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Autism in College: What Do We Know?

How to support college students on the spectrum.

This month I wanted to focus on issues related to college students with ASD. In April, the UC Riverside SEARCH Center held an open event called, "Autism goes to college: What this means for UCR." We got a great turnout, and lots of interest from professors, staff members, individuals with ASD, and those who have a loved one on the spectrum.

I wanted to share some resources from that presentation, and do an interview with my colleague and SEARCH Director Jan Blacher about her experiences working with college students with ASD.

Katherine: What first got you interested in working with college students on the autism spectrum?

Jan: About five years ago, I had several students self-identify in my classes, and a couple of them came to the office just to chat. This led to the idea of obtaining views about autism from across the entire University campus — faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduate students, resulting in "Autism Awareness: Views from a campus community," a paper in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Tipton & Blacher, 2014).

There was such an interesting and reflective response to this survey from faculty, in particular, that I thought we should probe “what faculty know” and “what faculty need to know” further. That led to the creations of the Autism 101 Project. As a result, there are two more papers now available online (Bolourian, Zeedyk & Blacher, 2018, JADD; Zeedyk, Bolourian, & Blacher, 2018, Autism).

The theoretical underpinnings of Autism 101 were drawn from Robert Pianta’s work on student-teacher relationships, where he clearly established that warm and non-conflictual early relationships were predictive of better academic and social outcomes later on, even during middle school.

While his work pertained mainly to neurotypical children, our earlier work on student-teacher relationships with children and youth with intellectual disability (ID) or ASD indicated that teachers of these two groups of children reported more conflict and less warmth than they did for their other typical students. This, of course, does not bode well for students with neurodevelopmental disabilities, like ASD, in college, and was thus another motivation for Autism 101.

Katherine: Do you think these students face particular challenges that other college students might not be aware of? What are some examples?

Jan: Of course. They face challenges in many aspects of college life that typical students also face, only perhaps in a less dramatic manner. For example, all students worry about making and keeping friends, or in having a date. For youth on the spectrum, complex social relationships are quite difficult to navigate. They might feel they don’t know what to say or how to say it; they may even lack the social motivation to do so. In addition, large groups of other students might be intimidating.

One recommendation is for students with ASD to select activities that are of interest to them and hope that other like-minded students will also do so. These might include computer clubs, Anime, or a particular sport.

Katherine: If you had to identify the top two “most important things to know” about working with college-aged adults with ASD, what would they be? And would it be different for professors vs. school advisors vs. parents?

Jan: You may not know for sure whether or not one of your students is “officially” on the spectrum, but even if someone seems to be “different” (i.e., avoids socializing with others; doesn’t make eye contact; speaks out too much or inappropriately), here are the two things I would want you to consider:

1. Provide options for class projects. Do not require that students must work in groups; always have an equivalent assignment that can be done independently. This will benefit other students as well, e.g., those who may have to make up an assignment.

2. Develop a mentor-student relationship. Students remember college most fondly when they recall a favorite professor or someone who may have reached out in some way. Learn something about the student; if the student self-identifies as on the spectrum, ask him or her how you can make the class experience more enjoyable and accessible for him or her. This may also require you to contact student support services, named differently on every campus (Student Disability Services; Student Disability Support Center, etc.)

Campus advisors/counselors don’t often know the specifics of ASD, and I would first advise such individuals to contact faculty on campus who study or work with people on the spectrum, and who are intimately familiar with the characteristics, needs, and capabilities of these students. Often counselors focus on their deficits rather than on their skills.

Parents worry a lot about their sons or daughters who attend college, particularly if they are no longer living at home. That said, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (the Buckley Amendment) does not allow parents to contact professors directly for information about their son or daughter, unless the college youth signs a waiver to that effect. Thus, it is also important that parents have a good relationship with their son or daughter so they can learn about what is happening at college.

Thanks to Jan for answering these questions and helping to support students with ASD.

Finally, I briefly spoke with one of our Ph.D. students about her experience working on these projects. Yasamine Bolourian has been involved in these projects for over four years, and I asked her what she thinks are important things for people to know about college students with ASD.

She noted how critical it is for people to focus on students’ strengths rather than deficits. She said, “We know that students with ASD, like all students, have unique skills — whether that be attention to detail or excelling in the sciences. It’s important for university faculty and staff to not only make attempts to better understand ASD but also to get to know the individual student and his/her strengths and interests.”

Secondly, she talked about the importance of parent-child dialogue about whether (and when) to disclose their diagnosis. She said, “It’s important for parents to open a dialogue with their young adults about how they would like to handle the issue of disclosure — whether they would like to disclose their diagnosis to student support services — which for each person may have its own set of pros and cons. We recommend that parents provide support and counsel, as well as raise important questions about the benefits and consequences of disclosure.”

Faculty and graduate students at the SEARCH Center continue their commitment to better understand and accommodate the ASD community in postsecondary settings by investigating the perspectives of university faculty, staff, and students; by developing faculty training materials; and by producing a documentary entitled Autism Goes to College. We look forward to showcasing our work through this film, but for now, here’s a teaser.

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