In Their Own Words: The Experiences of Young Adults with High-Functioning Autism/Asperger's Syndrome Attending College or University

Friday, May 13, 2016: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
R. Nirmal, Psychology, BC Children's Hospital, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Background: According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (2014), the prevalence of ASD in children has increased to 1 in 68, with more children being identified without significant cognitive impairment (i.e., high-functioning autism [HFA]). With the increasing prevalence of HFA, more students with HFA are beginning to transition to college or university, as they are generally capable of meeting the academic demands of postsecondary education (e.g., VanBergeeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008).

Unfortunately, studies have demonstrated poor postsecondary educational outcomes for students with HFA (e.g., Shattuck et al., 2012). Despite having the neurocognitive and academic ability to attend college or university, there are many students with HFA who do not enroll in postsecondary education or drop out soon after entry (Shattuck et al., 2012). There is a critical need to better understand the experiences of students with HFA currently attending college or university to help foster better postsecondary outcomes for this population (Gelbar, Smith, & Reichow, 2014).

Objectives: Understanding the experiences of students with HFA through their own voice can provide valuable insight into their successes and challenges in postsecondary education (Gelbar et al., 2014). Too often, the voices of students with disabilities are overlooked, minimized, or misunderstood (Scuitto, Richwine, Mentrikoski, & Niedzwiecki, 2012). To that end, the objective of this study was to understand the meaning of the lived experiences of attending college or university for students with HFA, the phenomenon in question, and to discover common aspects of their experiences.

Methods: Postsecondary students (n = 12; 9 males, 3 females) with either HFA or Asperger’s disorder were recruited from 4 postsecondary institutions. Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis was the method of inquiry, which examines the meaning of personal and social experiences of individuals in a detailed way (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). Each participant engaged in two semi-structured, in-depth interviews with the researcher. Data analysis was an iterative and interpretive process, including a case-by-case thematic analysis. Validity strategies were used to ensure scientific rigour and credibility of the research findings (Creswell, 2009).  

Results: Eight broad themes and corresponding subthemes emerged from the data analysis depicting the phenomenon of attending college or university for students with HFA. The broad themes are 1) Managing Academic Expectations; 2) Experiencing Support; 3) Managing Autism Spectrum Disorder and Related Symptoms; 4) Reference to or Influence of Past Experiences; 5) Having a Sense of Appreciation; 6) Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder by Others and Self; 7) Managing the Transition; and 8) Entering a New Social World

Conclusions: The results of this study contribute greatly to our understanding of the lived experiences of students with HFA in college or university, including the successes and challenges experienced. The results also highlight how the needs of individuals with HFA persist into adulthood. It is hoped that the findings will help to inform the provision of services and supports for college or university students with HFA in order to foster both the transition to and success in postsecondary education.