Collaboration Struggles in an Engineering Lab: A Case Study About a Student with Autism

Background

My name is Daniel. As an undergraduate mechanical engineering student, I am required to take a design and manufacturing laboratory course. In this course, students work in teams to build devices using mills, lathes, and other manufacturing equipment. I have high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. At the beginning of the term, I spoke with the instructor about my disability and accommodations.

Access Issue

In this course, teaching assistants (TAs) frequently interact with students in the lab. Although I had spoken with the lab instructor about my disability, the TAs did not receive any training or tips about working with students with disabilities nor were they provided with information about my disability or accommodations. I struggled to work with my teammates, completing most of the assignment on my own. I also had trouble understanding cues and demands from the TAs. Some of this information pertained to safety warnings, which are important considerations given the dangerous machinery the course involves.

Solution

I let my instructor know that I was struggling in the course. The instructor spoke with the TAs who were then able to communicate more effectively with me.  The instructor also required that groups assign tasks in such a way that every participant was engaged and gave examples of how to make this happen. This helped me to know what my role in any given group would be and helped me to participate more actively in group projects.

Conclusion

This case study illustrates the following:

  • It is important for all instructors and TAs be trained in working with students with disabilities and receive information about accommodations.
  • When working in teams, instructors can design assignments so that each student takes on a different role. For students with autism this may provide the scaffolding that helps them perform better on a team.