An Engineering Student and Their Ph.D. Advisor: Considerations for Accommodating Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Background

When Daniel began graduate school in engineering, he struggled to find an advisor to work with on his Ph.D. dissertation. Although Daniel has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), he was worried about reaching an agreement with a potential advisor about accommodations he might need as a graduate researcher. As an undergraduate, Daniel’s accommodations included extended time on tests, a low-distraction testing environment, and a notetaker. Although these accommodations were useful during coursework, at the graduate level of study, these accommodations would not provide equal access for a graduate student on the autism spectrum who is spending most of his time in a research lab.

Access Issue

Daniel was concerned about determining what accommodations would be appropriate as a graduate student and finding an advisor who understood that his pace may differ from that of other graduate students.

Solution

Daniel was able to obtain a research project in a lab on campus. He approached his new advisor openly and honestly about his disability despite being worried that this might cause him to lose his position. He was relieved to discover that his advisor wanted to devise a plan that would make it possible for him to be successful. Between Daniel, his advisor, and the disability services office, they devised a plan. Strategies Daniel utilized included additional time off, structured deadlines, engineering a better support system, and continued conversation about Daniel’s progress and accommodations. Daniel and his advisor have shared their strategies with faculty, administrators, graduate coordinators, and others with the hopes that it will help other students with ASD in a research setting.

Conclusion

This case study illustrates the following:

  • Graduate students with disabilities may need different accommodations than what they used as undergraduates in order to be successful in research.
  • Self-advocacy and open communication with an advisor and the disability services office can help graduate students with disabilities determine what accommodations are appropriate in graduate school.

For more information on ASD you may wish to consult the Knowledge Base articles, What is Asperger's Disorder? and What is Autism?