Narratives of College Life from the Perspectives of Students with ASD and ADHD
Youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) present with an array of deficits in social interactions, as well as with manifestations of problem behaviors. Despite the significant challenges that these diagnostic features can create for an individual’s personal and academic development, many youth with high-functioning ASD are testing their independence by entering college. Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of high school students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) pursuing higher education. Given the high comorbidity between ASD and ADHD, these youth are hypothesized to have similar, yet unique, experiences.
The purpose of this study is to investigate the narratives of students with ASD and ADHD on college life and to identify the commonalities and dissimilarities among these accounts.
Undergraduate and graduate students with ASD (N=12 and ADHD (N=18) participated in semi-structured interviews, consisting of both open- and closed-ended questions. Audiotapes of these interviews were transcribed and qualitatively analyzed to identify themes that characterize the experiences of college students with disabilities.
Through the iterative coding process, seven main themes in the ASD sample were revealed: (1) disclosure of diagnosis (e.g., most students felt that disclosing their diagnosis was a privacy issue and waited to receive accommodations through the university disability services center, “until it becomes an issue”); (2) self-awareness (e.g., one student spoke of his experiences as a student on the spectrum by comparing himself to his typically developing peers. He revealed, “I think I really truly understood how different I was when I started college, and I saw the big gap between me and my peers”); (3) comorbid conditions (e.g., all students expressed that college was anxiety-inducing, mainly impacting their autism symptoms; for instance, finding and switching lab partners caused one student who ended up switching majors great angst); (4) peer interactions (e.g., many students described themselves as having few or no friends. One individual reported having only one friend in college with whom he speaks to occasionally on Skype); (5) housing arrangements (e.g., majority of students reported living at home, which can be “stressful and lonely”); (6) academic expectations (e.g., one student described college as a “zero sum game where [students with disabilities] can’t ever catch up”); and (5) anticipation of the future (e.g., several participating students identified concerns regarding post-graduation, either in graduate school or on the job market. One student worried primarily about her social skills. During her preemptive job search she commented, “If you weren’t very good at social skills, you wouldn’t get a job”). Analyses of themes from the sample of students with ADHD are ongoing.
In view of these self-reported challenges, youth with ASD and ADHD seem to be at risk for poor academic and social functioning in college settings. The number of college students with ASD and ADHD is expected to continue rising, and thus, it is imperative that we seek to gain a better understanding of the shared and distinct experiences of students with ASD and ADHD.