A few weeks back Tenured Radical had an important post on the ways that colleges and their faculty are (and are not) prepared for students who are on the autism spectrum. Right now, this may be a phenomenon that those of us at public colleges have the most familiarity with; in any case, I've taught an average of one student a year whom I'd identify as being on the high-functioning end of the autism/Aspergers spectrum.
But as I mentioned in my comment at TR's, I haven't generally had any more trouble with these students than I might have with a neurotypical student who for one reason or another needed extra attention or had to be gently-but-firmly told how discussion worked in our classroom. The kids on the spectrum whom I've taught are often among my smartest and most participatory students, and though they sometimes sit in the front row and blurt out answers without raising their hands, or want to monopolize conversation, or get audibly upset when they feel reproved or ignored, I've mostly learned how to deal with those things. Because honestly? In every class I have at least a couple of students, neurotypical or otherwise, who are works-in-progress or diamonds-in-the-rough or whatever metaphor you prefer for students who have equally extreme strengths and weaknesses. Autism-spectrum students present a specific set of challenges, sure, but from a teacher's perspective I wouldn't say they're more serious challenges than those presented by students who are manic-depressive, or going through problems at home, or who are just reallyreallyreally high strung.
The PROBLEM with spectrum-y students--or at least the students I've had--is therefore not the students themselves. It's the other students in the class.
By and large, the other students do not like the students on the spectrum. They sigh, roll their eyes, grumble, and make faces indicating how annoying, weird, or troublesome they find them. Once, I had a (very bright and otherwise very nice) student grab me after class to ask whether there wasn't something I could "do about" the front-row blurter. "You're handling her very well," she said. "I know it's not your fault. But she's really distracting the rest of us."
These students seem not to understand that the person they perceive as annoying is genuinely wired differently; instead, they experience her as arrogant, nonresponsive, or deliberately rude. And since disabilities are a confidential matter, there's no way for me to fully communicate why they should cut their classmate some slack or even reach out and try to get to know her.
So I'm asking the rest of you: have you experienced this problem? And if so, what have you done about it?