Designing and Evaluating a Summer Transition Program for Incoming College Students on the Autism Spectrum: A Participatory Action Approach

Thursday, May 14, 2015: 2:40 PM
Grand Ballroom B (Grand America Hotel)
C. Shane-Simpson1,2, E. R. Hotez3, J. T. Pickens1, M. Giannola4, A. Donachie5, J. D'Onofrio6, A. Alvizurez7 and K. Gillespie-Lynch8,9, (1)Psychology, The Graduate Center at the City University of New York, New York, NY, (2)Psychology, College of Staten Island, Staten Island, NY, (3)Psychology, The Graduate Center at the City University of New York/Hunter College, New York, NY, (4)Psychology, The College of Staten Island, New York, NY, (5)College of Staten Island, Staten Island, NY, (6)Center for Student Accessibility, College of Staten Island, New York, NY, (7)Psychology, College of Staten Island, New York, NY, (8)Department of Psychology, College of Staten Island - CUNY, Staten Island, NY, (9)Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center - CUNY, New York, NY
Background:  College students with autism may face unique challenges adjusting to college life, including difficulties with socialization, self-advocacy, and anxiety (Adreon & Proctor, 2010; Van Bergeijk et al., 2008). While transition planning is a priority (Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, 2012), a recent review identified only 20 studies conducted with 69 autistic college students (Gelbar et al., 2014). This study utilized a participatory-action design to evaluate a week-long summer transition program for incoming college students with autism.


1. Identify self-reported needs and characteristics of college students with autism;
2. Evaluate a program designed to improve social skills, self-advocacy, technology skills, and classroom readiness.

Methods:  Curriculum was adapted from our peer-mentorship program by incorporating written and focus group recommendations from previous mentors and mentees with ASD. Sessions were partially facilitated by previous mentors/mentees.  Twelve autistic students enrolled in the program. Eleven students self-identified and/or were classified as autistic on IEP’s. One student exhibited heightened autistic traits (SRS-2 of 92), but did not identify as autistic. Participants consisted of nine freshmen, one returning freshman who was gifted but whose behaviors made it unlikely that he could continue college without supports, and two sophomores with social difficulties (not considered transitioning in analyses). Pre-tests/post-tests assessed autistic traits (SRS-2; Constantino & Gruber, 2012), anxiety (Spielberger et al., 1983), self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965), autism knowledge (Stone, 1987), disability identity (Darling, & Heckert, 2010), academic self-efficacy (Baker & Siryk, 1987), stigma (Bogardus, 1933), and included interviews assessing knowledge and recommendations. Nonverbal intelligence was assessed with the Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (Brown et al., 1997).

Results:  During pre-program testing, students expressed interest in developing social skills (n=9). When asked to define self-advocacy, most could not (n=8), others thought it was standing up for yourself (n=4) or for others (n=1). Students reported varied technology needs ranging from help printing to programming and a variety of academic areas they needed help developing.  Although participants’ intelligences ranged from the 2nd to 90th percentile, intelligence was unrelated to baseline measures. However, Pearson’s correlations (after ascertaining normality of data) revealed that autistic symptoms were positively correlated with anxiety (p=.002) and negatively with self-esteem (p=.04), self-efficacy (p=.045), and autism knowledge (p=.014). Thus, programming focused on core difficulties may be beneficial for autistic students with varied cognitive skills.

T-tests revealed decreased anxiety (p=.043), a trend towards decreased symptoms (p=.059), and increases in disability pride (p<.001), perceived exclusion (p=.033) and medical model orientations from pre- to post-test (p=.011). The same patterns were observed with only the transitioning students except that symptoms decreased (p=.028) and anxiety did not (p=.069). Students also reported learning how to self-advocate and gaining social support.

Conclusions:  While improvements in autistic symptoms, anxiety, and disability pride suggest that transition programming may help incoming students with autism, increases in perceived exclusion suggest that programs should include peers with varied disabilities. Future programs should be guided by the interests/needs of autistic individuals and incorporate principles of universal design.