Identifying and Addressing the Concerns of College Students with Autism

Friday, May 13, 2016: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
J. Edelstein1, B. E. Cox2, A. Wolz1 and A. Anderson1, (1)Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, (2)P.O. Box 3064452, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

With roughly 16,000 ASD students entering postsecondary institutions each year (Wei et. al, 2015) colleges and universities must understand the needs of this population and provide support to best enable success. While transitioning into college, students with ASD are likely to experience considerable stress and anxiety as they face social, academic, and personal challenges they have not encountered before. Yet there is remarkably little research regarding the experiences of ASD individuals in higher education.


The objectives of this study are threefold:

  1. Identify concerns which are unique to those with ASD, as well as those which are heightened (i.e. exacerbated in those with ASD relative to non-ASD peers).
  2. Analyze the effects of identified concerns.
  3. Explore methods of alleviating the concerns of these students in an impactful manner.


Student testimonials related to postsecondary education were gathered from the website WrongPlanet.net, an online resource for individuals with ASD that provides support through articles, forums, and discussions. Data were collected from discussions within the “School and College Life” forum. The statements were then coded using Astin’s (1991) Inputs-Experiences-Outputs model. The second round of coding followed specific themes that were established by the first round of coding. Students’ concerns were identified by the use of words expressing feelings (i.e., fear, afraid, concern).


Students expressed fourteen unique concerns which the researchers clustered into two types: ASD-specific concerns (e.g. bullying, loss of prior supports) and ASD-heightened concerns (e.g. change in routine, hurting others). Within each type, student concerns were further categorized as either social concerns (e.g. “I haven’t succeeded in getting anyone's phone number or becoming close “) or transitional concerns (e.g. “I feel trapped with having so much responsibility so fast.”)

Students commonly noted low levels of self-confidence and mental health issues (e.g. “So, how can I even begin to tell my parents in a week that I have failed… It is difficult for me not to constantly think of suicide because of this situation”). Few students indicated resolutions to their issues. Those who did resolve their concerns noted the importance of socialization (e.g. "Spend as much time developing social skills and… The school WILL NOT try to help you do this") and access to information as routes for overcoming their concerns successfully.


Students with ASD often do not feel supported by their colleges and universities, suggesting they may not have the same perception of higher education as their neurotypical peers. However, by addressing the specific concerns expressed by these students, higher education professionals can help these individuals assimilate into postsecondary environments and maximize their academic and developmental potential.