, while accommodating the needs of neurotypical students and the administration, works. It helps that I’m at a community college, which has a mission of inclusion.

    1. Hi Cathy! Thanks so much for commenting. It sounds like you’re doing a really great job, and I’m very happy you’ve developed something wonderful for you and your students. I hope I didn’t come off as though I was saying that ALL professors are inherently bad (or inherently neurotypical), and I’m sorry if that’s what I sounded like. I tried to word this in a way that didn’t paint everyone with the same brush, but I realize I should’ve added more disclaimers. I am submitting an edit in the form of a paragraph that acknowledges great professors like you 🙂

      1. Oops, I should say I am composing a potential edit. I’m trying to figure out if I’ve struck a good balance between not painting all of the university experience with the same brush, while also drawing attention to widespread problems and a need for justice. Regardless of what changes I do or don’t land on, I’m always delighted to hear about autistic educators and happy autistic students. Thank you <3

      2. Hi, CatLady! I didn’t find your post offensive at all! I feel you bring up really important considerations, and they certainly fit with experiences I’ve heard from other students. It also fits with pressure I’ve felt from the dean to change my approach to be more neurotypical. So your post definitely helped me think about areas of discomfort in a useful way, as well as helping me identify the approaches I take that fit with my values for learning and being! Super useful post! I didn’t mean for my reply to be defensive, more as a way to identify how online learning can be crafted to work for autistic learners and teachers. Thanks for writing it!

        1. Thank you so much for this comment!

          I genuinely don’t think you even sounded defensive, haha. I tend to worry a lot about whether I’ve worded things offensively in the first place, and this is the first article I’ve published on the matter, so I’ve already been thinking about whether I’ve sounded too generalizing. I think hearing from a good autistic professor AT ALL, I just went, “Oh crap! I forgot to point out they exist!”

          I deeply want to show appreciation to good professors, while also challenging people to think critically about their own curriculums, while also not generalizing autistic learners, etc.—it’s a difficult balance to strike, and I’m very glad to hear hear you found my attempt to strike it useful.

          Thank you again! 🙂

          PS: So sorry to hear about your struggle with the dean. It’s so difficult to carve out welcoming spaces in environments led by people who are less likely to prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion. You’re doing fabulous work.

          1. I agree that this was very balanced. I am also an autistic professor who constantly has to accommodate neurotypical students and other neurotypical expectations. There are many “education experts” who are for some reason convinced that videos are “universal learning” while text is not… That’s how they are “training” us, with videos and more videos. FYI, I did have a student sell my Power Points when I was young and naive and gave PPTs to all students. Now I give them as locked PDFs modified to remove particularly unique content. Problem solved.

  2. This is an excellent list! This especially struck me: “Will professors misinterpret my “learning face” as a “bored face” during video chats?” This! So often, any type of conversation (whether online or in person) gets completely derailed by misinterpretation of our facial expressions!

  3. I honestly loved reading this article. As an autistic student myself currently enrolled at a college that’s specifically geared toward neurodiverse students, I’ve been dealing with remote classes ever since the later half of this year’s Spring semester. Things were a little rocky back then since my college was more used to offering in-person classes than remote like many institutions, but they’ve bounced back and made decisions to help things run as smoothly as possible this time around. I’ve also come to realize how privileged I am to have experienced remote learning while I was still in middle school. I never would have thought that I’d have to go through it again during my college years until the pandemic hit the US.

  4. Juggling work and studies isn’t easy, but I’m determined to succeed. To manage better, I use StoryboardThat to make storyboards online. This tool helps me visualize complex topics, making studying more effective. It’s a game-changer in mastering the program and illustrating lesson materials. If you’re in a similar situation, check it out at StoryboardThat – it’s been a real help for me!

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