Using New Research to Support College Students with Autism

Josh Duke

When you think about supports for students with autism, programs and services at the Pre-K – 12 level usually come to mind. But what happens when these students graduate high school and enroll in college?

The Research Gap

Dr. Bradley Cox, associate professor of higher education at FSU, addresses this gap in autism research by promoting the use of emerging evidence to improve access, experiences, and outcomes for college students with autism. Funded by the National Science Foundation, his current research explores academic success for students with autism-related characteristics, particularly in gateway STEM courses.

“Our research shows that students’ autism-related characteristics have no relationship with academic performance,” says Cox. “Because these students’ GPAs are unlikely to be negatively affected by their autistic traits, efforts to improve outcomes for these students may be most effective if institutions focus on other aspects of the college experience.”

How Colleges are Helping

“It seems colleges and universities are starting to take notice of students with autism,” says Cox. “A growing number of schools are creating autism-specific programs, many of which are incredibly comprehensive and well respected; but those programs are generally expensive and serve a pretty small group of students – generally between 5 and forty students per campus.”

The good news is that many schools are starting to infuse autism awareness into their core activities. “We’ve done several on-campus training sessions where schools invite faculty, administrators, and staff from across the college to learn more about these students,” says Cox. “These schools can support students with autism–not with some autism-specific initiative–but by ensuring all their activities are appropriate and effective for students with autism.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

While a number of institutions have made great strides in supporting students with autism, there is still much work to be done. “We can’t assume that standard disability accommodations, like a class note-taker or extended time on tests, will be the best way to support these students,” says Cox. Other research has shown that these students consider college success to be more than just classroom achievement; they identify things like parental support, employment beyond graduation, and available resources as factors that influence college success. Students with autism also desire different types of support than are typically used for students with disabilities, such as increased autism awareness on campus, sensory-friendly spaces, and disability support groups.

Translating Research into Practice

Cox serves as the executive director of the College Autism Network (CAN), a nonprofit organization he founded in 2016 to help translate emerging academic research into effective educational practice. The organization distributes monthly newsletters, provides a variety of resources for postsecondary professionals, and supports student self-advocacy. CAN’s Virtual Association of Scholars (CANVAS) facilitates communication and collaboration between nearly one hundred scholars from across the world through its email list, working groups, and monthly online presentations.

Last November, the 2nd annual College Inclusion Summit hosted more than 200 educational professionals and autistic students to share insights that support college success for students with autism. The 3rd annual College Inclusion Summit will be hosted by Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN on October 23-25. You can register online here.

Interested in learning more about autism in higher education? Check out our doctoral program in higher education!