Student Voices: The Perspectives of Autistic Youth on High School Experiences

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
K. Bottema-Beutel1, J. Cuda2, S. Y. Kim1 and S. Crowley1, (1)Lynch School of Education, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, (2)Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Background: Students in US schools are increasingly identified with autism as a primary disability category. Autistic high school students have reported dissatisfaction with their school experiences, and often feel inadequately supported by school professionals (Bottema-Beutel, Mullins, Harvey, Gustafson, & Carter, 2016). Currently, there is little research that solicits the perspectives of autistic individuals that could be used to improve provision of school-based supports. Gathering and understanding the perspectives of these students on school-based services is critical to ensuring their usability and effectiveness.

Objectives: The purpose of this project is to examine perspectives of US autistic high school students and recent graduates on their experiences in high schools, gathered via an online survey.

Methods: Participants were recruited via email solicitations to groups serving autistic populations (e.g. Federation for Children with Special Needs, Special Needs Advocacy Network), a Facebook advertisement, recruitment flyers posted on several Boston/Cambridge area campuses, and word of mouth. Two-hundred and thirty-six participants that reported receiving special education services in high school under the autism category completed an online survey. The survey included demographic questions, and questions pertaining to school experiences in four domains: (a) teachers and other service providers, (b) friends and peers, (c) family, and (d) factors that made high school positive and negative. Responses were coded using content analysis (Neuendorf, 2016). After developing a code book inductively from the data, three graduate students coded all survey responses, and overlapped on 20% of the data. All categories were coded to kappa levels > .60, indicating sufficient inter-coder agreement. Frequencies were derived for each category; we report the five most prevalent categories within each open-ended question, as well as statistics indicating the valence (i.e., whether positive or negative) of several questions.

Results: Respondents were 50% female, 18% LGBTQ, and 31% non-white. Ages ranged from 16- 24. Sixty-six percent of respondents indicated that their disability (ASD) negatively impacted their time in high school, while only 3.7% of respondents indicated positive impacts. Thirty percent provided responses that were neutral, ambiguous, or un-codable as negative or positive. Ninety-one percent of respondents were able to identify at least one positive aspect of their experience in high school, and 85% were able to identify at least one negative aspect (another 10% indicated that they preferred not to think about/report negative aspects). Specific contributions of teachers, family, and peers to school experiences are reported in Table 2.

Conclusions: Our results have several implications for school professionals who support autistic students. First, school professionals should take proactive steps to encourage autistic students to consider the positive aspects of their diagnosis. Second, autistic students should be supported in developing peer friendships that are emotionally supportive, and relationships with teachers or caregivers that provide help, attention, and care. Finally, as nearly a third of respondents reported having been bullied in high school, school professionals should work with the general population of students to prevent bullying and other forms of peer aggression toward autistic students.