Experiences of College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Focus Group Study

Thursday, May 11, 2017: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
J. Kaboski1, J. M. Olivieri2, E. A. DeLucia1, K. Tang1, M. B. White3 and A. R. Sinko3, (1)University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN, (2)Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN, (3)University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN
Background: Current evidence suggests that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have more difficulty obtaining a college education than their typically developing (TD) peers (e.g., Getzel, 2008; Jorgensen et al., 2009). The U.S. Department of Education states that 35% of students with ASD who entered college completed a degree within 6 years, as opposed to 51% of TD adults (Sanford et al., 2011). It is well documented that college students with ASD may struggle with both social and organizational aspects of the college experience (White, Ollendick & Bray, 2011). However, few focus groups, interview-style studies, or case studies have been conducted to analyze the difficulties that ASD students face in college, particularly with regard to students who have attended four-year colleges.

Objectives:  The primary goal of this study was to better understand the experiences of students with ASD as they navigate their enrollment in a four-year college. Questions asked were on the subject of: (1) academia, (2) socializing, and (3) available resources. This focus group was designed to evaluate the successes and gaps in four-year colleges at providing adequate support for ASD students in order to succeed.

Methods:  Five young adults were recruited based on their self report of having received some ASD-related diagnosis at some point in their lives (including DSM-IV-TR diagnoses of Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS) and attended at least 1 semester of four-year college. Participants came to our laboratory for two focus group sessions one week apart. Each session was two hours long and was facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with college students with ASD. The investigators provided the facilitator with prompts and questions as a foundation of issues to discuss. Sessions were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed for common themes and experiences among the participants.

Results:  The participants’ conversations during the focus group were transcribed to analyze common themes among students with ASD in upper level educational institutions. Participants identified academic difficulties regarding time management, long term papers or other long-term assignments, as well as a preference to work independently rather than in groups. Multiple participants also reported feeling confused when trying to understand and interpret a professor’s lecture or instructions for an assignment, and participants often did not fully understand the process of obtaining accommodations through Disability Services. Participants recommended that incoming students with ASD contact the Disabilities Services at their college before attending in order to understand the services available to them before classes begin. With regard to social aspects of college, participants reported difficulties meeting other students in classes, and perceiving their peers not comprehending or understanding their needs. In particular, participants who had roommates often reported difficulty sharing living quarters with them.

Conclusions:  These results highlight common experiences among several college students with ASD who all attended different four-year colleges. They suggest a need for further evidence-based academic and social supports for college students with ASD.