College students on the autism spectrum: Social experience, wellbeing, identity, and more

Lab members involved: Kathryn Bailey, Kyle Frost, Karis Casagrande, and Brooke Ingersoll

Three projects – part of one large mixed methods study – looked at the unique experiences and identities of college students who have ASD.

The first study used both surveys and interviews to examine the relationship between social experiences and subjective well-being in students with ASD. We found that students who were more socially connected, who spent time with friends, and who had social support from family, friends, and school staff had higher levels of subjective well-being. Notably, students with ASD who had lower subjective well-being had challenges balancing the responsibilities of college with their social lives, while students with higher subjective well-being reported that college allowed them to connect with others with similar interests. Teaching skills like self-advocacy, how to meet friends, and how to balance work with social life is likely important to the subjective well-being and social experiences of these students.

Another study of college students with ASD found that students with ASD wanted to be genuinely understood by others. Additionally, these students varied in how they identified with their autism diagnosis. Most students in this sample did not feel that they belonged to a larger autism community, but nonetheless had friends on the spectrum. The results of this study suggested that people without autism need to be accepting and empathetic towards those with ASD. Students with autism are also potentially less likely to use services that require disclosure of their diagnosis, which should be taken into consideration when developing services for this population. A third study surveyed both college students with and without ASD. This study looked at similarities and differences in responses between these students. Relationships between life satisfaction, college well-being, and traits of autism were also examined. No group differences were found in overall college well-being or life satisfaction between students with and without ASD. However, there were differences in life satisfaction and one aspect of college well-being, school connectedness, based on traits of ASD. Across groups, students who felt more connected to their college reported higher satisfaction with life. The results demonstrated the importance of students’ connections to peers and their university, regardless of how many autism symptoms they possess.

Relevant citations:

  • Bailey, K. M., Frost, K. M., Casagrande, K., & Ingersoll, B. (2020). The relationship between social experience and subjective well-being in autistic college students: A mixed methods study. Autism, 24(5), 1081–1092.
  • Frost, K. M., Bailey, K. M., & Ingersoll, B. R. (2019). “I Just Want Them to See Me As… Me”: Identity, Community, and Disclosure Practices Among College Students on the Autism Spectrum. Autism in Adulthood, 1(4), 268-275.
  • Casagrande, K., Frost, K. M., Bailey, K. M., & Ingersoll, B. R. (2020). Positive Predictors of Life Satisfaction for Autistic College Students and Their Neurotypical Peers. Autism in Adulthood, 2(2), 163-170.