Experiences of College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Successes, Struggles, and Needs

Thursday, May 11, 2017: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
S. L. Jackson1, L. A. Hart1, C. Beyer1, Z. J. Williams1, J. T. Brown2 and F. R. Volkmar1, (1)Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (2)College Autism Spectrum, West Hartford, CT
Background: Despite the growing number of college students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; Shattuck et al., 2012), our understanding of their experiences/needs is surprisingly limited. Difficulties with anxiety, loneliness, and depression are the most commonly reported experiences of students with ASD (Gelbar, Smith, & Reichow, 2014), often stemming from non-academic aspects of college (e.g. living arrangements, social relationships, and structuring time). As a result, despite academic proficiency, students with ASD are less likely to graduate (39%) than the general student-body (52%), and students with other disabilities (41%; Gelbar, Shefcyk, & Reichow, 2015). As successful completion of a college degree is significantly related to positive adult outcomes in ASD (Newman et al., 2011), further research on this topic is needed.

Objectives: The current study aims to expand our knowledge of the academic/social experiences and mental well-being of college students with ASD, with the goal of using this information to help schools understand how to best support these students. 

Methods: The current sample consists of 33 college students with ASD (48% male; age 18-57, M=23.0, SD=7.45). Using an anonymous, online survey, data was collected on participant demographics, academic/social experiences, and physical/mental health. Survey design was based on collaborations between Yale, College Autism Spectrum, and current/former college students with ASD. Data collection is ongoing.


Academic: Participants were primarily undergraduates (87.9%), studying at 4-year universities (93.1%). The majority stated being comfortable with their academic workload (69.7%). On average, participants utilized 2.5 support services, with academic advising (67%), exam accommodation (45%), and counseling/psychological services (36%) being the most commonly reported. Nearly one-third of participants desired additional/adjusted services, with housing accommodations, and improved counseling/psychological services being suggested most frequently.

Social: Participants reported an average of 1-2 close friends at school, with the majority (60.6%) stating that they were satisfied with their number of friends. However, most of the participants also reported feeling isolated (75.7%) or lacking companionship (87.9%) ‘some of the time’ to ‘often’. Bullying at college was experienced by 24.2% of the sample, with the most common forms being exclusionary (18.2%), or verbal/provocative (12.1%).

Mental Health: Co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses were present in 45.5% of participants, with the most common being GAD (27.3%), SAD (18.2%), and depression (18.2%). Based on DASS-21 scores, participants reported ‘severe’ symptom levels of depression (M=13.2, SD=11.4), anxiety (M=9.6, SD=7.5), and stress (M=i5.0, SD=8.1) on average. Perhaps of greatest concern, 68.8% of participants reported lifetime occurrences of suicidal ideation (37.5% in the past year), including 46.9% who made plans for an attempt, and 9.4% who made a suicide attempt.

Conclusions: Similar to previous findings, the difficulties faced by college students with ASD in this study generally stemmed from non-academic aspects of collegiate life. Of particular concern were the elevated levels of loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, and suicidal behaviors. Mirroring suggestions of the study participants, these findings would suggest colleges could help these students improve their experiences at school with support programs designed to build social skills/networks (e.g. peer-mentor programs, ASD housing/clubs), and by improving the availability and quality of counseling/psychological services.