What are they not good at? Interpreting the subtle cues of social interactions, seeing the often fine line between wanted and unwanted attention -- flirty and creepy, appropriate and inappropriate. And that is what lands these students in a chair in the office of a Title IX investigator.
My advice to my former colleague was to coach her student to begin the conversation this way: “I have autism” (or Asperger’s, which is sometimes what students prefer to say). “It is a learning difference that sometimes makes it difficult for me to understand the implications of things that I say, or that others say to me. I’m sorry if my posters offended anyone, and I won’t do this kind of thing again.” I heard later from my former colleague that this is what he did, and the situation was resolved through the conversation with the investigator, with no further action required.
Both of these streams -- Title IX-based reporting and the matriculation of students with autism -- will continue to grow. Colleges have a duty to the students they’ve admitted, especially students with known disabilities, to assure proper training and response. The Americans With Disabilities Act requires it.
But a student may exhibit autistic characteristics and lack a formal diagnosis. Or they might never have been told they have autism. Or they may know but choose not to disclose. A recent study of over 600 students at one institution showed that while just 10 first-year students disclosed a diagnosis of autism, 148 students reported they had enough autism-related characteristics to warrant a clinical assessment.
One could say that failing to disclose removes from the institution any responsibility to treat the student differently. But if certain characteristics and deficits may lead to a student being suspended or expelled, does it not seem incumbent on institutions to be certain they are fully capable of making such distinctions?