How Colleges Can Help Students with Autism Navigate Social Relationships

If a student with autism exhibits stalking behaviors, how can college leaders protect all involved parties? An advocate shares his advice.

How Colleges Can Help Students with Autism Navigate Social Relationships


A common characteristic of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is fixation. Fixation is defined as a strong attachment to a specific object or routine, which can interfere with daily functioning and social interactions. Another common characteristic is the inability to understand social cues. This combination can sometimes result in stalking behaviors.

Under Title IX, educational institutions have a legal obligation to address and prevent stalking behaviors that create a hostile environment. They are also required to provide accommodations to ensure equal access to education for students with autism.

Additional Resource: Autism and Stalking Behavior Under Title IX

Let’s consider the following scenario involving autism and stalking on a college campus.

John, a college student with autism, has developed a fixation on one of his classmates, Sarah. Despite Sarah’s clear indications that she is not interested in pursuing a relationship with him, John continues to follow her around campus, send her unwanted messages, and show up uninvited to places where she spends time. Sarah feels increasingly uncomfortable and intimidated by John’s behavior, but she’s unsure how to address the situation. She shares her concerns with her school’s Title IX coordinator.

In this scenario, the college must intervene promptly and effectively to ensure the safety and well-being of both John and Sarah. Here’s how the college might respond:

  1. Initial Assessment: Upon receiving reports of concerning behavior, the college’s student affairs office or counseling center conducts an initial assessment to gather information about the situation and assess the potential risk posed by John’s behavior.
  2. Support for Sarah: The college provides support and resources to Sarah, including counseling services, safety planning, and information about her rights and options for addressing the stalking behavior. Sarah’s safety and well-being are prioritized throughout the process.
  3. Support for John: Recognizing that John’s behavior may be influenced by his autism and social difficulties, the college offers support and resources to him as well. This may include connecting him with counseling services, social skills training, and disability support services to help him understand and navigate social boundaries appropriately. These boundaries could include the following:
    • Clear Communication: Use simple language and visual aids, if necessary, to communicate boundaries effectively.
    • Consistency: Maintain consistent rules and consequences to provide predictability and structure.
    • Respect Personal Space: Understand that individuals with autism may have different sensory sensitivities and may need more personal space.
    • Social Stories: Use social stories or role-playing to help individuals understand appropriate behavior in different situations.
    • Positive Reinforcement: Reinforce positive behavior with praise, rewards, or preferred activities.
    • Visual Cues: Use visual cues such as pictures, charts, or timers to help individuals understand when a boundary is being set.
    • Flexibility: Be open to adjusting boundaries based on individual needs and circumstances.
    • Modeling: Model appropriate behavior and boundaries yourself to provide examples for individuals to follow.
    • Empathy and Understanding: Approach boundary-setting with empathy and understanding of the individual’s perspective and challenges.
    • Collaboration: Involve the individual in the boundary-setting process whenever possible, taking into account their preferences and needs.
  4. Educational Interventions: The college implements educational interventions to raise awareness about stalking, consent, and healthy relationships among the student body. This includes providing training for students, faculty, and staff on how to recognize and respond to stalking behaviors effectively.
  5. Individualized Intervention Plan: A multidisciplinary team, including representatives from student affairs, counseling services, disability support services, and campus security, develops an individualized intervention plan for John. This plan may include social skills training, counseling, behavior management strategies, and regular check-ins to monitor his progress and address any concerns.
  6. Monitoring and Follow-Up: The college monitors the situation closely and provides ongoing support and follow-up to both John and Sarah. This includes regular communication with both parties, adjusting interventions as needed, and ensuring appropriate measures are in place to prevent further incidents.

By taking a proactive and collaborative approach to addressing stalking behaviors involving autism on campus, the college can create a safer and more inclusive environment for all students while promoting understanding and support for individuals with autism.

Stefan Bjes is assistant director of campus safety for patrol and North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and was previously an SRO. 

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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