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A university student with autism spectrum disorder

The paper focuses on the educational and life situation faced by people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

It indicates how limitations resulting from autism may affect the course of university study and what specific forms of assistance can be provided. The article offers basic advice and tips addressed to students with autistic traits, which can help them over the course of study.

Epidemiology and characteristics:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that autism is currently (2020) diagnosed in 1 out of 59 children in the USA, which is a 150% increase as compared with the year 2000. At the same time, it should be noted that the identification of autism and the description of its symptoms are slightly different in Europe and the USA. In Poland, some differences in diagnosing ASD can also be seen depending on the region, and probably - the availability of specialists.

Currently, medical classifications applied in Poland include ICD-10 (ICD-11 as of January 2022) and DSM-5. The term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ appears in the latest version of DSM-5. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) involves a set of specific features that cause certain types of difficulties in a person who exhibits them, including impaired relationships with the social environment and difficulties in communication.

The clinical picture of ASD is complex. As the aetiology of this disorder involves many neurobiological factors, the diagnostic and therapeutic procedures require the collaboration of many specialists representing various disciplines. It is currently accepted that autism is a neurobiological and genetic disorder and, irrespective of its neurobiological aetiology, factors determining the development of a person during his or her life may play an important role in the evolution of symptoms.

A contemporary approach to autism spectrum disorder:

In recent years, there have been a number of important modifications in the classification of disorders as well as the very definition of autism and the social perception of people with autism. Following these transformations, the model of ASD diagnosis has also been evolving and there is a widespread concern about providing early and adequate institutional and therapeutic assistance to a person manifesting specific symptoms. Therefore, in order to undertake effective treatment and to realise the full developmental potential of a person with ASD, it is increasingly important to provide clinical (functional) characteristics along with the precise description of the developmental difficulties reported by the person. It makes it possible to systematically verify the diagnosis and modify it in accordance with the developmental changes occurring in the person over the course of his or her life (also in adulthood) and adequately to the disorder clinical image transformations observed. Such verification is important because clinical practice confirms it that the manifestation of autism symptoms in a manner consistent with one psychopathological pattern is extremely rare. The entire range of characteristic symptoms reveals over the long term, when some of the borderline symptoms resolve, while others intensify and consolidate.

Therefore, the group of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may be very diverse. It includes individuals with no functional use of speech, people with an intellectual disability of various degrees, persons revealing stereotypical behaviour of high intensity, as well as people with very good cognitive functioning and efficient use of speech but manifesting difficulties in the sphere of social interactions characteristic for ASD, limited and rigid interests and behaviour described in medical classifications. The needs of adults with autism are in many aspects similar to those of other persons with disabilities. However, because of the specificity of this disorder, most adults with autism are not easily assisted in a way that meet their needs, even by institutions that are theoretically designed and well prepared for this purpose. They sometimes require more targeted, individualised and specialist assistance.

Needs and challenges faced by a student with ASD:

The manifestation of autism symptoms changes with age. Many adults with ASD who have completed their post-primary (or, until recently, post-lower secondary) education display a relatively broad repertoire of diverse competencies. Not only are they able to communicate effectively with other people but they also have a wide range of interests and knowledge of the world and its relationships. They are emotionally and socially well prepared for adult life.  Secondary education, however, is different from university study. It tends to be more structured and involves a certain routine which helps to meet the fundamental need identified by people with ASD - that of security. Entering university, unfortunately, disrupts this safe routine, making it challenging for people with ASD to begin the study process, which entails the necessity to deal with unpredictable tasks and function in an unfamiliar and sometimes poorly understood environment.

Sometimes the limitations related to autism become so severe that they require an immediate specialist support in order to help the person to restore their sense of security and reduce anxiety. After a period of adaptation, with little support from professionals, peers and family, individuals with autism are able to lead relatively independent lives and experience the pleasures of studying.

The limitations resulting from autism may manifest themselves at different moments of the study period (e.g. during an exam period, during the preparation of final papers, while working on the assigned reading material). This is when special understanding and support from the environment is needed. Autism is a hidden disorder – other people do not notice the symptoms during the first encounters. However, sometimes individuals with ASD behave ‘out of the ordinary’ in the perception of the environment and their reactions and statements are considered ‘strange’. This can lead to incidental conflicts in the peer group and, unfortunately, it can also make the person with ASD feel lonely.

So what distinguishes well-functioning people with autism from other people? A perfect answer to this question was provided by Hugh Morgan (2004, p. 61) in his publication ‘Adults with Autism’: ‘[...] There are four such key areas, and the most important is related to communication and understanding of social situations. [...] It applies to the non-verbal part of communication. Most of you were born with the natural ability to quickly perceive reactions and read other people’s moods. [...] For us, autistic people, this poses a huge problem as we have enormous difficulty with recognising and responding to these subtle, constantly changing signals. [...] A routine, plan and order are extremely important for us. Such a person takes longer to learn professional procedures but has a great memory for details. The problem arises when the procedure changes and the employee is expected to respond to unforeseen events or circumstances using common sense. [...] Change throws us off balance, it is a source of anxiety. This anxiety is the third key area where we differ. […] The fear of not making a mistake is a constant source of anxiety. It lowers our self-esteem, self-confidence and it is also a reason for poorer performance at work. [...] People with autism sometimes seem to escape into their own inner world in which they replay events, talking and laughing to themselves. This looks strange and may even be disturbing to an outsider, but it is not our intention to frighten anyone [...]’ (Morgan, 2004).

These autism-specific ‘domains’ are also characteristic of those adults with ASD whose specific vocational skills and cognitive competencies are at a very high level.


If you have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it is normal that you may have special needs which those around you may not notice initially and this is not because you are being ignored by those who play, study or work alongside you. Therefore, if you wish, let others know about your specific needs. You will give the people around you a chance to adjust to your expectations and thus provide you with discreet support. This will bring some basic order to the possibly incomprehensible environment that is new to you, making it clearer and more predictable.

It will also enable you to adapt better, act effectively and efficiently, and live without undue stress. Do not give up if you experience difficulties - this is also a natural experience. With the help of people you trust, try to identify the source of the difficulty and consider what or who you need to overcome it.

About the author

Krzysztof Gerc – Doctor of Humanities, psychologist and therapist.

He works as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Management and Social Communication of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. His research interests include the psychological development of persons with disabilities over the course of their lives and supporting the development of children, youth and adults with special development needs.

Krzysztof Gerc on the JU Institute of Applied Psychology webiste.

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