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Universal Design for Learning for Students with Autism

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a research-based set of principles that together form a practical framework for using technology to maximize learning opportunities for every student (Rose & Meyer, 2002). This means that educators must think from the onset about all learners. So what does this mean for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and how can UDL be used as a framework when educating students with ASD?

Understanding Universal Design for Learning

It is important to have a clear understanding of what UDL is first so that it can be determined how these principles can be used to better educate students with ASD. Universal design for learning is based upon the original principle of Universal Design in architecture. Rather than adding on a ramp after the fact to accommodate an individual with a disability, universal design calls for consideration of access for all during the planning stages, rather than as an afterthought. This afterthought is often referred to as retrofitting. Rather than relying on retrofitting, this approach allows for everyone to access the building from the same door but with multiple means of access. This idea has now been applied to education through universal design for learning.

Universal design for learning is focused on access, providing access to curriculum for all students, providing opportunities for learning for all students. Rather than trying to adjust and adapt curriculum after the fact, UDL requires that curriculum is developed with all learners in mind from the onset. This requires a change in the way educators may have thought in the past. It also requires a great amount of energy and resources to be spent during the planning stages, however this effort will pay off in the long term as students will be learners who: can access curriculum, are engaged and motivated to learn.

Accessing Curriculum Through Universal Design for Learning

Universal design for learning encompasses three main principles. The principles include providing multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement and multiple means of expression.

Multiple means of representation means that the learner will have available multiple representations in order to better access the material or information being provided multiple means of engagementreflect the teacher’s ability to have students actively engaged in lessons. Students must be engaged and motivated for learning to be maximized and for learners to be more fully connected to the curriculum. Finally, multiple means of expression provide learners alternative options for demonstrating knowledge. Every learner is a very unique individual who not learns in a unique way but expresses themselves and what they have learned in unique ways as well.

Universal Design for Learning and Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Over the past 15 years or so there has been a tremendous increase in the number of students being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. In addition to the number of students who are being diagnosed with autism, there is also an increased number of individuals with autism being educated in the public schools and specifically in general education classes. How is it possible to provide an effective education for a student with ASD in the least restrictive environment while at the same time providing opportunities for meaningful engagement and expression of knowledge? Universal design for learning provides the answer to this question. Universal design for learning is a framework that can be adapted and used to promote learning in all learners in a classroom.

Students with autism spectrum disorders often do not learn in the same way as their typically developing peers. A traditional approach to education often does not allow a student with ASD to maximize his or her true potential for learning. In order to maximize a student with ASD’s ability to learn it is important to capitalize on strengths. Universal design for learning provides the framework for educators to maximize student’s learning potential.


Rose, David & Meyer, Anne. Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002.

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