Academic Insight: University Life with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Charles O'Connor

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In America, Autism Spectrum diagnoses are on the rise. As of 2016, it is estimated one in 68 children born in the United States will have ASD. Coinciding with this, it is increasingly common for young adults with ASD to be attending college. These students often face unique social and mental health problems compared to their peers, and intervention is often required in order for them to transition successfully into University life. Recently, researchers at the University of California Fullerton conducted a study to evaluate the needs and experiences of Students with ASD, and identify the faculty members at the University level with knowledge about ASD.

Generally, it is agreed that students with ASD need varying levels of support in order to get through college. Most of the supports students had during their k-12 education are no longer available once in a college setting. The Americans with Disabilities Act supports students with disabilities through student disability centers. However, these centers are usually more informed about aiding students with physical or learning disabilities than those with ASD. ASD students, however, require social, communication, and organizational support just as much as academic support. ASD has been described as an “invisible condition”, and there is relatively little research about college students with ASD. These students are often misunderstood and excluded.

One of the two studies done by the University of California got a sense of the experiences and needs of students with ASD. They conducted in-depth interviews with students and faculty and yielded interesting results. As was mentioned in the previous paragraph, both students and staff addressed the “invisible” quality of Autism. Many faculty reported issues in knowing how to serve disabled students “who don’t look disabled”, and students reported difficulty explaining their condition to people who don’t actually see a problem. This was especially true of students were considered to be on the high functioning end of the Autism Spectrum. When speaking of disability services offered for Autism Spectrum Disorder, both students and faculty alike expressed a level of dissatisfaction. One professor described the universities overly simplified solution, simply give students with a disability time and a half on their examinations. This came without offering any mental health assistances beyond this.

The study also discovered that in spite of limited disability services, many faculty members took it upon themselves to research how they can better serve students with ASD and provide further accommodations. Further, the study showed that many students with ASD found their universities Student Services office to be a great support in helping them succeed. Finally, the study encouragingly showed that a lot of professors showed a genuine interest in learning about ASD and receiving training on how to help students with Autism.

The second study conducted by University of California researchers centered solely on faculty members knowledge of ASD as well as their teaching styles. In terms of their professional and personal

connections to ASD, 25 % of faculty interviewed had someone in their family with ASD, and over 49% had students who self-disclosed that they were on the spectrum. When it came to teaching, under half of the professors interviewed included a statement about disability services in their syllabus or made an announcement about disability services at the beginning of the course. The vast majority, (88%) did agree that they would be willing to undergo training on how to accommodate students with ASD. Furthermore, overwhelmingly the professors agreed that students with Autism should have access to accommodations, and were comfortable having students with Autism spectrum disorder in their classes.

Both of these studies indicated a need for faculty on college campuses to be better equipped to work with students with ASD. While most professors have a basic awareness of autism many struggle with how to accommodate students with this disorder. The willingness of professors to learn about and accommodate students with ASD is very promising. ASD is not a diagnosis that should prevent people from getting the education they want and deserve. Those with ASD so much to offer our society and studies like these will help ensure the education system is available for all those who want to better themselves.

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