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Learning Differences: Autism


This guide focuses on Autism and studying. It includes:

What is Autism?

Amazing Things Happen by Alexander Amelines

What is Autism?

Autism (also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD) describes a different way of thinking. It's a neurological developmental difference. People with autism relate to the environment and people around them in a different way. Put simply, Autism changes the way people see, experience and understand the world. It can impact how they think and behave, and how they communicate and interact with others.

If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism”. This means that not everyone with autism has the same experience. Autism is on a spectrum. This means that some people may be more affected by others.

Did you know, Asperger's Syndrome is now considered part of the Autism spectrum.

While many people have some delay in development in one area or another, Autism describes a group of conditions where a person has a delay or difficulty in three areas: 

  1. understanding and using verbal and non-verbal communication, including language facial expression, gestures and body language,
  2. understanding social behaviour, which affects play or interaction with other people, 
  3. thinking and behaving flexibly, which may be shown in restricted, obsessional or repetitive activities.

While all people with autism share some common differences in the way they see, hear and feel the world, they all have different strengths and challenges which affect their lives at different ages and in different environments. 

Let's take a look at some of your strengths

While people with autism may face specific challenges, there are some positive aspects. 

Learning Strategies for Students

These strategies might be useful to help you manage your study

Talk about your learning preference 
  • Talk to your tutor about your learning strengths, weaknesses and preferences. 
  • Talk about what situations you find both stressful and calming. 
  • Create some personal signals that you can use with your tutors to communicate your needs. For example, when you want help, more time, or time out. 
Check out your learning environment
  • Ask to take a walk through your learning environment before your course starts
  • Find a space in the classroom or study area where distractions are minimal, and you feel comfortable. this may mean:
    • sitting at the front of the classroom so you can only see your tutor
    • turning your back to windows so you can't see people passing by
  • Listen to white noise or music that helps you focus
Prepare for class
  • Read written instructions, lecture notes, and assigned texts before class begins.
  • Ask your tutors for the schedule or plan for each session. 
Be creative
  • Support your memory by using these techniques or these techniques.
  • Try using mnemonics, creating rhymes or songs, drawing picture and diagrams, and using colour instead of just writing words. 
Choose interesting topics
  • If you get to choose a topic for an activity, choose something that really interests you.
  • If you have the option to create an assignment question, create one that both fits the brief and is something you are passionate about. But, be sure to check this with your tutor. 
Schedule your focus time
  • Set a timer for short bursts of time. This could be for as little as 20 minutes. During this time, plan to focus on one activity. After that, take a break. 
  • Set a short timers for your breaks too. Leave your screen and take a walk. 
Write to-do lists / menus

To-do lists or menus are great because they can help you see what needs to be done, and can help you stay on track. 

  • Create lists or menus for different assignments or course modules. Tick them off as you complete them. 
  • Break assignments into smaller tasks. Turn longer instructions into bullet points. 
Find a study buddy
  • Find a study buddy you can work alongside.
    • They can help you stay on track and progress through your study. 
    • They are also good for study related conversation and problem solving. 


Take a moment: Choose one or two learning strategies to try this week. 

Teaching Strategies for Tutors

The best things you can do to support your students with autism are:

  • Learn more about autism
  • Get you know your students and their learning preferences. 

These teaching strategies may helpful for students with autism. 

Create supportive learning environments

  • Think about the sensory input that students may be perceiving.
  • Ensure there is a calm, quiet space students can work with limited distractions, as well as a space where they can go to re-energise themselves if they are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Allow students to wear headphones to manage noise/input.
  • Take opportunities to create a stress-free classroom.
  • Allow plenty of time for students to complete tasks, process information and formulate responses. Avoid talking during this time. 
  • Allow students multiple means of showing their skills and understanding, i.e. set a range of different types of assessments. 
Develop predictable routines
  • Provide a clear structure of each lesson at the beginning of each class. 
  • Set learning objectives and aims for activities and classes. 
  • Warn students when the routine is going to change. 
  • Let students know what time they will be able to take breaks. 
Give clear instructions and information 
  • Give clear, detailed instructions in unambiguous language in multiple formats (verbal, visual, and written).
  • Don't assume that students understand non-verbal cues or implied meaning.
  • Use Moodle to share lecture slides and course resources prior to class.
  • Teach effective learning strategies, as well as model organisation and time management strategies.
Present content in different ways
  • Enhance your verbal communication with visual cues, such as using charts, pictures, and videos in your teaching.
  • Point out key information through highlighting or underlining.
  • Pre-teach concepts for new activities. 
  • Summarise what you have covered at the end of each session.
Use visual cues
  • Establish some personal cues between you and your students to signal when they may need time out or extra help. This could include the Turn-A-Card system, or hand signals.
  • Use visual timers and provide reminders of time limits.
Interrupt the build up
  • If you find a student is becoming stressed or overwhelmed, try to interrupt the build-up. For example:
    • Move closer or move away as appropriate, stand side-on rather than face-on.
    • If a students moves away from you to work, let them have that space.
    • Reduce sensory input or move to a calming space.
    • Reduce your language, give thinking time.
    • Support student to take a break. Facilitate relaxation.
    • Use their high-interest activities/topics to change to mood.
    • Remind then of any self-managing strategies that they know
Facilitate shared learning
  • Understand that social settings may be challenging for students with ASD.
  • Directly supporting social skills - be honest and direct, help interpret social cues, teach different ways of communicating ideas. 
  • Mix up how students are grouped. Use a range of tutor-selected and student-selected groups.

Does this sound like you?

Want to check if you might have Autism?

  • Click the arrow on the right to answer some questions.
  • If you answer yes to many of these questions, then you might be experiencing the effects of Autism.

This self-assessment can give you an idea of whether you might have Autism. It shouldn't be used to diagnose yourself. Talk to the Accessibility Coordinator for more information.

  • When talking to someone, do you have a hard time figuring out what that person is thinking or feeling? 

  • Do certain textures and fabrics bother you, that don't seem to bother others? 

  • Do you have trouble working with others in group activities? 

  • Do you have a hard time figuring out what others expect of you? 


  • Do you have trouble knowing how to behave in social situations, or do they make you feel anxious? 

  • When you get overwhelmed do you have to go to a quiet room alone to refresh? 

  • Do you prefer to be alone, instead of being out in social situations? 

  • When you're talking to someone else, do you have a hard time figuring out when it's time to speak or time to listen? 

  • Do you cover your ears or wear headphones when it is too noisy?  

  • Do you find it hard to read someone else's facial expressions and body language? 

  • Do you focus more on the small details rather than the big picture? 

  • Do you take what someone says literally, often missing what the person really means? 

  • Do you prefer a routine, and have a hard time when it changes suddenly? 

  • Do you have a strong interest in a certain topic or object, and want to talk about it all the time? 

  • Do you sometimes rock back and forth, move your hands in a repetitive way, or other similar behaviors? 

  • As a child, did you line up toys or play with objects in the same way over and over again? 

  • Do you repeat the same words or phrases over and over again? 

Assistive Technology

There may be technology available that may make studying easier.

You may be eligible for funding. Getting a professional assessment may help you get funding for support tools. 

References & Useful Links



Ministry of Education. (2016). Autism Spectrum Disorder: A resources for educators

New Zealand Guidelines Group. (2010). What does ASD look like?: A resource to help identify autism spectrum disorder. publications/what-does-asd-look-like.pdf 

If you want to talk about any information on these pages, please contact Wayne Samways, the Accessibility Coordinator. or 027 218 9180


Thank you to the team at Te PÅ«kenga Weltec Whitireia who gave us permission to adapt and use their guide on Learning Differences