Autism Goes to College: Understanding the Needs of a Student Population on the Rise


Understanding the needs of adolescents and emerging adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) with respect to transition to postsecondary education is critical to development of user-informed transition programming. Parents of adolescents and emerging adults with ASD (n = 52) and ADHD (n = 47) completed an online survey. Social interaction training and independent living training were services frequently requested by parents in the ASD group. Additionally, parents of postsecondary students with ASD endorsed distinct challenges with self-advocacy, managing emotions, and managing personal/adaptive skills relative to postsecondary students with ADHD. The profile of parent-reported difficulties and needed services compared to transition to postsecondary education for students with ASD is distinguishable from that for ADHD, suggesting individualized transition planning and in-college supports.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Non-parametric tests revealed no relationship between the type of school attended and the student’s diagnostic group.


  1. Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101–336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990).

  2. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th edn.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist 55(5), 469–480.

  4. Auyeung, B., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., & Allison, C. (2008). The Autism Spectrum Quotient: Children’s Version (AQ-Child). Journal of Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1230–1240. doi:10.1007/s10803-007-0504-z.

  5. Bal, V. H., Kim, S.-H., Cheong, D., & Lord, C. (2015). Daily living skills in individuals with autism spectrum disorder from 2 to 21 years of age. Autism: the international journal of research and practice, 19(7), 774–784. doi: 10.1177/1362361315575840.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Barkley, R. A. (1997). Behavioral inhibition, sustained attention, and executive functions: Constructing a unifying theory of ADHD. Psychological Bulletin, 121(1), 65–94.

  7. Barkley, R. A. (2012). Executive functions: What they are, how they work, and why they evolved. New York: Guilford Press.

  8. Barkley, R. A., Murphy, K. R., & Fischer, M. (2008). ADHD in adults: What the science says. New York: Guilford Press.

  9. Cadman, T., Eklund, H., Howley, D., Hayward, H., Clarke, H., Findon, J., & Glaser, K. (2012). Caregiver burden as people with autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder transition into adolescence and adulthood in the United Kingdom. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(9), 879–888. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2012.06.017.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Cheung, C. H. M., Rijdijk, F., McLoughlin, G., Faraone, S. V., Asherson, P., & Kuntsi, J. (2015). Childhood predictors of adolescent and young adult outcome in ADHD. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 62, 92–100. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.01.011.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  11. Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and Identity. (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  12. Duke, R., Conner, C., Kreiser, N., Hudson, R., & White, S. W. (2013). Doing better: identifying the needs and challenges of college students with autism spectrum disorders. Poster session presented at the meeting of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy, Nashville, TN.

  13. Dupaul, G. J., Weyandt, L. L., O’Dell, S. M., & Varejao, M. (2009). College students with ADHD: Current status and future directions. Journal of Attention Disorders, 13(3), 234–250.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. Eckes, S. E., & Ochoa, T. A. (2005). Students with disabilities: Transitioning from high school to higher education. American Secondary Education, 33(3), 6–20.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Fleming, A. P., & McMahon, R. J. (2012). Developmental context and treatment principles for ADHD among college students. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 15(4), 303–329. doi: 10.1007/s10567-012-0121-z.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Foubert, J. D., Nixon, M. L., Sisson, V. S., & Barnes, A. C. (2005). A longitudinal study of Chickering and Reisser’s vectors: Exploring gender differences and implications for refining the theory. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 461–471.

  17. Friedman, S. R., Rapport, L. J., Lumley, M., Tzelepis, A., VanVoorhis, A., Stettner, L., & Kakaati, L. (2003). Aspects of social and emotional competence in adult Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Neuropsychology, 17(1), 50–58. doi: 10.1037/0894-4105.17.1.50.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Gelman, A., Hill, J., & Yajima, M. (2012). Why we (usually) don’t have to worry about multiple comparisons. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 5(2), 189–211.

  19. Gobbo, K., & Shmulsky, S. (2013). Faculty experience with college students with autism spectrum disorders: A qualitative study of challenges and solutions. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 29(1), 13–22. doi: 10.1177/1088357613504989.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Hall, C. L., Newell, K., Taylor, J., Sayal, K., Swift, K. D., & Hollis, C. (2013). “Mind the gap”—mapping services for young people with ADHD transitioning from child to adult mental health services. BMC psychiatry, 13(186), 1–9.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Hewitt, L. E. (2011). Perspectives on support needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorders transition to college. Top Lang Disorders, 31(3), 273–285. doi: 10.1097/TLD.0b013e318227fd19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2004). Adult outcome for children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 45(2), 212–229. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00215.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).

  24. Kapp, S. K., Gantman, A., & Laugeson, E. a. (2011). Transition to Adulthood for High-Functioning Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In A Comprehensive Book on Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp. 452–477).

  25. Landis, J., & Koch, G. (1977). The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data. Biometrics, 33, 159–174. doi:10.2307/2529310.

  26. Lerner, M. D., Calhoun, C. D., Mikami, A. Y., & De Los Reyes, A. (2012). Understanding parent-child social informant discrepancy in youth with high functioning autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(12), 2680–2692. doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1525-9.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Levy, S. E., Giarelli, E., Lee, L., Schieve, L. A., Kirby, R. S., Cunniff, C., & Rice, C. E (2010). Autism spectrum disorder and co-occurring developmental, psychiatric, and medical conditions among children in multiple populations of the United States. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 31(4), 267–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Levy, A., & Perry, A. (2011). Research in autism spectrum disorders outcomes in adolescents and adults with autism: A review of the literature. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(4), 1271–1282. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2011.01.023.

  29. McKee, T. E. (2008). Comparison of a norm-based versus criterion-based approach to measuring ADHD symptomatology in college students. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11(6), 677–688.

  30. Meaux, J. B., Green, A., & Broussard, L. (2009). ADHD in the college student: a block in the road. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 16, 248–256.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. Morrison, J. Q., Sansosti, F. J., & Hadley, W. M. (2009). Parent perceptions of the anticipated needs and expectations for support for their college-bound students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 22(2), 78–87.

  32. Norvilitis, J. M., Ingersoll, T., Zhang, J., & Jia, S. (2008). Self-reported symptoms of ADHD among college students in China and the United States. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11(5), 558–567.

  33. Palinkas, L. A. (2014). Qualitative and mixed methods in mental health services and implementation research. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 43(6), 851–861.

  34. Perneger, T. V. (1998). What’s wrong with Bonferroni adjustments. BMJ, 316(7139), 1236–1238.

  35. Roberts, R. J. J., & Pennington, B. F. (1996). An interactive framework for examining prefrontal cognitive processes. Developmental Neuropsychology, 12(1), 105–126.

  36. Rooney, M., Chronis-Tuscano, A., & Yoon, Y. (2012). Substance use in college students with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 16(3), 221–234. doi: 10.1177/1087054710392536.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  37. Schwanz, K. a, Palm, L. J., & Brallier, S. a. (2007). Attention problems and hyperactivity as predictors of college grade point average. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11(3), 368–373. doi: 10.1177/1087054707305155.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. Shattuck, P. T., Narendorf, S. C., Cooper, B., Sterzing, P. R., Wagner, M., & Taylor, J. L. (2012). Postsecondary education and employment among youth with an autism spectrum disorder. Pediatrics, 129(6), 1042–1049. doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-2864.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  39. Shaw-Zirt, B., Popali-Lehane, L., Chaplin, W., & Bergman, A. (2005). College students with symptoms of ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 8(3), 109–120.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. Sofaer, S. (1999). Qualitative methods: what are they and why use them? Health Services Research, 34(5), 1101–1118.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  41. Stoner, J. B., Angell, M. E., House, J. J., & Bock, S. J. (2007). Transitions: Perspectives from parents of young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 19(1), 23–39. doi: 10.1007/s10882-007-9034-z.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Swift, K. D., Hall, C. L., Marimuttu, V., Redstone, L., Sayal, K., & Hollis, C. (2013). Transition to adult mental health services for young people with Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A qualitative analysis of their experiences. BMC psychiatry, 13(74), 1–12.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Test, D. W., Smith, L. E., & Carter, E. W. (2014). Equipping youth with autism spectrum disorders for adulthood: Promoting rigor, relevance, and relationships. Remedial & Special Education, 35(2), 80–90. doi: 10.1177/0741932513514857.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Vanbergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: college and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1359–1370. doi: 10.1007/s10803-007-0524-8.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  45. Wehmeyer, M. L., Shogren, K. A., Zager, D., Smith, T. E. C., & Simpson, R. (2010). ResearchBased principles and practices for educating students with autism: Self-determination and social interactions. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 45(4), 475–486.

  46. Wenzel, C., & Brown, J. T. (2014). Beyond academic intelligence: Increasing college success for students on the autism spectrum. In F. R. Volkmar, S. J. Rogers, R. Paul, K. A. Pelphrey (Eds.), Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders (Vol. 2). Wiley.

  47. White, S. W., Elias, R., Salinas, C. E., Capriola, N., Conner, M., Asselin, S. B., … Getzel, E. E. (2016). Research in developmental disabilities students with autism spectrum disorder in college: Results from a preliminary mixed methods needs analysis. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 56, 29–40. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2016.05.010.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  48. White, S. W., Ollendick, T. H., & Bray, B. C. (2011). College students on the autism spectrum: Prevalence and associated problems. Autism, 15(6), 683–701.

  49. Wolf, L. E. (2001). College students with ADHD and other hidden disabilities. outcomes and interventions. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 931(1), 385–395. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05792.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  50. Yardley, L., & Bishop, F. (2007). Mixing qualitative and quantitative methods: A pragmatic approach. In D. Willing & W. Stainton-Rogers (Eds.) Handbook of qualitative research in psychology. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 352–370.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This project was supported by National Institutes of Mental Health R34MH104337 to SWW; and the Virginia Tech Graduate Research Development Program to RE.

Author Contributions

RE participated in the study design and coordination of the study, carried out the analyses, interpreted results, and drafted the manuscript. SWW conceived of the study, participated in its design, supervised the analyses, and reviewed and revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rebecca Elias.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

Both 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.



See Table 4.

Table 4 General Instructions: The online survey consists of 2 qualitative open-ended questions. All standard questions should be coded unless the survey respondent did not give an answer, or gave “I don’t know” as a response; these items should be left blank

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Elias, R., White, S.W. Autism Goes to College: Understanding the Needs of a Student Population on the Rise. J Autism Dev Disord 48, 732–746 (2018).

Download citation


  • Autism
  • Emerging adult
  • Postsecondary
  • Transition