Transition to University: An Intervention for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Friday, May 15, 2015: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Imperial Ballroom (Grand America Hotel)
A. J. Russell1, S. Lambe2, S. K. Fletcher1, C. Ashwin3 and M. Brosnan1, (1)University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom, (2)Psychology, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom, (3)Dept. of Psychology, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom
Background: Transition to University can provide opportunities to develop greater independence in living skills and social networks as well as gain valuable educational qualifications.  University transition may present particular challenges for students with a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Studies report students with ASD often do not seek entry to, or prematurely drop-out of, university (Glennon, 2001; VanBergeijk et al., 2008) despite good levels of educational attainment and reported aspirations to attend university (White, Ollendick & Bray, 2011).  Social isolation and problems adjusting to living away from home are thought to contribute to poor outcome (Howlin, Goode, Hutton & Rutter, 2004). A recent review (Gelbar et al., 2014) highlights the scarcity of research into programs designed to support students with ASD in applying to, transitioning to and completing University.

Objectives: To develop and evaluate an intervention to increase student confidence to make the transition to University.

Methods: A 3-day residential program was developed to orient students with ASD to University life and delivered on 2 consecutive occasions. The program comprised sessions about academic, social, and cultural aspects of university life as well as managing stress, social anxiety, and university support services. Typically developing students (n=8) acted as social facilitators.  Participants  had a confirmed clinical diagnosis of ASD (n=50) and were currently in full time education. Measures:Prior to the intervention, participants were asked to identify specific worries about attending university and rate the intensity of these on a questionnaire developed for the study (The Pilot Transition to University Questionnaire: PTUQ).  The Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS) was also administered and an informant measure of ASD characteristics (Social Communication Questionnaire).

Results:  A mean of 4.26 (sd=1.39) areas of worry about university transition were reported by participants, with concerns about socialising at university the most frequently reported and with the highest intensity ratings.  There was a significant reduction in worries about socialising (Wilcoxon Signed Rank Test; z=3.346, p<.001) following the intervention but not in ratings of the other main areas of concern; i.e. academic demands, leaving home and self-care. Scores on the WEMWBS did not change significantly.  The content of the intervention was broadly aligned with the areas of concern highlighted on the P-TUQ apart from practical aspects of self-care.  There was a significant improvement (z=2.07, p<.05) in ratings of how positive participants felt about university attendance following the intervention.  The intervention was rated as ‘extremely helpful’ by 33% of the students and ‘slightly helpful’ by 61% of the students. No students rated the intervention as ‘unhelpful’.  The majority (94%) of students rated the intervention as ‘enjoyable’. 

Conclusions: University transition is associated with worries in a number of areas for students with ASD, particularly socialising. Worries about socialising were significantly reduced and satisfaction with an intervention to ease transition was high. This study provides preliminary evidence to support interventions designed to aid university transition. Greater emphasis on practical life-skills should be included in future interventions with longer term follow-up.