Resident Assistant Training Module for Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum

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The purpose of this training module is to provide Resident Assistants (RAs) with 1) an overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and its characteristics as seen in college students and 2) the skills necessary to successfully navigate challenges that may arise when working with ASD students in the residence halls.

An important cautionary note: While we have provided useful information and an intended outline of this presentation, ultimately the tone of the workshop is in the hands of the facilitator. It is critical that this not become a discussion that ridicules or dismisses the characteristics of those on the Autism Spectrum. There may be students in the workshop who identify as having Autism, and they will be alert to sentiments that denigrate their experience. Please approach this topic as you would any discussion of diversity and inclusion, and everyone’s role in those efforts, on your campus.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. RAs will be able to define characteristics of college students with ASD/Asperger Syndrome in order to familiarize themselves with characteristics within the population of the students in their residence halls.
  2. RAs will be able to evaluate which areas of interactions and the environment could be modified to improve the experiences of students with ASD/Asperger’s. in order to implement a series of best practices for helping these college students face challenges specific to living in the residence halls.




  1. One handout (see Handout tab) and one article (make as many copies as you have RAs:
  2. Flipchart paper
  3. Markers
  4. Method of presenting videos (internet access is required unless videos are downloaded to be played offline)

Note to facilitator(s):

The facilitator of this training should read and review the following videos and articles in order to gain a broader perspective on this student population, in addition to reading/viewing material to be shared with RAs. A guest facilitator with some knowledge of learning disabilities or ASD could lead this module, but should also review the facilitator’s material and the students’ material in advance.

Please read:

  • Article: “What is Autism? An Overview”
  • Article: “NIH Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet”
  • Article: “More Colleges Expanding Programs for Students on the Autism Spectrum” (Forbes Magazine)

Please watch:

  • Video: Supporting College Students Autism Spectrum Disorders (17:00)
  • Video: Don’s Descriptions of Common Asperger’s Traits (5:16)

The Workshop:

A. Introduction (2 minutes)

  1. Introduction from facilitator (please read to participants): “Students on the Autism Spectrum, or with Asperger Syndrome (a term often used synonymously with “high-functioning autism”), have always been on college campuses. But we are seeing more people with this diagnosis come to college now because more is understood about this diagnosis and how those with this diagnosis can be academically successful. Our campus community can help too by being more aware of the many ways that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder can contribute to our campus as well as be challenged by it. Your job is not to diagnose someone, or “fix” someone, but to learn ways that you can make a positive difference for students who may be different from you.
  2. “Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Asperger’s Syndrome, is a hard-wired, brain-based way of seeing the world. People with this diagnosis cannot change their brains any more than you can change your eye color or being left- or right-handed. What can change is how the world, and our campus, responds to them, and hopefully this workshop will be an introduction to doing just that.”
  3. “In this workshop, you’ll learn about Autism Spectrum Disorder and high-functioning Autism, often called Asperger Syndrome. You’ll learn about some of the most common characteristics, and how these characteristics can sometimes impede the success of college students who have Autism. You’ll also learn how you can support residents, classmates, and friends with Autism by helping to create an environment where all students are valued, regardless of their learning styles, communication styles and interests.”

B. ASD and Asperger Syndrome (25 minutes)

  1. Learning Outcome: RAs will be able to define traits of college students with ASD and Asperger Syndrome in order to familiarize themselves with characteristics within the population of the students in their residence halls.
  2. Watch Robyn’s Story – Video overview of Asperger’s:
  3. (2:35)
  • Discussion Questions:
    1. What about Robyn’s story stood out to you?
    2. What did you already know about ASD and/or Asperger Syndrome? Where did that knowledge come from (i.e. TV, movies, personal relationships)?
    3. Do you think your peers have an accurate understanding of ASD and/or Asperger Syndrome?
  • Distribute and review list of ASD characteristics (Handout)
    1. Why might it be important for RAs to learn about ASD and Asperger Syndrome?
    2. Put yourself in the shoes of students with ASD: how might these students face challenges in a college setting because of their ASD status?
      • a. The following is a good written overview of ASD. This handout should be given to the RAs so they can take it with them to reference later:

C. Group Work: Barriers and Action Steps (15 minutes total)

Learning Outcome: RAs will be able to evaluate which areas of interactions and the environment could be modified to improve the experiences of students with ASD/Asperger’s in order to implement a series of best practices for helping these college students face challenges specific to living in the residence halls.

  • Place students in small (4-5) groups
    1. Barriers: Now that the RAs have a basic overview of ASD and related disabilities, they have the opportunity to think of ways that conditions in the Residence Halls may present challenges to students on the Autism Spectrum.
      • Please brainstorm as many barriers and challenges residence hall living might present for students on the Autism Spectrum/with Asperger Syndrome.
    2. Action Steps: Staying within the same small groups, use this time to brainstorm some action steps that RAs can use on their floor to make their Residence Hall more inclusive to students with ASD.

D. Wrap Up and Final Thoughts (10 minutes)

  1. Each small group shares the barriers and action steps they have identified
  2. Facilitator(s) share(s) concluding thoughts
  3. c. Any questions?

Follow-up: Please continue the discussion in staff meetings and one-on-ones with RAs! And encourage students who wish to learn more to read, Google, view, talk with your campus’ disabilities staff.

Handout: Some Common Characteristics of People on the Autism Spectrum

Autism is a brain-based, hard-wired condition. Many of the behaviors that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder/Asperger Syndrome demonstrate are because their brains are “wired” in an unusual way. These behaviors are usually not choices people make, or the result of not trying hard. In fact, given how their brains are sometimes “wired,” people with Autism Spectrum Disorder may be some of the hardest-working people on your campus.

The saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.” Still, here are a list of traits often exhibited by college students on the Autism Spectrum. Some students may exhibit all of these, some students may just have a few of these characteristics, and some may have none:

  • Difficulty understanding jokes, figures of speech, sarcasm, or indirect messages.
  • Difficulty understanding the perspective of other people.
  • Very little or no eye contact.
  • An unusual way of speaking (monotone, “musical,” very soft or very loud).
  • Difficulty reading facial expressions and body language.
  • Difficulty understanding the rules of conversation (may talk too long, for example, or interrupt others).
  • Difficulty understanding group interactions (boundaries of friendships).
  • Rigidity around rules or options to solve problems.
  • Sensitivity or lack of sensitivity to loud or sudden sounds, textures (touch), tastes, smells, or light. May not be comfortable being touched by others, or having others get physically close.
  • Repetitive behavior (hand-flapping, pacing) that is often a method of calming down.
  • Hygiene challenges (these may result from sensitivities to touch or taste, or may be the result of not being good at perceiving themselves from another person’s perspective).
  • May resist change in the environment (people, places, objects) and show rigidity about how things should be done or arranged.
  • Very intense focus on particular subject (e.g., music, video-gaming, history), and eagerness to share that focus (often because it’s a comfortable way to talk with others).

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