College Math Teaching

September 14, 2013

Reality of modern college teaching: students with Asperger’s syndrome

Filed under: academia, mathematics education, student learning — Tags: — collegemathteaching @ 4:43 pm

One of the major changes I’ve encountered since I started college teaching (first as a teaching assistant in 1986; then as a new professor in 1991) is that students with Asperger’s syndrome have been showing up.

Most of the time, it isn’t a big deal; the worst I’ve had is one of these students became completely disoriented when he got to class and someone was sitting in “his” seat (no, I don’t make seat assignments; this is college).

This semester, I have a transfer student (not sure why he transferred); in spots he is “disruptive to a minor degree”: you have to remind him that there are 34 OTHER students in the class; this isn’t a one-on-one dialogue just for him.

Also, I sometimes make side remarks (to explain a point to another student) and use analogies; that just confuses the heck out of him. But I am not going to stop being effective with the other 34 students just for him; I just tell him “see me in office hours” or “don’t worry about this”.

On the other hand, he is relatively easy to work with in office hours; the one-on-one exchanges are usually reasonable and pleasant.

Hence, when I see he is getting confused, I tell him “for this point, see me for office hours.”

I’ve searched the internet to see what is out there; most of it is what I already know and much of it is a series of tired cliches, finger wagging, etc. I haven’t found much of the following: “I had these issues in my calculus class; here is how they were resolved” or “these issues COULDN’T be resolved.” Sometimes they aren’t up to the task of being in college.

But, overall, it seems to be this way: we are told to be “more productive” which means more students per semester (105 students in 2 sections of calculus and 1 of differential equations). So no, one cannot tailor lessons and work to the learning style of a specific student, especially if that student is an outlier. One has to teach to a type of average or to the class as a whole; one can adjust for a class full of, say biology students, or one full of engineers or one full of computer science majors.

These students require time, more attention and resources and these COST MONEY. This is where some of the increased educational expense is coming from (some from technology as well). At times, it appears as if colleges and universities are being tugged in different directions.



  1. Students with Asperger’s should respond well to text. They can have a sensory processing delay for speech, so the important thing there to tell them is take good notes. If they don’t understand what you are saying in the moment, but write it down, they can review it later. That won’t slow you down. Students with Asperger’s tend to be good with systems of understanding, so that should give them an advantage in math if you explain the systems behind what you are teaching and explicitly tie examples to these. They are not a population that takes much academic accommodation. They require more social accommodation. That is, they can get excited and interrupt or monologue. By telling the student to see you after class or in hours, you are doing the right thing — teaching the student how to interact appropriately at university. BTW, I’m a former college professor who also has Asperger’s.

    Comment by IntuitionPump — September 16, 2013 @ 12:51 am

  2. I am a composition grad instructor [probably on the autism spectrum as well]. One common pedagogical tool–it’s hard to implement at first, I won’t lie–is including various learning styles in one’s instruction. What many instructors do is convey the information in a few different ways, such as present it aurally, visually, and kinesthetically. For ASD students, this reduces the amount of potentially problematic stimuli and caters to their learning styles, in part. For everyone else, it caters to their learning styles as well. I’m not a mathematics person, so I have no idea how you might actually implement such changes, but I imagine that there are some higher ed maths journals that discuss this approach to pedagogy.

    There is one book that looks specifically at pedagogy in college classrooms for ASD students, Autism Spectrum Disorders in the College Composition Classroom. Making Writing Instruction More Accessible For All Students. A lot of the book actually deals with pedagogical precepts that might be transferrable to teaching maths. See the link below for more details about the book.

    Comment by CM Kaser — September 16, 2013 @ 11:29 pm

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response and suggestions.


      Comment by blueollie — September 17, 2013 @ 1:18 am

  3. I know this is a long-dead thread, but I couldn’t resist posting a response.

    I am a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine. I specialize in limb salvage and preservation, both surgical and medical, with emphasis in wound care. I am the father of two sons, both of whom have Asperger’s Syndrome, now reclassified as high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder. It has been proposed to me that I am an adult with residual Asperger’s Syndrome, which I consider highly probable.

    In reading your post above, I cannot help but be curious how you and other educators plan to adapt to an influx of greater numbers of autistic spectrum students in the future. Depending upon the source your look at, statistics are that between one in approximately sixty to eighty kids are on the spectrum. This is a significant number of your men and women–who, by the way, are probably underdiagnosed when it comes to ASD.

    They can hardly be ignored or excluded, and while IntuitionPump above states that “…they are not a population that takes much academic accommodation. They require more social accommodation….”, the reality is that this population does and will continue to require both. It is, after all, a spectrum, not a static diagnosis.

    I wish I had something to offer as to how to approach ASD students in the classroom. I found this post as I was researching advice and approaches to teach Algebra 1 to normal intelligence Asperger’s Syndrome students. I am curious, however, what you as an educator would suggest to restructure colleges and universities to deal with what will soon be a significant influx of high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder students?

    Comment by John L. Trench III, D.P.M. — December 17, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

    • Hi John, I wonder if your research found any good, concrete advice or tools to help with your algebra teaching? Would really appreciate if you could provide some links.

      Seems to me my daughter has particular conceptual problems with (a) understanding variables as placeholders for “any number” and (b) how/why it is OK to rearrange formulas that are purely algebraic (as opposed to ones that contain mostly numbers with a couple of variables).

      Comment by Stratocasting — April 3, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

  4. I don’t know about social accommodation. But I will tell you this: universities are in severe financial distress and some of this distress comes from funding things like learning assistance centers, counselors, etc.

    THAT is out of my hands; from my end I do my best to teach them while keeping them from disrupting the others in the class. This one did to a mild degree. However, he was very good in office hours and he held himself to high intellectual standards.

    Comment by collegemathteaching — December 18, 2014 @ 12:26 am

    • I am an outsider looking in, but what I see is a problem caused by not assigning education the priority level it deserves, and thus not funding it appropriately. The funding for education should not be skimped upon, it is an investment that society makes in its own future, and reaps significant benefits from.

      I would like to see public education generously funded, from head-start programs and pre-schools through university, graduate, and professional education. I would also like to see decision-making about education shift from government to educators. I suppose these desires are just a consequence of my ignorance on the subject.

      Still, in my ignorance I can’t help thinking that educators unhindered by government bureaucrats pursuing agendas that have little or nothing to do with education, and armed with ample financial resources, and with the public mandate to accomplish this, would be the best source for innovation in approaches to education, for finding and instituting new and more effective ways of teaching students both “neurotypical” (sorry for that bit of jargon) and Asperger’s/autistic spectrum.

      For example, while I applaud you for, as you state, doing your best to “…teach them while keeping them from disrupting others in the class….”, I would like to suggest that a university properly funded could provide a variety of approaches and settings for teaching students that would accommodate how they learn, while integrating elements, such as applied behavioral analysis, to address the challenges many of the students who will be coming down the pipeline in the years to come are going to present. You shouldn’t have to figure out how to deal with these challenges within a single classroom setting. You should have at your disposal a variety of settings and approaches to address the challenges you face.

      Again, my ignorance may be showing here. Or perhaps I am simply naïve.

      I am not anti-government. I just feel that their legislative role should be confined to laws and programs that facilitate the efforts of educators, not dictate them, and that beyond this they should be a conduit for public funding for education without restraining and interfering “strings” attached.

      You have my admiration and respect, for facing those challenges under the current circumstances and still working diligently to teach the young minds entrusted to you.


      John Trench

      Comment by John L. Trench III, D.P.M. — December 22, 2014 @ 5:38 am

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