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Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 48, Issue 3, pp 651–665 | Cite as

Perspectives of University Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Anastasia H. Anderson
  • Mark Carter
  • Jennifer Stephenson
S.I. : College experiences for students with ASD

Abstract

Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at heightened risk of post-secondary educational failure and account for approximately 1% of students in post-secondary education. Findings from an on-line survey of students with ASD attending university in Australian are reported in this study. Respondents indicated high rates of academic and non-academic difficulties but low usage of supports. Ratings for supports were idiosyncratic, and some students indicated discomfort from using supports or disclosing their disability. Those students who delayed their disclosure accessed fewer supports and reported a poorer overall university experience. Recommendations were made including the need for better transition support and alternative strengths based approaches that use more flexible and individualised curriculum designs.

Keywords

Autistic spectrum disorder Higher education University Experiences Educational supports On-line survey 

Introduction

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2014) estimated that approximately one in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and that four times as many males were affected as females. In addition, 69% of persons with ASD have no comorbid intellectual disability and 46% have average or above intellectual ability (i.e., IQ above 85; CDC 2014). A similar prevalence estimate of between 1.5 and 2.5%, and a ratio of four males to one female, was found in Australia by Randall et al. (2016). Prospects for adults with ASD are poor, and paradoxically worse for those with no comorbid intellectual disability (White et al. 2016). Specifically, young adults with ASD and no intellectual disability are three times more likely to have no daytime activities, including education or employment, when compared to those with ASD and comorbid intellectual disability (Taylor and Seltzer 2011). Students with ASD without intellectual disability also have the lowest rates of post-secondary enrollment compared with either typical peers or students with other non-intellectual disabilities (e.g., specific learning disabilities; Wei et al. 2013; White et al. 2016).

Individuals with ASD who have a post-secondary education, however, have better life outcomes (Hendrickson et al. 2013), and adolescent students with ASD often express a strong desire to continue their education after high school (Camarena and Sarigiani 2009). Indeed, the number of students with disabilities, including those with ASD, requesting support in post-secondary education has increased in many countries (Ames et al. 2016; Gobbo and Shmulsky 2014; Hastwell et al. 2012; Quinn et al. 2014) and White et al. (2011) estimate that anywhere between 0.7 and 1.9% of college students may meet diagnostic criteria for ASD. However, graduation rates for post-secondary students with ASD in Australia remain much lower than their neurotypical peers (35% compared to 51–67%; Universities Australia 2015), and 81% of people with ASD in Australia have no post-school qualification (i.e., certificate, diploma, bachelor degree or above; Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012).

Reasons for low graduation rates appear complex. Students with ASD have diverse characteristics, that may include significant strengths such as a strong memory, affinity with technology, and a diligent and determined nature (Tarallo 2012; Van Hees et al. 2015). However, these strengths are typically constrained by poor communication and social skills that limit their ability to participate in class discussions, group projects or class presentations (Gobbo and Shmulsky 2014; Madriaga and Goodley 2010). They may struggle with the reduced structure and routines of university (Simmeborn Fleischer 2012; Van Hees et al. 2015; Wei et al. 2013), and be prone to loneliness, anxiety, and depression (Pinder-Amaker 2014). In addition, many lack the support of friends (Mazurek 2014) and may be distracted by heightened sensory sensitivities to campus noise, crowds, and smells, or experience visual or tactile sensory dysfunction (Pinder-Amaker 2014).

Although research points to the possibility of creating inclusive environments in school education (Pinder-Amaker 2014), there is a shortage of research into the post-secondary educational experiences of students with ASD, and studies from the student perspective are particularly scant (Anderson et al. 2017; Gelbar et al. 2014; White et al. 2016). Moreover, the extant literature is primarily from the USA and UK and is qualitative and geographically circumscribed (Anderson et al. 2017; Gelbar et al. 2014) with small to modest sample sizes. Apart from one study with 135 participants, all other studies on post-secondary educational experiences of students with ASD had samples comprised of fewer than 36 participants, including 14 (61%) that had fewer than 10 participants. These small sample sizes limit generalization of the findings from these studies. Apart from a few mixed methods studies that included a survey component (e.g., Cai and Richdale 2016), Gelbar et al.’s (2015) investigation, which comprised just 35 university students with ASD, offers the only study from the student perspective that employed a (primarily) quantitative survey design.

Research in Australia is also limited (Anderson et al. 2017). A recent focus group study by Cai and Richdale (2016) analyzed the experiences of 23 students with ASD from two universities and four Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges in Victoria (Australia) and compared those findings with the perspectives of 15 family members. TAFE colleges are located nationwide in Australia and provide predominantly vocational qualifications under a nationally recognized training system. Cai and Richdale revealed that students felt academically supported but viewed social supports as inadequate, while family members believed both academic and non-academic supports were deficient. In addition, they found that students with ASD rarely received transition planning during high school, and many felt underprepared for post-secondary education. Furthermore, the majority delayed their disclosure to university or TAFE disability services, which slowed their access to supports, and this delay may have allowed significant avoidable problems to develop.

The extant literature revealed that a range of academic and non-academic supports have been offered to students with ASD including mentors, counselling services, social support groups, exam accommodations, and assistance with daily living (Gelbar et al. 2015). In addition, in a number of evaluation studies, students have indicated that they are generally satisfied with those supports (e.g., Ames et al. 2016). However, a mismatch is often reported in the literature with the majority of supports offered to students with ASD being academically focused, while it is typically the non-academic supports that are more imperative (Gelbar et al. 2015; Knott and Taylor 2014; Simmeborn Fleischer et al. 2013). It was also noted that many students did not access available supports, but for a variety of reasons including: not being aware services were available (Van Hees et al. 2015); refusing support due to not recognizing their need for assistance (Simmeborn Fleischer 2012); and being too stressed to apply for support (Knott and Taylor 2014).

Generalizations from current research are significantly limited given that it is predominantly qualitative and geographically circumscribed (Anderson et al. 2017; Gelbar et al. 2015). In addition, the only relevant Australian study (Cai and Richdale 2016) was limited to the state of Victoria. Thus, there is a need for further quantitative and survey research with larger sample sizes from countries outside the UK and USA.

Specifically, more research is required to better understand the demographic characteristics, the strengths, and the weaknesses of university students with ASD to better understand their support needs. Also, there is a need to analyze the variety and number of supports offered to students with ASD in a range of settings, and to gauge student use and satisfaction with those supports, to discern their appropriateness. Finally, more research is required on student attitudes to disclosure to disability services and the extent to which students request or accept supports, with a view to informing best practice and increasing support use by those who might benefit.

The aim of this research is to explore the experiences of university students with ASD in New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) using an on-line survey. The research questions used to guide this study are:

  1. 1.

    What are the demographic characteristics of university students with ASD?

     
  2. 2.

    What do students with ASD indicate are their strengths and weaknesses?

     
  3. 3.

    What supports were offered to university students with ASD, and how satisfied were they with those supports and services?

     
  4. 4.

    Do students with ASD delay their disclosure to disability services, and if so, what reasons are given, and what consequences can be identified from that delay?

     

Methods

Survey Design

An on-line questionnaire exploring the experiences of university students with ASD was prepared, based on previous surveys and an extensive review of the literature that identified the relevant issues (Anderson et al. 2017; Gelbar et al. 2015). The final version of the survey comprised 32 questions that included 13 demographic items, 5 open-ended, 6 Likert-style scales, and 8 multiple choice questions (Appendix 1 in Supplementary Material). The survey was tested for ease of use and program logic by the authors, and finally pilot tested by a former university student with ASD.

The first item was a screening question and asked the respondents if they had a formal diagnosis made by a medical doctor or psychologist. If they answered “no”, then the respondent was taken to the end of the survey. Demographic questions followed and addressed gender, age category, years since leaving high school, level of study, degree studied within a broad category, semesters completed at university, and enrollment status. Multiple choice and Likert-style questions were used to collect data on comorbid conditions, disclosure of diagnosis, personal strengths and weaknesses, non-academic experiences, academic and non-academic supports provided, support usage, and satisfaction rating of supports. Finally, open-ended questions allowed respondents to nominate their most helpful and least helpful support, and the respondents also provided an overall rating of their support and university experience.

Recruitment of Participants

Following approval by the relevant university Human Research Ethics Committee, the disability managers at 12 universities in New South Wales and two in the Australian Capital Territory were approached to participate in this study. Of the 14 universities invited to participate, three disability managers did not respond to the request, and three declined to participate. Thus, eight universities participated (57%).

The disability managers were requested to forward, via email, an invitation letter and two reminder notices to students with a formal diagnosis of ASD who were registered at their office. The invitations included information about the purpose of the research, an incentive prize draw of two $50 gift vouchers, procedures to safeguard participant confidentiality, informed consent, and the link to the on-line survey on the Qualtrics platform. The survey was anonymous, and no personally identifying information was collected. Respondents were informed that completion of the survey would be regarded as informed consent and that the incentive prize draw was voluntary and administered separately, so individual responses could not be linked to identifying information.

The disability managers indicated that a total of 276 students were emailed an invitation during the initial round. The two reminder letters were also sent to all 276 students. However, the university that only placed the notice in a newsletter, did not disclose the number of students with ASD registered at their office.

Results

Response Rate

The survey was commenced by 59 students. There were four respondents who were excluded because they did not have a diagnosis of ASD, and seven because they only answered screening questions, apparently after experiencing connectivity issues. Data were thus collected and analyzed from 48 respondents. Some respondents did not answer all questions, and the number of responses for each question is indicated in the column header of each table.

The response rate was calculated after excluding the data from the university that did not provide the number of students with ASD registered at their office. The average response rate, including those who only answered screening questions, was 17.4% (range 0–40.5%). The response rate was calculated, for each university, by dividing the total number of eligible respondents (i.e., excluding those who did not have a formal diagnosis of ASD) by the number of invitations issued, and then multiplied by 100. The average completed response rate was 14.5% (range 0–35.7%) and was calculated, for each university, by dividing the total number of completed surveys (all questions answered) by the number of invitations issued, and then multiplied by 100.

Demographic Characteristics

The majority of participants had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (Table 1), were under 24 years, and were undergraduates who commenced university immediately after high school. Also, most had completed between one and seven semesters, and were currently studying full time. The 40% who were over 23 years, however, were mostly studying part time. The respondents indicated that they were enrolled in a variety of degree programs ranging from STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and math), to business, law, psychology, and education. Some respondents began university full time and switched to part time, and vice versa.

Table 1

Demographic characteristics—by gender

Survey questions

Response

Males (n = 23)

Females (n = 24)

Other (n = 1)

Total (n = 48)

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

What is your age?

Age 17–23 years

18

78.3

9

37.5

1

100.0

28

58.3

Age 24 years or above

5

21.7

15

62.5

0

0.0

20

41.7

At what level are you currently studying?

Undergraduate

22

95.7

21

87.5

1

100.0

44

91.7

Postgraduate

1

4.3

3

12.5

0

0.0

4

8.3

How many years after high school (or equivalent) before you started university?

Commenced immediately after school

14

60.9

13

54.2

0

0.0

27

56.3

1–2 year break after high school

4

17.4

3

12.5

0

0.0

7

14.6

3–4 year break after high school

1

4.3

4

16.7

0

0.0

5

10.4

5 or more years after high school

4

17.4

4

16.7

1

100.0

9

18.8

How many semesters have you completed at university?

Less than one semester completed

4

17.4

3

12.5

0

0.0

7

14.6

One semester completed

3

13.0

3

12.5

0

0.0

6

12.5

Two semesters completed

5

21.7

0

0.0

1

100.0

6

12.5

Three semesters completed

1

4.3

3

12.5

0

0.0

4

8.3

Four semesters completed

3

13.0

2

8.3

0

0.0

5

10.4

Five semesters completed

1

4.3

3

12.5

0

0.0

4

8.3

Six semesters completed

4

17.4

1

4.2

0

0.0

5

10.4

Seven semesters completed

1

4.3

0

0.0

0

0.0

1

2.1

Eight semesters completed

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

Nine semesters completed

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

Completed ten or more semesters

1

4.3

9

37.5

0

0.0

10

20.8

Which of the following best describes your enrollment status?

Always full time

16

69.6

10

41.7

0

0.0

26

54.2

Always part time

2

8.7

7

29.2

0

0.0

9

18.8

Started full time but switched to part time

1

4.3

6

25.0

1

100.0

8

16.7

Started part time but switched to full time

2

8.7

1

4.2

1

100.0

4

8.3

Other—currently full time

1

4.3

0

0.0

0

0.0

1

2.1

Other—undisclosed

1

4.3

0

0.0

0

0.0

1

2.1

What degree (or major) are you studying towards? Select all that apply

Maths/Engineering/Science/IT/Computing

7

30.4

4

16.7

0

0.0

11

22.9

Business/Finance/Commerce/Marketing

6

26.1

0

0.0

0

0.0

6

12.5

Law and/or Arts

6

26.1

10

41.7

1

100.0

17

35.4

Psychology/Education/Linguistics/Other

5

21.7

7

29.2

1

100.0

13

27.1

Degree—other

4

17.4

5

20.8

0

0.0

9

18.8

Demographic differences were noted between genders (Table 1). Females, who represented half the sample, indicated that they were primarily 24 years or older. Females also stated that they predominantly studied part time in the disciplines of law, arts, psychology, education, or linguistics. In contrast, the majority of males were between 17 and 23 years and generally studied full time, and were more evenly distributed across disciplines.

Strengths

The most common strength indicated by the respondents was attention to detail (n = 35, 85.4%). Other strengths included an ability to use technology (n = 32, 78.1%), original and creative thoughts and a strong memory (both n = 25, 61%), and consistency (n = 24, 58.6%).

Comorbid Conditions

The respondents indicated a range of comorbid conditions, although they did not indicate whether those conditions had been formally diagnosed. Anxiety was the most common condition (n = 15, 65.2%), followed by depression (n = 11, 47.8%), attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD) (n = 7, 30.4%), and epilepsy (n = 1, 4.3%). In response to open-ended questions, one respondent nominated drug addiction and one indicated obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Academic Experiences

Most respondents (n = 21; 51.2%) agreed or were neutral (n = 7; 17.1%) towards “[feeling] comfortable asking questions in class”, although females (n = 8; 42.1%, and n = 2, 10.5% respectively) less so than males (n = 13, 59.1% and n = 5, 22.7% respectively). The majority of respondents (n = 23, 56.1%) also agreed they could “follow what [was] going on in lectures and tutorials”. In response to an open-ended question, one respondent revealed that they did not like being forced to answer questions in class, and another described academic staff as generally unhelpful and on occasion cruel. Other open-ended comments included that their needs were not taken seriously because they were not visibly autistic, that they found it difficult to ask for help, that clinical placements were difficult, and that academic requirements caused anxiety. Finally, only a minority of respondents (n = 19, 39.6%) indicated that they had participated in on-line study modules, and although nearly half (n = 9, 47.4%) agreed they preferred this mode, 21% (n = 4) stated that they preferred traditional contact courses.

Non-academic Experiences

The overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that anxiety was a concern (Table 2). In addition, a majority indicated problems with poor quality sleep, depression, lack of structure, and loneliness (Table 2). Most (n = 35, 85.4%) agreed or were neutral, however, that “people [were] more accepting of [them] at university compared with school”. In addition, the majority (n = 31; 75.6%) agreed that they were not bothered by bullying, though it was a moderate or big concern for more females (n = 7; 36.8%) than for males (n = 3; 13.7%). Finally, just over half of the respondents (n = 21, 51.2%) agreed that “their sensitivity to noise, light or smells on campus sometimes interfered with their ability to study or cope on campus”.

Table 2

Non-academic issues by gender

Issue

It does not bother me

A moderate concern

A big concern

Male (n = 22)

Female (n = 19)

Total (n = 41)

Male (n = 22)

Female (n = 19)

Total (n = 41)

Male (n = 22)

Female (n = 19)

Total (n = 41)

Loneliness

9 (40.9%)

7 (36.8%)

16 (39.0%)

11 (50.0%)

6 (31.6%)

17 (41.5%)

2 (9.1%)

6 (31.6%)

8 (19.5%)

Bullying

19 (86.4%)

12 (63.2%)

31 (75.6%)

2 (9.1%)

5 (26.3%)

7 (17.1%)

1 (4.6%)

2 (10.5%)

3 (7.3%)

Anxiety

3 (13.6%)

1 (5.3%)

4 (9.8%)

8 (36.4%)

6 (31.6%)

14 (34.2%)

11 (50.0%)

12 (63.2%)

23 (56.1%)

Depression

7 (31.9%)

5 (26.3%)

12 (29.3%)

9 (40.9%)

3 (15.8%)

12 (29.3%)

6 (27.3%)

11 (57.9%)

17 (41.5%)

Quality of sleep

5 (22.7%)

3 (15.8%)

8 (19.5%)

7 (31.8%)

5 (26.3%)

12 (29.3%)

10 (45.5%)

11 (57.9%)

21 (51.2%)

Lack of structure

6 (27.3%)

4 (21.1%)

10 (24.4%)

8 (36.4%)

8 (42.1%)

16 (39.0%)

8 (36.4%)

7 (36.8%)

15 (36.6%)

Respondent with gender classification “other” did not answer this question

Supports and Services

Respondents were asked to indicate how frequently they accessed both academic and non-academic supports and services, and to rate how helpful those supports and services were. The findings are summarized in Tables 3 and 4. Many supports and services were never used by many respondents, and only four academic supports (liaison with academics, recorded lectures, on-line discussion boards, and reduced course loads) and two non-academic supports (consultation with a disability support coordinator, and orientation week) were used by a majority of respondents. The overwhelming majority of those who did use supports only did so occasionally, but they generally indicated that the supports were helpful (Tables 3, 4).

Table 3

Non-academic supports frequency and satisfaction rating

Question

Frequency (n = 41)

How satisfieda

Never

Occasionally

Frequently

Not helpful

Somewhat helpful

Very helpful

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%a

n

%a

n

%a

Peer mentor/buddy/life coach

28

68.3

10

24.4

3

7.3

2

15.4

5

38.5

6

46.2

Counselling support

22

53.7

13

31.7

6

14.6

3

15.0

13

65.0

4

20.0

Consultation with a disability support coordinator or collaborative support

7

17.1

29

70.7

5

12.2

7

20.6

16

47.1

11

32.4

Training to improve self-advocacy skills

35

85.4

4

9.8

2

4.9

3

42.9

2

28.6

2

28.6

Orientation week

15

36.6

20

48.8

6

14.6

12

42.9

13

46.4

3

10.7

ASD support group

39

95.1

1

2.4

1

2.4

1

33.3

2

66.7

0

0.0

Campus social/sports clubs

24

58.5

8

19.5

9

22.0

7

36.8

5

26.3

7

36.8

Support to transition from school to university (provided by the university)

32

78.0

8

19.5

1

2.4

3

37.5

4

50.0

1

12.5

On-line well-being course

38

92.7

3

7.3

0

0.0

2

66.7

0

0.0

1

33.3

Housing accommodations

34

82.9

3

7.3

4

9.8

0

0.0

3

42.9

4

57.1

aSatisfaction rating based on those who used the service. A few respondents inaccurately stated their frequency as never—data as reported

Table 4

Academic supports frequency and satisfaction rating

Question

Frequency (n = 41)

How satisfieda

Never

Occasionally

Frequently

Not helpful

Somewhat helpful

Very helpful

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%a

n

%a

n

%a

Time management and/or task prioritisation skills training

27

65.9

13

31.7

1

2.4

6

40.0

7

46.7

2

13.3

Assistance with structuring assignments

23

56.1

16

39.0

2

4.9

2

11.1

6

33.3

10

55.6

Assistance to understand abstract or ambiguous concepts

27

65.9

11

26.8

3

7.3

3

20.0

7

46.7

5

33.3

Assistance with group work or presentations

32

78.1

6

14.6

3

7.3

1

10.0

6

60.0

3

30.0

Stress management training

35

85.4

4

9.8

2

4.9

2

33.3

3

50.0

1

16.7

Liaison with academics

19

46.3

19

46.3

3

7.3

3

13.0

8

34.8

12

52.2

Tutoring centre

29

70.7

7

17.1

5

12.2

2

16.7

3

25.0

7

58.3

Note-taker/scribe

37

90.2

2

4.9

2

4.9

1

25.0

2

50.0

1

25.0

Lecture transcriptions

33

80.5

5

12.2

3

7.3

0

0.0

3

33.3

6

66.7

Recorded (video or audio) lectures

12

29.3

14

34.1

15

36.6

2

6.9

10

34.5

17

58.6

On-line discussion boards

17

41.5

18

43.9

6

14.6

6

24.0

13

54.2

5

20.8

Reduced course load

20

48.8

10

24.4

11

26.8

1

4.8

8

38.1

12

57.1

Other

39

95.1

0

0.0

2

4.9

0

0.0

0

0.0

2

100

aSatisfaction rating based on those who used the service. A few respondents inaccurately stated their frequency as never—data as reported

A range of exam and assignment accommodations were used by the respondents (Table 5). Only alternate rooms, and extended time for exams and assignments were used by a majority of respondents. Those who used exam and assignment accommodations typically found them somewhat or very helpful (Table 5).

Table 5

Exam and assignment accommodations frequency and satisfaction rating

Support

Frequency (n = 41)

Satisfactiona

Never

Once

2–3

4 or more

Unhelpful

Somewhat helpful

Very helpful

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%a

n

%a

n

%a

Alternate exam room

10

24.4

6

14.6

15

36.6

10

24.4

2

6.5

11

35.5

18

58.1

Reader for exams

39

95.1

0

0.0

2

4.9

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

2

100

One exam per day

22

53.7

4

9.8

9

22.0

6

14.6

0

0.0

6

30.0

14

70.0

Extended time—exams

14

34.2

5

12.2

12

29.3

10

24.4

1

3.6

7

25.0

20

71.4

Extension—assignments

18

43.9

7

17.1

7

17.1

9

22.0

0

0.0

10

41.7

14

58.3

Alternative to group work

37

90.2

2

4.9

2

4.9

0

0.0

2

33.3

1

16.7

3

50.0

Alternative to presentations

36

87.8

3

7.3

1

2.4

1

2.4

1

16.7

2

33.3

3

50.0

aSatisfaction rating based on those who used the service. A few respondents inaccurately stated their frequency as never—data as reported

A minority of respondents stated that they had withdrawn from a unit due to lack of support (n = 14, 34.2%) or that not all requested supports were provided (n = 9, 22%). The main reasons given by respondents was lack of follow up by disability services or lack of resources.

Respondents provided open-ended comments with respect to supports including nine responses as to why services were not provided, 18 responses about supports that worsened their experience, and 21 responses for “any further comments”. From these open-ended responses, some indicated that they endured stress from long delays between requesting support and receiving assistance. For example, “Follow up with services you say you will provide. It adds unnecessary stress if a student is chasing up appointment details.” Also, “[Got] my reasonable adjustment document on Friday of week 12 in a 13-week semester.”

Some indicated that they had poor self-advocacy skills that made it difficult for them to request help, and suggested that academics should be more proactive in their assistance, “instead of telling me to “just ask” … something I have always struggled to do, they should be checking [on] me … Essentially they are just treating me the same as regular students and so I feel that they don’t understand.”

Sometimes, respondents indicated that some supports were not available. For example, one respondent stated: “I would love to have access to a mentor at this university. I have had one in the past, but not here.” Also, one out of three respondents who used a mentor, and two out six who had self-advocacy training, indicated that the quality of these services were poor.

Overall Rating of Supports and Services and University Experience

An overall rating of supports and services, and university experiences, was provided by 40 respondents (Table 6). Only a minority (22.5%) provided a dissatisfied (n = 7, 17.5%) or very dissatisfied (n = 2, 5.0%) overall rating. Cross-tabulation of females, those 24 years and above, and those who disagreed that their family were very supportive, however, revealed that these groups had the highest rates of dissatisfaction of supports and university experiences ratings. There was little difference between the 18 students who delayed university entry and the 22 students who did not delay entry with regard to their overall rating of supports, with 50.0% of the former being satisfied or very satisfied, and 54.5% of the latter being satisfied or very satisfied. Further, 50% of both students who delayed university entry and those who did not delay, rated their overall university experience as satisfied or very satisfied.

Table 6

Overall rating of supports and services and of overall university experience- by gender, age category and perceived family support

 

Gender

Age category

My family are very supportive

Total (n = 40)

Male (n = 22)

Female (n = 18)

17–23 years (n = 23)

24 years or above (n = 17)

Disagree (n = 6)

Neutral (n = 9)

Agree (n = 25)

Overall rating of supports and services

Very dissatisfied

0 (0.0%)

2 (11.1%)

0 (0.0%)

2 (11.8%)

0 (0.0%)

2 (22.2%)

0 (0.0%)

2 (5.0%)

Dissatisfied

1 (4.6%)

6 (33.3%)

3 (13.0%)

4 (23.5%)

3 (50.0%)

1 (11.1%)

3 (12.0%)

7 (17.5%)

Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied

7 (31.8%)

3 (16.7%)

5 (21.7%)

5 (29.4%)

2 (33.3%)

3 (33.3%)

5 (20.0%)

10 (25.0%)

Satisfied

10 (45.5%)

5 (27.8%)

11 (47.8%)

4 (23.5%)

0 (0.0%)

3 (33.3%)

12 (48.0%)

15 (37.5%)

Very satisfied

4 (18.2%)

2 (11.1%)

4 (17.4%)

2 (11.8%)

1 (16.7%)

0 (0.0%)

5 (20.0%)

6 (15.0%)

Overall rating of university experience

 Very dissatisfied

2 (9.1%)

2 (11.1%)

1 (4.4%)

3 (17.7%)

2 (33.3%)

1 (11.1%)

1 (4.0%)

4 (10.0%)

 Dissatisfied

2 (9.1%)

5 (27.8%)

4 (17.4%)

3 (17.7%)

3 (50.0%)

1 (11.1%)

3 (12.0%)

7 (17.5%)

 Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied

4 (18.2%)

5 (27.8%)

4 (17.4%)

5 (29.4%)

0 (0.0%)

3 (33.3%)

6 (24.0%)

9 (22.5%)

 Satisfied

12 (54.5%)

4 (22.2%)

12 (52.2%)

4 (23.5%)

0 (0.0%)

4 (44.4%)

12 (48.0%)

16 (40.0%)

 Very satisfied

2 (9.1%)

2 (11.1%)

2 (8.7%)

2 (11.8%)

1 (16.7%)

0 (0.0%)

3 (12.0%)

4 (10.0%)

Percentages by rating; respondent who did not indicate gender did not answer this question

Most Helpful and Least Helpful Support or Service

Responses to the open-ended questions “What is the most helpful/least helpful support or service?” are summarized in Table 7. Academic supports were nominated 26 times (65%) as the most helpful support, with exam accommodations (n = 10, 25%) being the most commonly selected as most helpful. Non-academic supports, however, were only nominated by 16 respondents (40%) as most helpful, with counselling (n = 6, 15%) the most commonly selected most helpful non-academic support. Academic supports were nominated five times (12.5%) as least helpful support, compared with 16 (40%) for non-academic supports. Interestingly, mentors were nominated once (2.5%) as the most helpful and twice (5%) as the least helpful support.

Table 7

Most helpful and least helpful support or service

Most helpful (n = 40)a

Least helpful (n = 40)

Academic support

n

%

Academic support

n

%

Exam accommodations

10

25.0

Note-takers

2

5.0

Assistance with assignments

5

12.5

Liaison with academics

1

2.5

Coaching

3

7.5

Clinical placement assistance

1

2.5

Help connecting with lecturers

2

5.0

Modification of assignment/assessment

1

2.5

Recorded lectures

1

2.5

   

Academic integration plan

1

2.5

   

Peer assisted learning

1

2.5

   

Family and friends

1

2.5

   

Non-academic support

n

%

Non-academic support

n

%

Counselling

6

15.0

Orientation week

5

12.5

Disability support coordinator

5

12.5

Disability support coordinator

4

10.0

Mentors

1

2.5

Mentor

2

5.0

Orientation week

1

2.5

Counselling/stress management

2

5.0

Sporting clubs

1

2.5

On-line well-being course

1

2.5

Time management

1

2.5

Time management

1

2.5

Stress management

1

2.5

Financial

1

2.5

No supports used

1

2.5

No supports used

1

2.5

Could not classify

1

2.5

Could not classify/not sure

11

27.5

None helpful

2

5.0

None unhelpful

4

10.0

   

All were unhelpful

3

7.5

aTwo respondents provided multiple responses

Disclosure

Although all respondents were recruited from disability services and thus had disclosed to disability services, 12 respondents (25%) had delayed that disclosure. Of those 12 who delayed, only nine provided reasons. The most common reason for delay was wanting to try university on their own (n = 5; 55.6%). Other explanations included that their diagnosis occurred after enrollment (n = 3; 33.3%), a belief that disclosure was unnecessary (n = 2; 22%), fear of being stigmatized (n = 2; 22%), not knowing how to disclose (n = 2; 22%), and that their condition deteriorated after enrollment (n = 2; 22%). Open-ended responses from three respondents were that the process of disclosing was perceived as too difficult (n = 1; 11%), that the respondent disagreed with their ASD diagnosis (n = 1; 11%), and that the respondent was not [initially] aware of disability services (n = 1; 11%).

Those who delayed disclosure, and those who did not delay, reported similar academic and non-academic concerns. However, fewer of those who delayed stated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their overall supports (n = 3, 33.3%) and overall university experiences (n = 3, 33.3%), compared with those who did not delay (n = 18, 58.1%; n = 17, 54.8% respectively). Also, it was noted that the average number of academic, exam, and non-academic supports and services used by those who delayed was lower, when compared to those who did not delay their disclosure, in 10 out of 12 academic supports or services, in all seven exam accommodations, and 7 out of 10 non-academic supports and services.

Discussion

There is a shortage of research exploring the supports and experiences of university students with ASD, especially from the student perspective, and consequently there is little guidance for staff or academics when accommodating their needs. In response, the findings from a survey of 48 Australian university students with ASD from six universities in NSW and two universities in the ACT were presented in this study.

What are the Demographic Characteristics of University Students with ASD?

There were three interesting demographic features in the current sample. First, 43.8% of all respondents delayed university for at least a year after high school. This, however, is similar to the rate for all students at university in Australia (60.1% of total offers to universities in Australia were to year 12 applicants in 2016; Department of Education and Training 2016).

Second, the respondents studied a diverse range of disciplines, which is consistent with the finding of Gelbar et al. (2015). Although males indicated an even distribution of faculties, fewer females nominated STEM or business/finance majors. Wei et al. (2013) similarly revealed a small minority of female students with ASD studied STEM majors. This is also consistent with the general university student population (Mann and DiPrete 2013). Thus, the issue of gender bias in career choices, including the appropriateness of career advice provided by high schools and parents, is a general one, but it may also be interesting to specifically analyze the student with ASD experience.

Finally, gender prevalence anomalies were observed. Half of the respondents were female. This is more than the 20% of females estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) to have an ASD, but similar to that reported by Gelbar et al. (2015; 43%) and Ames et al. (2016; 40%) in their studies of college and university students with ASD. There may be several reasons for the discrepancy, including more recent improved reporting and diagnostic procedures (Kirkovski et al. 2013; Van Wijngaarden-Cremers et al. 2014), and a response rate bias toward females that is often found in on-line surveys (Sax et al. 2008). Nevertheless, the overrepresentation of females is interesting and warrants further investigation.

What do Students with ASD Indicate are their Strengths and Difficulties?

The data revealed a diverse range of strengths and difficulties experienced by students with ASD, as well as heterogeneity among respondents, and these findings accord with that of prior research (e.g., Van Hees et al. 2015). Their reported strengths were mainly academic (e.g., attention to detail, technology skills, original and creative thoughts, strong memory, and consistency), while their difficulties were diverse but predominantly non-academic. For example, anxiety, depression and loneliness were a difficulty for most, while only a small minority reported difficulty with following what was going on in lectures and tutorials or with asking questions in class. In addition, as similarly reported by Gelbar et al. (2015), only a minority of respondents (mostly female) stated that they were bullied.

Just over half of the sample agreed that they suffered sensory sensitivities that interfered with their ability to study or cope on campus. This may suggest the need for campuses to consider sensory issues. Solutions are complex, however, as research has shown that some find comfort from quiet areas or flexible curriculums that allow them to work at home, while others complain that they feel isolated and lonely and that their life is dull due to isolating supports (Madriaga 2010). Madriaga recommended that universities devise more inclusive university environments in consultation with students with ASD. She suggested greater use of mentors (e.g., to support students with ASD at noisy and crowded events), counselling (to help them cope with their sensitivities), and the provision of alternate social activities for students with ASD so that they are not left alone. Tarallo (2012) recommended providing take-home tests, while Robertson and Ne’eman (2008) suggested replacing fluorescent lights, reducing distracting noises from other classes, and providing breaks during class, to avoid the build-up of sensory sensitivities. Some of these suggestions may also be perceived as non-inclusive, so more research is clearly required on this issue. In addition, sensory sensitivities have only recently been formally acknowledged in the DSM-5 (APA 2013) as a characteristic difficulty of many students with ASD, and staff may need to be made aware of these issues and their implications.

Prior research has predominantly focused on the difficulties of post-secondary students with ASD with only limited reference to their strengths. This focus highlighted the negative impact of non-academic concerns on academic achievement and overall university experience. It also emphasized how non-academic concerns may undermine the effectiveness of academic supports (Anderson et al. 2017; Cai and Richdale 2016; Connor 2013; White et al. 2016). Consequently, many researchers concluded that universities need to provide appropriate supports for both academic and non-academic concerns (e.g., Cai and Richdale 2016; Gelbar et al. 2015; Pinder-Amaker 2014). An increased emphasis on strengths, however, may provide a more balanced view of the abilities of students with ASD, and thereby promote more positive attitudes towards them, and suggest more positive means of support that may be more acceptable to both students with ASD and teaching staff.

What Supports Were Offered to University Students with ASD and How Satisfied Were They with Those Supports and Services?

A wide array of both academic and non-academic supports and services were offered to the respondents and almost all respondents used both academic and non-academic supports. However, despite most respondents agreeing that these supports were helpful, they typically accessed only a few different services occasionally. The reasons were unclear from the current sample, but prior researchers have suggested that students may be struggling unnecessarily due to underutilization of available supports (e.g., Blamires and Gee 2002; MacLeod and Green 2009; Simmeborn Fleischer 2012).

More respondents nominated academic supports as their most helpful support, and more non-academic supports were nominated as their least helpful support (Table 7). Cai and Richdale (2016) likewise found that students with ASD felt more supported with their academic than non-academic concerns. There are at least three possible explanations. First, many non-academic difficulties indicated by the respondents are more typically lifelong problems that may require complex, regular and long-term intervention (e.g., anxiety and depression; Pinder-Amaker 2014). In contrast, some academic needs, such as examination accommodations, may require only occasional and/or relatively simple supports (e.g., notetaking support). Thus, the greater satisfaction with academic supports compared with non-academic supports may reflect the comparatively easier task of managing academic problems. In addition, while universities are more experienced at providing academic supports, they typically do not have autism specific resources or specific training in assisting the needs of students with ASD (Ashbaugh et al. 2017). Alternatively, it may reflect the difficulty some post-secondary students with ASD have in recognizing their non-academic difficulties (e.g., Knott and Taylor 2014) and thus any benefit from non-academic supports. However, it may also highlight that current resources do not adequately meet the non-academic needs of university students with ASD. Clearly, further research is required on this issue.

Responses to open-ended questions provided by nine respondents explained some of the reasons why the respondents did not access some of the available supports. Some stated that they endured stress from excessive delays between requesting support and receiving assistance, and others stated that some supports were not available, suggesting there may be a need for universities to increase resources for students with ASD, a recommendation also made by Pinder-Amaker (2014). In addition, some respondents reported they were impeded from requesting supports by poor self-advocacy skills. This highlights the need for better transition programs that teach students the skills needed to be successful during post-secondary education, including the ability to seek assistance as required. This may also highlight the need to simplify the process of requesting support. Finally, a small minority of respondents reported that the quality of some of the services was poor, indicating the need for more research into improving the quality of support programs, including better training of support personnel. Thus, more non-academic supports may be required to assist university students with ASD. Also, more research is required on reasons why students are not accessing supports, how to encourage support uptake, and how to improve the quality of existing supports to increase their effectiveness and uptake.

In Australia, there are no legal mandates for transition planning during high school, and Cai and Richdale (2016) claimed that many of their participants received little formal assistance during the transition to post-secondary education. Lack of preparation may cause long-term consequences, however, as Pancer et al. (2000) found that the stress felt by students prior to entering post-secondary education predicted student ability to adjust 6 months later. Pancer et al. argued that it was crucial that students be well supported prior to entering post-secondary education, a view endorsed by Pinder-Amaker (2014) and Cai and Richdale (2016). Thus, there may be a need for legislative mandates in Australia to ensure students receive transition support when exiting high school. In the current sample, nine respondents had transition support provided by their university, but a third stated that it was not helpful. Cai and Richdale similarly described one participant who found a TAFE transition program very detrimental. Thus, research may be required to determine the elements of an effective transition program that will better prepare students for post-secondary education.

On-line courses may provide a positive and functional alternative for students with ASD by reducing some on-campus difficulties, such as the need to use social skills in class and issues relating to sensory sensitivities, but less than half of the respondents who had used on-line learning expressed a clear preference for it. This finding emphasizes the heterogeneity of students with ASD and the need to individualize support.

There were differences between genders in overall satisfaction of supports and university experiences. More female respondents agreed that they were dissatisfied with their overall university experiences and support services than male respondents. It was noted that females stated that they experienced more bullying compared to males and that they suffered higher rates of comorbid anxiety and depression. Also, more females than males claimed that approved supports were not provided, and that they withdrew from a unit due to lack of support (despite males and females indicating that they received a similar frequency of supports). These findings must be qualified by the low number of responses, but they may suggest that females have greater unmet needs and that their issues are not as well understood. Research on gender issues is scarce (Kirkovski et al. 2013; Van Wijngaarden-Cremers et al. 2014), and more research is needed to examine whether females with ASD struggle more at university than males, and why this might be so.

The extant literature has primarily provided analysis of supports that assist students to manage their difficulties. Some commentators have argued that many of these supports, such as separate exam accommodations or alternate assessment to group work, are inappropriate because they isolate students with ASD or deny them real-world experience (Knott and Taylor 2014; Madriaga and Goodley 2010). The overwhelming majority of respondents in this review, however, indicated that these supports were useful and appreciated. Nevertheless, the respondents indicated that they continued to suffer with a number of concerns, suggesting that novel solutions may be needed to supplement the existing traditional approaches. For example, future research may consider how student strengths may be used to assist students rather than relying solely on accommodations that mitigate weaknesses. In addition, teaching staff may consider adopting more inclusive and flexible teaching curricula such as those advocated by Universal Design for Learning (CAST 2011).

Cross-tabulation of the current survey demonstrated that family support affected the overall university experience as rated by the respondents. Cai and Richdale (2016) noted that parents felt restrained in the support they could provide due to poor communication between staff and parents, some of which was caused by privacy laws. They argued that a collaborative approach was crucial where students were still dependent on their parents. Thus, the privacy laws meant to protect students may paradoxically deny students with disabilities the vital assistance they need. Hence future research may be needed to determine how the involvement of parents may be better managed and used within current legislation.

Do Students with ASD Delay Their Disclosure to Disability Services, and if So, What Reasons Are Given and What Consequences Can Be Identified from That Delay?

Disclosure was a pre-requisite for participation in this research, so all respondents had disclosed to disability services, however, a quarter of the respondents delayed that disclosure. The respondents provided diverse reasons for their delay including: not knowing how to disclose or that disability services existed; that they wanted to try on their own; that they initially believed there was no need; that they feared being stigmatized; and that they disagreed with their ASD diagnosis. Shattuck et al. (2014) also pointed out that one-third of college students fail to disclose their diagnosis because they do not regard themselves as disabled, and some think they are intellectually superior and so do not need support (e.g., Connor 2013). In addition, some fear that disclosure may lead to more bullying (Cai and Richdale 2016).

Both respondents who delayed their disclosure, and those who did not delay, experienced similar difficulties. For example, both groups agreed that they were bothered by loneliness, anxiety, depression, lack of structure, and quality of sleep. Those who delayed, however, claimed that they received fewer supports, and a higher percentage of delayers indicated that they withdrew from a unit due to lack of support, compared with those who did not delay. Moreover, a greater percentage of non-delayers indicated that they were satisfied with their overall supports (68%) and university experiences (55%) compared to those who delayed (33% for both). The number of respondents was too small to draw firm conclusions, but the findings support the view of Cai and Richdale (2016) that students may be disadvantaged if they delay their disclosure, and that the benefits of disclosure should be promoted to high school students to encourage early disclosure.

Contributions to the Research

A number of contributions to the research on university students with ASD were made. First, there is very limited survey research addressing the experiences of university students with ASD, and very limited Australian research in particular. This research represents one of the first studies from NSW and the ACT addressing this group and the largest quantitative study conducted to date. Second, the strengths of students were identified and a suggestion was provided of how those strengths may be used to support students [with a strengths-based teaching approach such as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) teaching framework]. UDL may possibly reduce student reliance on supports and be particularly useful for those reluctant to disclose or use supports, or indeed for those who are not aware they have ASD. The inclusion of strengths also presented a more balanced understanding of the issues and needs of students with ASD. Third, the sensory sensitivities experienced by more than half of respondents were illuminated, thus demonstrating the need for universities to consider this issue. Finally, there has been very little research focused on female students with ASD, and this study identified that female students may have particular issues that need further investigation, including their apparent poorer overall experiences and higher than expected prevalence rates.

Limitations

The participation rate of universities (57%), and the completed response rate (14.5%) by respondents in this study, was very low. Prior research on university students with ASD (e.g., Gelbar et al. 2015; Simmeborn Fleischer et al. 2013) and on-line surveys in general (McGregor et al. 2016; 22%; Sax et al. 2003; 19.8%) have similarly had low response rates. (The response rates for postal surveys and on-line surveys are similar among college respondents (Shih and Fan 2009) and on-line respondents have been found to miss fewer questions and have fewer invalid answers (Zuidgeest 2011) suggesting that the response rate may not have been higher if a paper alternative had been offered.) Further, there may have been a bias against respondents who have weak computer skills, or those who were academically struggling, or currently experiencing debilitating stress, as these issues may discourage students from responding. In addition, all respondents were recruited through disability support services so the survey was limited to students registered with those services. Also, the present study was limited to NSW and the ACT so the findings are not necessarily applicable to other Australian states. Finally, the low number of respondents restricted granularity of the data.

Future Directions

There is little research into post-secondary transition programs for students with ASD and no intellectual disability (Pinder-Amaker 2014), but programs that assist students to transition to post-secondary education are emerging. Features of these programs include: the use of trained and supervised peer mentors who are selected for compatibility with their mentee, the provision of consistent support (e.g., one hour per day) that is reduced over time to increase independence; a curriculum of support that targets social, time management, organizational, and advocacy skills, as well as resilience and academics; the setting of goals that are continually monitored and annually assessed; indirect involvement of parents (e.g., Rando et al. 2016; Shmulsky et al. 2015); individual orientation of campus and other life skills such as laundry management, financial management, room-mate issues, and transport options, coupled with community education to promote a supportive and inclusive campus environment (e.g., Rutgers University 2016). VanBergeijk, Klin, and Volkmar (2008) suggest that transition should ideally commence prior to students leaving high school with an Individualized College Plan (ICP). They envisaged an ICP that described the strengths and weaknesses of the student, outlined vocational goals, and specified support requirements for post-secondary education that (similarly to that described above) addressed independent living, socialization, mental health, and academic needs. In addition, they recommended that students be exposed to the social and academic requirements of post-secondary education by completing one or two courses from their local community college during an extra year of high school (“Grade 13”; p. 1363). Wei et al. (2016) also point out that students need to be involved in the transition planning process. Benefits have also been reported from shorter summer transition programs that have similar learning curriculums (e.g., Gillespie-Lynch et al. 2016). Also, some universities provide specialist autism programs (e.g., Curtin University 2016) while others collaborate with local autism organizations to access autism specific expertise and resources (e.g., MacLeod and Green 2009). These programs are encouraging but more objective research evidence is required to evaluate the differing approaches and suggestions.

A primary function of post-secondary education is to prepare students for future employment and associated independent living. While recognizing a lack of research, Wehman et al. (2014) argued that education should focus on the transition to employment. They recommended career awareness guidance, paid work experience or internships, collaborations with employers, and training in work place social skills. There is thus a clear need to evaluate the outcomes of post-secondary education in terms of employment, independent living outcomes, and quality of life.

Conclusion

Students with ASD are heterogeneous and although they possess academic strengths, for most, university is a challenging experience where those strengths are constrained by diverse academic and non-academic concerns. Despite this, many students only occasionally used a limited number of available supports, with greater overall satisfaction indicated for academic supports than for non-academic supports. This suggests that more resources may be needed to improve the quality and appropriateness of those supports. Students also had idiosyncratic responses to supports, confirming the importance of individualization of these supports to ensure they meet the unique needs of each student.

Although many respondents agreed that the supports accessed were helpful, some students felt uncomfortable using them, or with asking for assistance. It was suggested that alternative methods of assisting students with more flexible curriculum designs that allowed students to work to their strengths, rather than focusing on assisting deficits, should be considered. The reluctance of some to disclose to disability services, suggests the need for better transition programs that inform students of the advantages of disclosure. Moreover, many respondents took leave before commencing university, indicating that universities may need to provide their own transition programs and not rely solely on the transition programs provided by high schools. Further, the poor advocacy skills described by some, highlight the need to teach readiness skills that would improve the likelihood of students being successful at university. Thus, while the reported provision of resources is encouraging, the present study provides evidence that more needs to be done to better understand the needs of post-secondary students with ASD, and to determine more appropriate strategies of support.

Notes

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Genevieve Godwin who conducted proof reading of this article.

Author Contributions

AA conceived the area of the study, participated in the study design, implemented the study, analysed the data and drafted the manuscript. MC and JS refined the area of study, participated in the study design, and assisted with the interpretation and analysis of the data. All authors read, edited, and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

10803_2017_3257_MOESM1_ESM.docx (26 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 25 KB)

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anastasia H. Anderson
    • 1
  • Mark Carter
    • 1
  • Jennifer Stephenson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Educational Studies, Faculty of Human SciencesMacquarie UniversityNorth RydeAustralia

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