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Centre for Accessibility Services

Autism spectrum disorder

What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological development disorder that impacts a person’s thinking, perception, attending, social skills and behavior. ASD has a wide variety of characteristics that are displayed in a person’s ability or inability to socially interact, communicate and display unusual behavior or interests in their daily lives. ASD can be diagnosed by these key characteristics:

  • Challenges with social-emotional reciprocity including lack of knowledge on how to conduct social approach and normal back and forth conversation. Often leading to reduced sharing of interests, emotions or a displayed effect, and failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Challenges with non-verbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction including poor integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; Lack of eye contact and body language, or lack of knowledge of gestures or facial expression.

The severity of the disability is determined by an assessment of their daily interactions, social communication and repetitive patterns of behavior. The diagram below addresses a continuum where the severity of the symptoms increases at each level.

Symptoms & Common Characteristics Continuum
Level 1
Requires support 
• Challenges in social communication that are noticeable
• Challenges with social interactions 
• May appear to have a decreased interest in social interaction
• Difficulty switching between activities 
• Challenges with organization and planning 
• Enjoys independence with activities
Level 2
Requires substantial support
• Marked challenges in verbal and non-verbal social communication
• Challenges with social interaction regardless of supports in place
• Limited initiation of social interaction 
• Limited/reduced response to social overtures 
• Difficulty coping with change 
• Repetitive/restricted behavior are visible and often impact daily functioning in some contexts 
• Distress and/or difficulty changing focus or attention
Level 3
Requires very substantial support 
• Severe challenges with verbal and nonverbal social communication 
• Very limited initiation of social interaction 
• Minimal response to social overtures
• Extremely difficult coping with change 
• Repetitive/restricted behaviors are visible and often impact daily functioning in all contexts 
• Great difficulty dealing with changing focus or attention

Common types of autism spectrum disorders with DSM-5 coding

Autism spectrum disorder – DSM-5 code: 299.00 (F84.0)

Centre for Accessibility support for autism may include

  • Assistive technology
  • Note-taking services
  • Separate setting/distraction reduced exam setting
  • Time accommodation for exams
  • Preferential seating in the classroom
  • Breaks from class as needed


  • According to the National Epidemiological Database for the Study of Autism in Canada (NEDSAC), ASD is one of the most common developmental disabilities. In Canada, 1 in 94 children is diagnosed with ASD.
  • Males were identified with ASD 4x more frequently than females. One in 42 males were diagnosed with ASD. One in 165 females were diagnosed with ASD.
  • More than half (56%) of children and youth with ASD were diagnosed by age six, and more than 90% received a diagnosis by age 12.


Autism spectrum disorder

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

How to support students with autism

  • Allow students to have detailed written instructions on major projects and assignments, as some students struggle with oral interpretation.
  • Create consistent and clear office hours, or announce times where students can ask questions and obtain feedback.
  • Offer to speak to students during office hours or breaks, if they are taking up too much time during class.
  • Incorporate universal design principles into teaching and learning, including multiple means of representations, engagement, action, and expression.

Resources and websites

Transition Resource Guide – Autism spectrum disorder

Faculty tips for effectively teaching students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder

A spectrum of possibility: tips for professors of college students with autism spectrum disorder

Supporting university students with autism spectrum disorder

Tips and tools for students with autism

Struggling to stay organized? It is important to get organized to ensure life can stay simple and allow you to focus on the deadlines that come up fast. Having a place for everything can decrease the hours of searching for that piece of paper with your brilliant notes, or arriving to class on time. Creating systems with organizational tools including hooks, baskets, clear boxes or visual reminders will simplify your life and help you naturally organize necessary items. As for supporting you in the classroom, having color-coded binders for each class, clear labels and highlighted important dates can help.

Struggling with team activities, projects or assignments? Team exercises can be difficult, as you have to work with others that have different styles, personalities, and characteristics, and cultural norms. To decrease the effects of the storming and norming stages of group development, it is important to be open to other people’s conversations, suggestions, and opinions. When directing your own opinion, be mindful of language and speech to ensure your point is being delivered sincerely. Research has found that qualities such as sincerity, honesty, thoughtfulness, being considerate, loyalty, dependability, kindness, and friendliness that can help with the initial steps in building relationships.

Resources and websites

Transition to post-secondary pathways

11 Tips for students with autism who are entering college

8 tips for college success for those on the autism spectrum

Going through college with high functioning autism

Going to college with autism 

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