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There’s a Better Way to Teach Autistic Students. Here’s How

By LIDA TUNESI

A lot of the research on autistic students focuses on the challenges they face, authors of a new paper say. This needs to shift, because what would actually help students find success is focusing on their strengths.

The new paper, published in Autism, does just that. The researchers found that autistic university students had more advanced writing skills and higher nonverbal intelligence than non-autistic students, although they also had more perfectionist tendencies. To make the most of these skills, teachers should encourage autistic students to write about their interests in low-pressure situations with plenty of time, the authors say.

Authors on the study were Professor Kristen Gillespie-Lynch (College of Staten Island, The Graduate Center); three graduates of CUNY’s doctoral program in developmental psychology (Emily Hotez, Ariana Riccio, and Danielle DeNigris); three College of Staten Island alumni (Naomi Gaggi, now a CUNY doctoral student, Bella Kofner, now a CSI graduate student, and Kavi Luca); as well as former CUNY doctoral student Dennis Bublitz and Matthew Zajic, now a Columbia University professor. 

The researchers recruited 25 autistic and 25 non-autistic college students and had them complete a series of surveys and tests to assess demographics, autistic traits, nonverbal intelligence, reading mastery, and writing skills.

Some previous studies have shown that young autistic people struggle with writing. However, there isn’t much participatory research about autism, or research that autistic people help do, the authors say. The new study is an example of how including autistic people in the research process can help overcome biases and assumptions. In fact, study authors Kofner and Luca are autistic.

Autistic people are often strongly attached to their interests, so writing about interests could be a useful exercise. Giving students plenty of time to write could help relieve some of the pressure of perfectionism. And because of motor differences, students should have the option to write on the computer rather than by hand, the authors say.

“By collaborating with autistic people, we can understand the strengths that can help autistic people succeed,” Kofner said in a video.  

In this video, Kofner explains the study: