Reflecting on Inside Higher Ed's article, "Students on the Spectrum"
A 2015 Autism Speaks report found that only 30 percent of high school graduates with autism ever attend a two- or four-year college, and those that do fare poorly. Research suggests that 80 percent of them never graduate. Furthermore, only 32 percent of high school graduates with autism find paying work within two years of graduating high school. This need not be. Half of all individuals with autism have average or above-average intelligence. They can do the work. The problem is not the students. It’s the colleges. [....] Together, we have seen the many ways that colleges fail students with autism.
We are talking about making Higher Ed more accessible, not for those who cannot do the work or maintain the intellectual standards of the institution, but for those who can and are not given the institutional support to do so. The authors went on to make another slam-dunk point:"if autism is indeed a social disability, then denying the social needs of autistic students is inherently unreasonable". Carry on with the structural critique, I cried! Lay it on me, and I will broadcast your message from the rooftops!
As the article went on though, something went deeply wrong. Perhaps you can spot a trend:
When students felt their social needs were met -- in particular when faculty members proved willing to modify their teaching style -- students had much more positive experiences. But American professors are not required to modify their teaching style for disabled students
It would help if faculty members understood how autism affects learning. But professors are busy [...] professional development seminars are often poorly attended, especially those focused on helping students with special needs. [...]Even when given the opportunity to learn more about the needs of disabled students, professors turn those choices down.
Don't worry: professors can present work, research in archives around the world, publish books, articles and materials meant for public audiences, mentor higher-level students, teach introductory classes AND spend significant amount time finely honing pedagogical skills! [/s]
All these things are not possible at once. Furthermore, from a shallow political perspective, dumping on faculty like this is just justification for more budget cuts. What we need -- and will not get by simply denigrating university teaching staff-- is reform and justice in the academic labor market. This would actually help faculty to help students.
To Be Fair...
Elizabeth, for example, struggles with understanding if professors are being sarcastic or rhetorical. Uncertain, she often responds too much or too little. When one professor expressed frustration at her eager hand raising, she asked privately if he would signal her when he wasn’t being serious or didn’t require a response. “No,” he said. “I don’t need to change my teaching for you, and you need to learn sarcasm.”
Furthermore, I also hold pedagogy important. Yes, I feel personal responsibility for the well-being of students within my classroom, and have made a point of personally seeking out all the tools available to me to make myself a better, more inclusive and welcoming instructor. I would be one of the three faculty attending those workshops on dealing with disabilities in the classroom; UD offered an excellent opportunity to do so just last year,
Why do I disagree so vehemently then, if I agree that faculty can be major causes of failure for autistic children -- and yes, also major parts of the solution???
Because this article stops at blaming professors.
What if I told you the reason I couldn't attend the disabilities in the classroom workshop last academic year was because I was trying to grade 87 mid-term exams in a single weekend, while also finishing another draft of my dissertation prospectus?
The problem is the university teaching labor system, and this article doesn’t address or even acknowledge the underlying causes at play, of which overworked and under-dedicated university instructors are often mere symptoms. How about the fact that 70% of university teaching staff across the United States today fall under the classification of non-tenure-track-faculty??? The vast majority of those are adjuncts; they are underpaid and overworked. Many are not even offered offices, let alone professional development opportunities. And how can they attend these unpaid 'opportunities' when over a quarter rely on food stamps to make ends meet, and many more still fall below minimum wage in their annual earnings. There are myriad articles detailing the crisis of labor in higher education, and how this issue lies at the very heart of the corporatization of the university, budget crises, disappointing student learning outcomes, and more. Educate yo'self!
For Elizabeth, the greatest support has often come from students who have chosen to act as social interpreters. A whispered word or two is often all she needs to better and more appropriately engage with her curriculum. Colleges like California State University at Fullerton already have mentorship programs that pair neurotypical and neuroatypical classmates. We recommend expanding such programs so that peer mentors -- perhaps those offered the coveted privilege of priority registration -- work side by side with autistic students in the classroom.