Adjustment to University and the Broad Autism Phenotype

Friday, May 16, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
D. A. Trevisan and E. Birmingham, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada

As more and more individuals with ASD enter university, it is vital for educators to understand how best to support these students (VanBergeijk et al., 2008).  In addition, many university students, while not clinically impaired, are likely to exhibit traits associated with the Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP; Hurley et al., 2007).  Given that BAP traits in the general population are associated with poorer social cognitive and communication skills (Sasson et al., 2012), BAP traits in the general student body may serve as powerful predictors of adjustment to the social and academic demands of university life.


The purpose of this study was to investigate possible relationships between student adjustment to university and the BAP.  Examining the relationship between autistic traits and university adjustment will provide valuable information that could aid universities in designing interventions used to promote adjustment to university, thereby improving the likelihood of retaining students to degree completion. 


Data from 92 undergraduate students from a university in Western Canada were analyzed. BAP traits are measured using Hurley et al.’s (2007) self-report Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire (BAPQ). The BAPQ was separated into three subscales: Pragmatic language difficulties (BAPQ-Pragmatic), Social abnormalities and aloof personality (BAPQ-Aloof), and Rigid personality and a desire for sameness (BAPQ-Rigid). University adjustment was measured using the self-report Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ; Baker & Siryk, 1999). We analyzed three subscales including Social Adjustment, Personal-Emotional Adjustment, and Academic Adjustment.


Multiple regression was performed on each subscale of the SACQ separately (entering the three BAPQ subscales as predictors). This analysis revealed that pragmatic language difficulty was the strongest predictor of student adjustment, emerging as a significant predictor for each SACQ subscale (social: b = -0.37; personal-emotional: b = -0.36; academic: -0.43 ps < 0.01): higher BAPQ-Pragmatic scores were associated with poorer social (r = -0.52), personal-emotional (r = -0.49), and academic (r = -0.51) adjustment to university. Rigid personality traits also emerged as a significant predictor, but only for personal-emotional adjustment (b = -0.30, p<.01), with higher BAPQ-Rigid scores associated with poorer personal-emotional adjustment (r = -0.43).  Finally, the aloof personality trait was a significant predictor of social adjustment (b = -0.35, p<.001), with higher BAPQ-Aloof scores associated with poorer social adjustment (r = -0.50). Together, BAPQ-Pragmatic and BAPQ-Rigid accounted for 32% of the variance in personal-emotional adjustment (R2=0.32; F(2,87) = 20.21, p<.001). BAPQ-Pragmatic and BAPQ-Aloof accounted for approximately 37% of the variance in social adjustment (R2=0.37; F(2,86) = 25.24, p<.001).  Only BAPQ-Pragmatic predicted academic adjustment, accounting for approximately 25% of the variance (R2=0.25; F(2,89) = 29.42).


Autistic traits in the university student body accounted for a significant amount of variance in student adjustment.  Pragmatic language difficulties, in particular, emerged as a strong predictor of social, personal-emotional, as well as academic adjustment.  These results have two broad implications: (1) to promote student adjustment, universities should consider utilizing interventions that aim to enhance students’ social communication skills; (2) the BAPQ might be a useful screening measure to predict potential adjustment difficulties among incoming students.