Enhancing online courses for students on the autism spectrum Faculty Spark - View, reflect and apply

Last updated on 28/10/2019

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The experience of students on the autism spectrum in the online learning environment was explored to identify facilitators and barriers to their learning. This information was used to develop tip-sheets to enhance course delivery.


An increasing number of students with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum are enrolling at University. During their study, they are at heightened risk of academic or personal failure, and compared to other disability categories have decreased graduation and employment rates. Factors that can influence this include social and sensory difficulties. Given this, it seems reasonable to assume that students with autism will excel in online courses. However, this assumption does not give true consideration to the complexity of the autism profile. There are additional skills required for successful online learning, such as self-motivation, self-monitoring and problem-solving skills, all of which have been shown to be difficult for many students on the autism spectrum. Given the limited research in this area, we set out to explore the experiences, preferences and barriers to online learning for students on the autism spectrum who are studying at Griffith University.


Research into online learning is not new, but little is known about the area of online study for individuals on the autism spectrum, so we adopted a mix-methods design to combine both qualitative and quantitative information from students on the spectrum. The questionnaires and interview questions were co-designed with individuals on the spectrum, so as to ensure that they were authentic, relevant and accessible to our participant group.

Supported by an AEL Learning and Teaching grant, we invited past and current students who self-identified as being on the autism spectrum and who have studied a University level course online to take part in the questionnaire study and follow-up interviews. The online survey asked students about their motivations for choosing to study online, the perceived benefits and barriers and the experience of a range of aspects of the online learning experience including videos, online classrooms, asynchronous and synchronous communication and teaching methods.


The information gathered through this research was used to create six one page tip-sheets for online and mixed-mode course convenors. They contain the key “dos” and “don’ts” to enhance the online learning experience for students on the autism spectrum. Each tip sheet has a different theme, including student-instructor interactions, student-student interactions, student experiences of online tools and visual presentation of information. The tips provided are in response to both statistics and student quotations.

This research has already led to tangible changes in course design, with members of the research team, School colleagues, Learning Futures and broader educational design team all making positive changes in their courses based on the outcomes.


Good design practices benefit all students so implementing changes to support students on the autism spectrum can improve the online learning environment for all students.

Starting small when implementing changes is an easy way to make a difference in any course you are teaching. Initially identify and implement one or two changes that apply to your course.

Be careful of making assumptions. Our research showed that 20% of students didn’t use the instructions provided even when they related to assessment tasks. Be explicit when signposting information, explaining how and why to access this information.

Another easy change is to ensure all students in your courses are aware that student support is available and they know how they can access this support. This can be done in your introduction with a link to student services.

Next Steps

Tip Sheets

Tip-sheets are available via the links below and can be used to inform course design in the future. Research findings will also be published in the future. See 'Media' Section to download:

  • An Overview
  • Using Online Tools
  • Learning Approaches
  • Visual Presentation of Information
  • Teacher to Student Interaction
  • Student to Student Interaction

Griffith Graduate Attributes

Using these tip sheets will help students on the autism spectrum, and all students, to attain the following attributes:

GGA 2. Effective communicators and collaborators

GGA 4. Socially responsible and engaged in their communities

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© 2020 Griffith University.

Preferred Citation

Adams, D., Simpson, K., Campbell, C., & Davies, L. (2019). Enhancing online courses for students on the autism spectrum. Retrieved from https://app.secure.griffith.edu.au/exlnt/entry/8008/view