Preface: Special Issue—College Experiences for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
Preface: Special Issue-College Experiences for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Scott L. J. Jackson 0
Logan Hart 0
Fred R. Volkmar 0
0 Child Study Center, School of Medicine, Yale University , 230 South Frontage Road, New Haven, CT 06520 , USA
1 Scott L. J. Jackson
Thirty years ago it was rare for a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to enter college. However, over the past decades with the increased awareness and detection of ASD in children with average or above average intellectual abilities (Christensen et al. 2016) and with the improved provisions of effective, evidence-based treatments (Reichow and Volkmar 2011) many students with ASD are now seeking enrollment in college (Volkmar et al. 2017). In the USA alone there are roughly 550,000 children with ASD who will be transitioning into adulthood over the next decade (Buescher et al. 2014), and it is expected that approximately 45% of these emerging adults will enroll in a university, college, or technical/vocational school in the coming years (Newman et al. 2011). This is a promising trend, as completion of a post-secondary degree is a significant predictor of positive adult outcomes in ASD populations, impacting the likelihood that an individual will be able to find employment, obtain financial independence, and live independently. However, students with ASD have a lower likelihood of completing their degree (38.8%) compared to students from the general population (52.4%) and those with disabilities in general (40.7%; Newman et al. 2011). College presents new challenges for these students as well as for college support personnel. There are major changes in both the way education is provided and in the nature and availability of support services (Reichow and Volkmar 2011). While difficulties adapting to the increased academic challenges of post-secondary education may contribute to the discrepancy in rate of degree completion, non-academic factors are likely to have a greater impact. For students with ASD these factors include disorder-related social, communicative, sensory, routine adherence, and executive functioning Vol.:(011233456789)
impairments, and the impact of these impairments on the
students’ ability to adapt to the changing environment, social
demands, fluctuating schedules, and management of daily
living responsibilities associated with collegiate life
(Volkmar et al. 2017)
Findings from a systematic review of the literature
describing the experiences of college students with ASD
(Gelbar et al. 2014)
have lent support to the notion that
non-academic issues are underlying many of the difficulties
experienced by this student population. Based on 20 articles,
with a cumulative sample of 69 current and former college
students with ASD, the most commonly reported
experiences were related to struggles with anxiety, loneliness, and
depression (respectively). Since the release of the Gelbar
et al. (2014) review, approximately ten additional articles on
the topic of the needs and/or experiences of post-secondary
students with ASD have been published. While this uptick
in interest is promising, the general dearth of literature on
this topic significantly limits both our understanding of the
challenges impacting the ability of many students with ASD
from achieving their full potential in post-secondary
academic settings, and our insight into how these challenges can
be addressed. This lack of information also poses challenges
for college support personnel who themselves must adapt to
the new challenges students with ASD present in the college
This Special Issue of the Journal of Autism and
Developmental Disorders addresses some of these issues. It includes
articles covering the topics of self-reported experiences from
college students with ASD, explorations of bullying
prevalence and underlying issues, parental insight into ways in
which we can support students with ASD to give them the
best opportunity for success in post-secondary academic
settings, and finally a review of evidence-based programs for
college students with ASD and reports on emerging support
options that are currently being evaluated in the field. While
not an exhaustive compilation of the issues concerning
college students with ASD, these articles will make strong
additions to the current literature-base on this subject, and
we hope that they will inspire others to consider
incorporating research on this topic into their own work.
The first two articles to appear in this Special Issue are
findings from online surveys distributed to college students
with ASD primarily from the USA
(Jackson et al. 2018)
and Australia (Anderson et al. 2018). Surveying 104
college students with ASD in combination, the publication
of these studies alone represent a marked increase in the
amount of first-hand insight on this topic available in the
extant literature. Although the samples come from different
parts the world their findings are very similar. Anderson
and colleagues find that most of the self-reported strengths
of the participants in their study are academically oriented
(e.g. creative thinking, detail orientation, strong memory),
meanwhile Jackson and colleagues find that only a minority
of their participants (21.4%) reported feeling uncomfortable
with their academic workloads. Both studies also mirrored
previous findings of frequent struggles with mental health
issues. The majority of college students with ASD from the
Anderson et al. study reported anxiety (90.2%), depression
(70.7%) and loneliness (61%) to be ‘moderate’ to ‘big’
concerns of theirs, while the participants in the Jackson et al.
study averaged ‘severe’ to ‘extremely severe’ symptom
expression of depression, anxiety and stress (as reported by
the Depression Anxiety and Stress Scale) and 75% of this
sample reported feeling isolated, left out, or lacking
companionship ‘some of the time’ to ‘often’. Perhaps the most
concerning finding between these two studies was the
frequency with which lifetime suicidal behaviors (74.6%) were
reported by the participants from the Jackson et al. study,
and the fact that 17.9% of their sample reported that it was
‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ that they were going to attempt
suicide in the future.
The next article focuses on an important clinical
problem—the experiences of bullying for college students with
ASD. Bullying has been a well-documented issue for youth
with ASD, even as compared to students with other
(e.g. Sreckovic et al. 2014)
, but as with most things
related to the experiences of college students with ASD there
is a paucity of information available on this issue.
DeNigris et al. (2018) compares the bullying experiences of 22
college students with ASD to 15 college students without
ASD, and examines whether reduced cognitive empathy
(and a so-called ‘double empathy problem’) is associated
with increased risk of being bullied for students with ASD
(DeNigris et al. 2018)
. In line with the prevalence of
bullying experiences reported in the previous two articles (35.7
and 24.4%, respectively), they find that bullying in college
was only experienced by 21% of the students with ASD
from their study. While this prevalence rate was not found
to be statistically significantly higher than the prevalence
of bullying experiences from their non-ASD sample (7%),
clearly more examinations of this topic in larger samples
are needed. Additionally, as both student groups reported
similar levels of cognitive empathy the authors were unable
to produce any evidence to support the idea that a ‘double
empathy problem’ was contributing to bullying experiences
of college students with ASD.
The next several articles shift their focus to the
accommodations and services provided for college students with
ASD: where they are succeeding, what needs they are failing
to meet for this unique student population, and what
programs are in existence that have been evaluated specifically
for their effectiveness for students with ASD. Sarret reports
on first-hand experiences and recommendations for
postsecondary accommodations and services in 66 adults with
. Utilizing a combination of surveys and
online focus groups, the participants from this study
produced mixed feedback regarding their satisfaction with the
services they utilized as post-secondary students. Roughly
two-thirds of the participants who utilized services at school
reported that they met their expectations. Meanwhile, for
the remaining participants, dissatisfaction with
accommodations were due to a seemingly primary focus on academics
(failing to address social, sensory, and psychiatric needs),
inconsistent implementation of services, and poor
awareness of accommodation options by school faculty and staff.
Providing recommendations for post-secondary institutions
based on the feedback from the study participants, Sarrett
suggests the inclusion of neurodiverse spaces, and
mentorship programs to be offered alongside conventional
accommodations to better address the needs of students with ASD.
The next two articles report on specific programs,
including evaluations of their ability to improve collegiate
outcomes for this population.
Lucas and James (2018)
a specialist mentoring program that examines benefits for
students with ASD as well as students with mental health
conditions, and utilizes a mixed-methods methodology
incorporating feedback from the mentors and the mentees
(Lucas and James 2018)
. The inclusion of the mental health
condition control group not only offers the opportunity to
elucidate benefits that may be specific to the needs of
students with ASD, but considering the high occurrence of
mental health issues reported in the Jackson et al. (2018) and
Anderson et al. reports, a service that can cater to both of
these conditions will have utility for the majority of college
students with ASD. The results of their investigation
supported the benefits of the specialist mentoring program for
social and emotional development in their participants with
ASD. Further, based on thematic analyses they suggest that
the quality and personalization of the relationship between
the mentor and mentee was of critical importance in
predicting the impact of the program on the mentored student. The
utility of mentorship programs is further addressed in a
letter to the editor included in this issue
(Płatos and Wojaczek
, which recommends the expansion of peer-mediated
interventions into older ASD populations (such as college
students and high school students preparing for the
transition to college).
The second program evaluation article included in this
Special Issue describes a writing improvement program
(Jackson et al. 2018)
. Designed to provide instruction
following the Self-Regulated Strategy Development model, the
efficacy of this ten-session writing improvement program
was examined on three students with ASD who had
previously struggled with a college writing course (previously
receiving a failing grade, withdrawing due to struggles, or
receiving a grade of “C”) and incorporated a multiple
baseline assessment to evaluate the program’s success. All three
of the participants were not only able to improve their
writing abilities as assessed by a writing skill rubric, but these
improvements remained during follow-up evaluations and
each student significantly improved their performance in the
college writing course they had previously struggled with
(from failing to an “A−”, from withdrawing to a “B+”, and
from a “C” to a “B”).
The Special Issue concludes with a systematic review
of evidence-based services for college students with ASD
that have had explicit evaluations of their efficacy in the
literature (similar to the two preceding articles), and an
article describing parental perceptions of the challenges
facing college students with ASD and their recommendations
for services to address those challenges. For the systematic
(Kuder and Accardo 2017)
eight studies evaluating
programs for college students with ASD were identified and
examined. Based on their review, the authors indicate that
while there is a growing research-base for programs to meet
the needs of students with ASD, the findings regarding their
efficacy have been mixed and primarily based on limited
sample sizes. In the final paper in this Issue
Elias and White
review feedback from 52 parents of post-secondary
students with ASD and 47 parents of post-secondary
students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Elias and White note that the parent-reported challenges
and recommended services for students with ASD were
distinguishable from those with ADHD, with the parents of
students with ASD endorsing unique challenges with
emotion regulation, self-advocacy, and managing adaptive skills.
As a result, the authors suggest distinct support options for
students with ASD, with a particular emphasis on
transition programs designed to improve social interaction and
independent living skills. Additionally, they recommend that
these programs are initiated before the student leaves for
school, so that parents can still be involved in the process
and the skills can be in place before the student steps foot
on campus. Complementing these recommendations are the
findings from a comparable article on parent-reported
challenges for college students with ASD
(Anderson and Butt
, and a preliminary examination of a college
(White et al. 2017)
designed specifically for
the needs of students with ASD (the Stepped Transition in
Education Program for Students with ASD), both of which
were published in the October 2017 issue of JADD.
In conclusion, it is clear that the available literature on the
topic of the experiences and needs of college students with
ASD is expanding as is the level of need for these students
and their supporters. Our understanding of this topic is far
from complete and further work is still needed in several
areas: (1) additional large sample studies of first-hand
experiences of students with ASD to increase generalizability of
findings; (2) evaluations of programs designed to meet the
specific needs of this population; (3) identification of
evidence-based practices that can be used both in high school
and college settings to facilitate the transition of students to
college and improve their vocational success following
college; and (4) examinations of insight from the professionals
at post-secondary institutions who are working with these
students on a day-to-day basis. Lastly, we need to find new
and more effective ways of implementing outreach programs
for students, parents, and teachers at high schools so areas
of need can be addressed before they present as problems in
the college setting.
We want to thank all of those who contributed to this
Special Issue for their hard work and dedication to this topic,
as well as all of those who participated in these studies for
being willing to share their experiences and perspectives
so that we may improve the outcomes of individuals with
ASD embarking into post-secondary academic settings in
the years to come.
Funding Current funding for Scott L. J. Jackson is from NIMH T32
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