College Students' Knowledge and Attitudes Towards Students on the Autism Spectrum: A Five Year Follow-up

Friday, May 13, 2016: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
D. White, A. Hillier, A. Frye and E. Makrez, Psychology, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, MA
Background:  Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by social and communicative deficits, as well as patterns of rigid and repetitive behavior. However, with the appropriate supports in place, many individuals with ASD are capable of academic success, including success at the university level. In recent years, the importance of acceptance from peers and integration into the university has been increasingly recognized as contributing factors to success for university students with ASD.

Objectives:  This study aimed to evaluate university students’ knowledge and attitudes towards students on the autism spectrum, to identify underlying factors which contribute to such attitudes, and to examine whether attitudes changed over a five year period.

Methods:  Participants were undergraduate students at a mid-sized university in the northeast. Data was collected for the first cohort in 2008 and included 111 participants. The second cohort was collected five years later in 2013 and included 103 participants. Participants in each cohort completed a questionnaire which asked about their knowledge of traits associated with ASD, whether they knew someone with ASD, and their attitudes towards students with ASD.

Results:  As predicted the second cohort endorsed significantly more correct traits associated with ASD than those in the first cohort. They also demonstrated significantly more positive attitudes. In looking at the relationship between knowledge (measured by number of identified correct traits) and attitudes, no significant correlation was found. To investigate further the relationship between cohort, attitudes and knowledge, we examined associations between attitudes and nine subscales of traits including correct and incorrect traits. Positive traits were positively correlated with positive attitudes, and negative traits were negatively correlated with positive attitudes. In addition, students who identified a high number of incorrect traits were likely to have less positive attitudes toward their peers with ASD, regardless of the number of correct traits that were identified.


While our findings indicate that student attitudes and knowledge improved over the course of five years, many students who were knowledgeable about ASD still reported negative attitudes toward participating in university and classroom based activities with students with ASD. These findings have implications for increasing knowledge and understanding of autism spectrum disorders on college campuses, and ultimately academic success and graduation rates for this population.