Peer Responses to Autism-Related Behaviors in a Postsecondary Classes: An Experimental Examination

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
B. E. Cox, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL; College Autism Network, Tallahassee, FL

Fewer than 39% of postsecondary students with autism in the United States earn any form of postsecondary credential within 6 years of starting higher education (Newman et al., 2011). These students often struggle with classroom behaviors that negatively affect their course performance, particularly if classes include group assignments (Cai & Richdale, 2015; Freedman, 2010; Gobbo & Shmulsky, 2014). Moreover, because students with autism are strongly affected by their peers’ acceptance of them academically and socially (Causton-Theoharis, & Malmgren, 2005), the challenges of working on group assignments are likely magnified when peers hold negative attitudes toward the students with autism. Although initial evidence (e.g., Butler & Gillis, 2011; Nevill & White, 2011) suggests college students are generally accepting of other students with autism, such openness appears to be conditional on the scenario in which the autism-related behaviors occurred and whether a study’s respondents realized they were answering questions about a student with autism.


This study examined college students’ attitudes towards other students who display autism-related behaviors in one of their classes and assesses how open college students are to working with their autistic peers. In doing so, the current study overcame several limitations in the related literature by employing an experimental design to assess the attitudes of a large sample (n=1,499) of diverse college students who reviewed randomly assigned vignettes that varied in two distinct ways.


This study employed an experimental design in which participants were randomly assigned to view 2 vignettes that varied across two conditions: academic setting and respondent priming for ASD. The “Quiet_Neighbor” vignette presented a student displaying autism-related characteristics in a classroom setting, while the “Group_Gamer” vignette was situated in an out-of-class meeting about a group assignment. Version “A” of each vignette made no mention of ASD, whereas Version “B” insinuated the student might be on the autism spectrum. Vignette presentation order was randomly assigned.

Respondents’ attitudes toward the students depicted in the vignettes were assessed using Likert-scale items adapted from Nevill & White (2011) and White et al. (2016) (e.g., “I would not mind this student in my classroom”) via a series of ANOVAs.


Across all six questions measuring attitudes toward their autistic peers, a comparison of marginal means indicates the presence of main effects for both the vignettes and the priming conditions. Participants consistently responded more positively to a student displaying autism-related characteristics in the Quiet_Neighbor scenario than in the Group_Gamer scenario. Moreover, participants who were primed to think the behaviors on display in the vignettes were related to autism reported positive attitudes toward the students displaying those behaviors.


Classroom peers are more accepting of and friendly toward college students with autism when they 1) don’t have to interact with the autistic student directly, or 2) can attribute some autism-related behaviors to a diagnosis. Thus, students with autism may benefit from disclosure to peers if their autism-related behaviors are likely noticeable to other students, particularly if they have to work with peers on group assignments.