Support Systems for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder during Their Transition to Higher Education: A Qualitative Analysis of Online Discussions

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

Individuals with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD), formerly diagnosed as Asperger syndrome, are graduating from high school and entering institutions of higher education (IHE) in greater numbers than ever before. Transitioning from high school to college can be challenging for all students, and can be particularly difficult for students with ASD, who often face adversity during periods of transition. Although a growing number of colleges and universities have begun developing programs to support these students, more efforts are necessary to better understand how to best serve this population. Further, much of the relevant literature relies on secondhand reporting from parents, faculty, and administration rather than the student with ASD him or herself.


This study is an exploration into how college students with high functioning autism spectrum disorder describe their support systems during the transition to higher education. In particular, this study explores how these students describe their experiences within an online environment among their peers. 


The study used unobtrusive qualitative methods to collect and analyze online forum discussion posts from college students with autism spectrum disorder. Data was collected from the Wrong Planet “School and College Life” forum, which is a publicly viewable discussion forum. Source forum replies were coded into qualitative data analysis software NVivo in the first round of analysis as guided by (Astin’s) I-E-O framework. Following this, a second round of coding occurred in which specific themes were established, from which this study draws data.


Support services do not work in isolation. Many students described multiple support systems (e.g. Housing, Counseling, and Advising) working in conjunction with one another during their successful transition to higher education. One student noted that “There are many support programs as well that can assist with the executive functioning issues, extra tutoring, and all the other things that come up like handling relationships, advocating, budgeting (a huge one), etc.”. Students find their support systems through both formal and informal means. Many use services provided by their Office of Disability Services (ODS), but many students lack the awareness or documentation needed to obtain services. One student describes how he found his group of “interesting people” in a student association: “I prefer to meet people in a group that is interest-focused and where there is enough room to accommodate to slow processing speed and sensory processing differences.” 


Institutions of higher education offer a variety of support services for students with ASD. Though services offered through ODS typically require documentation of a formal diagnosis, others are available without diagnosis or disclosure. Because some students do not have a formal diagnosis and many others choose not to disclose, colleges and universities must train faculty and staff throughout the institution to provide the support these students deserve.