How does autism affect student learning and behavior?

Autism can present a serious challenge to students in higher education as well as the professionals looking to provide support. But how does it affect student learning and behavior?

Clock 4 min read Calendar Published: 15 Jan 2024
Author Jacob Goodwin
How does autism affect student learning and behavior?

Autism can present a serious challenge to students in higher education as well as the professionals looking to provide support. But how exactly does autism affect student learning and behavior?

As education experts, we at Glean know how important it is for students that classroom environments are as accessible as possible. Getting to grips with the unique challenges students with autism may be experiencing when studying is the first step towards achieving this.

Most people think of autism as a linear spectrum from “mild” to “severe”. In fact, the ‘spectrum’ of autism relates more to how certain aspects affect individuals.

As Dr. Stephen Shore put it, ‘when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. What is an issue for one person may not affect someone else.

To illustrate this reality, we've created a fictional student, Holly, who embodies many of the symptoms of autism.

Through this exercise, we'll highlight some of the common issues facing students with autism, whilst simultaneously reiterating that each individual has their own unique experience.

Example: learning with autism

Holly is a sophomore year Engineering Major, with hopes of working in the aviation industry. Some of the obstacles she faces in the classroom include:

Sensory processing

Holly has issues with sensory processing. In her case, this means that ambient noises in the environment around her can be incredibly distracting.

Ambient noises others might not take any notice of can produce a reactionary feeling in Holly which, in a lecture, can affect her focus. Even the rustling of pages can create an unpleasant sensation, causing anxiety and dysregulation.

But that might not be the only sensory processing issue affecting Holly. Autism can cause difference in experiencing touch, smell and lighting, among other stimuli.

Just as one stimulus can produce anxiety, another could be a source of comfort or calm. Holly may use a sensory input to help soothe the sensation of panic or distress caused by another, such as the feel of a specific texture.

It’s important to consider both in assessing an individual’s needs.

Verbal and non-verbal communication

Holly struggles to pick up on non-verbal cues from others. Her mind is very literal, processing information exactly as it’s given.

When her classmates or lecturers use sarcasm, turns of phrase or other kinds of indirect communication this can be very confusing.

It also takes Holly longer to process what’s being said or asked of her. This often means that the lecturer will have moved onto a different topic before she can form her understanding of what preceded it.

She might also find interpreting body language difficult. If a lecturer uses gesturing to add emphasis or to visualize information, this might not be understood as easily by Holly.

Cognitive rigidity

Holly has trouble switching up her thinking. She’s very good at focusing on individual tasks, but when she has to flip between subjects or make use of different mental skills in a short period of time, she can find it frustrating and anxiety provoking.

Holly is an incredibly capable student. She delivers consistently great, detailed work and has a huge amount of potential in her chosen field.

If she’s given license to concentrate and focus fully on her work, she’ll produce the goods.

But a sudden change in routine or structure, such as the focus or the time of day of a lecture, can be highly distressing.

Holly values consistency, and being asked to make adjustments at the last minute can be problematic.

Motor skills

Because of her autism, Holly has always struggled with handwriting. There are other students with autism on her course that don’t have this issue, but it’s part of Holly’s unique experience with autism.

It’s to do with how she learns motor skills – it can take practice and additional effort for her to feel comfortable with certain tasks. This includes being able to write good notes in class.

Social interactions

A portion of Holly’s coursework centers on group-work and collaboration. But Holly finds it difficult to build working relationships with her fellow students as her condition has prevented her from building conventional social skills.

Adult social interactions are delicate, complex and nuanced, for which there are no ‘written’ rules.

Neurotypical people navigate interpersonal relationships through years of picking up subtle cues and modifying their behaviour depending on what they deem socially appropriate.

Often people with autism don’t know if they are doing something “wrong” whilst neurotypicals seem to “just know”.

In Holly’s case, this means that she will often unknowingly dominate conversation or continue to talk about a subject long after the person she’s talking to starts showing signs of boredom or irritation.

In all likelihood, Holly doesn’t know she’s “breaking a rule” here. That’s why it’s important to consider how she might negotiate group tasks.

But Holly has also learned to get by in other situations. She’s spent her life observing others and has gotten good at copying certain behaviours. This will sometimes make it harder to detect the problems she’s experiencing.

Social requirements are always present in learning environments. But having structure and predictability to lessons or lectures can reduce student anxiety, creating better capacity and ability for learning.


As her needs are not being properly addressed within the wider world, Holly suffers from severe anxiety. Some days she can find it too overwhelming to go to class and face navigating the complicated and confusing environment she’s living in.

She also struggles with a poor self-image as her peers and teachers struggle to understand her. At times, she feels totally alienated.

Like many people with autism, Holly has an elevated risk of developing depression. And, like the majority of students that live with this illness, it’s likely that she will struggle against it alone.


The way Holly copes with sensory stressors is by ‘stimming’. If a sound or the general noise of an environment is causing her anxiety, she will often click her fingers repetitively as a way of soothing herself.

In the past, lecturers and teachers have told her to stop doing this, perhaps not realising that she is experiencing distress.

Stimming (or self-stimulation) is a common symptom of autism and becomes less likely in the classroom the more that environment is designed to limit sensory (and social) stressors.

A snapshot, not the norm

Students with autism experience many more issues separate from or related to these common obstacles. But helping them to overcome some of these problems is how an institution can really make a difference.

But how? By consulting recent research on the topic, we’ve put together a digested guide on how better to accommodate students with autism.

Or if you’d like more general information on supporting students with disabilities, visit our hub on how to empower your students to become independent learners.

Article originally written by Dr Sue Wilkinson, posted on 24th January 2019.

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