Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum: College Experiences and Outcomes

Thursday, May 11, 2017: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
C. M. Anderson and C. L. Butt, Interprofessional Health Studies, Towson University, Towson, MD
Background: There is limited information on outcomes for young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in many areas, including postsecondary education.

Objectives: To explore experiences of young adults with ASD and their families related to postsecondary education with an emphasis on common challenges and success factors.

Methods: Qualitative interviews addressing post high school experiences were conducted with 35 parents and 14 young adults with ASD. Interviews were transcribed; material relating to experiences at community or 4-year colleges was segregated, then coded using a grounded theory approach.

Results: Nineteen young adults, ages 19-31, reported a degree-seeking college experience. Several themes surrounding success or failure at college emerged. Student Preparedness: Most students with ASD were well prepared academically, but faced obstacles as a result of core social deficits, executive functioning challenges, rigidity, and mental health issues (e.g. anxiety). Academic achievement fed into what one mother called “a whole collective fantasy” that academics trumped all else on the part of high school, parents, and youth. As a result, deficits in navigating the social world, organization, self-advocacy, and daily living skills were minimally addressed. These deficits became glaring at college, sometimes resulting in catastrophic failure. A father of his son: “He lasted 72 days… He never went to the dining hall once. He could not handle the dining hall, he could not handle the noise, he could not handle the whole thing.” Student/College Fit: When student challenges were taken into account, success was more likely. Students who stayed closer to home and chose a smaller college with a culture accepting of difference did better. The ability to ease in by taking a reduced load was important, but not always accommodated by policies requiring full time attendance for financial aid or on-campus housing. A mother of her daughter: “She fairly quickly found this kind of funky eccentric group and they hung out a lot together and she was the happiest I’ve ever seen her in her life.” Student Challenges, Campus Supports, and Family Support: College students with ASD often struggled socially, sometimes becoming isolated or alienating peers. Issues with organization and planning could lead to falling behind and panic; a tendency not to tell anyone when they were in trouble made things worse. Academic accommodations typically offered were not designed to address social and executive functioning issues. Families often stepped in to bridge this gap, trying to monitor student performance, provide emotional support, and advocate when the student could not. Some paid for peer mentors, tutors, or formal student support programs. A mother of her son: “They said they can give you a tutor… The problem is that he has to initiate this, he has to walk to the disability department to talk to them, but he didn't…”

Conclusions: Many students with ASD face significant challenges at college. A better understanding of how both organizational practices and ASD-associated difficulties interfere with success may help high schools, parents, and colleges more effectively support youth with ASD as they plan for or attend institutions of postsecondary education.