About Us

The College Autism Network is a national nonprofit organization linking varied stakeholders engaged in evidence-based efforts to improve access, experiences, and outcomes for college students with autism.

Check out an overview of our purpose, goals, activities, principles, beliefs, language, & history below.

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Why We Exist

The College Autism Network is a national nonprofit organization linking varied stakeholders engaged in evidence-based efforts to improve access, experiences, and outcomes for college students with autism.

What We Want

Student Well-being: We want autistic students to feel confident that they have the personal qualities and institutional support necessary to succeed in college.

Educational Achievement: We want to maximize the likelihood that students with autism enter, persist, and graduate from college.

Institutional Responsiveness: We want educational institutions to be responsive to autistic students’ specific needs, appreciate their distinct perspectives, and highlight the unique contributions these students can make to their institutions, fields of study, and society at large.

What We Do

Advocacy: We empower college students with autism by amplifying their voices within the academic community and by providing free access to materials designed to facilitate their successful transition into, through, and out of college.

Research: We facilitate research that uses qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the systemic, institutional, and personal conditions that shape college access, experiences, and outcomes for students on the autism spectrum.

Training: We conduct professional development workshops and distribute training materials to administrators, researchers, students, parents, and instructors.

How We Operate

CAN’s principles guide the implementation of our activities.

Open Source, Open Access: The College Autism Network is a nonprofit organization. Therefore, whenever possible, we provide free and open access to all of our materials, typically via Creative Commons license.

Proactive Inclusion: We consider the needs, abilities, interests, and opportunities for individuals across the autism spectrum, as well as those variety of stakeholders.We wish to speak with, not for, people with autism. We use our network to extend the audience that hears the voices of autistic college students.

Collaboration: The College Autism Network’s purpose is broad, our activities diverse, and our goals multi-faceted. To achieve these goals, we will work with wide-ranging stakeholders to create synergistic initiatives designed to magnify our collective contributions.

How We Think

CAN’s beliefs about autism and college student success continue to evolve in response to emerging research and personal experiences. These core beliefs undergird our current activities.

Holistic Integration: Institutions and society can do more than reactively offer piecemeal accommodations to meet legal/policy mandates; they can proactively question convention, challenge assumptions, and explore possibilities for structural and cultural changes that incorporate autistic individuals as valuable contributors to a diverse human tapestry.

Distinctive, Not Disabled: We acknowledge the very real physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges that often accompany autism. However, we are critical of the medical model that presents autism as a “disorder” or “disability” characterized by “deficits.” Although these terms may be necessary to establish policy-level protections and resources for autistic individuals, we believe it more appropriate to refer to people with autism collectively as “distinctive” and individually as “unique.”

Identity Intersectionality: Autism is one element of a complex personal identity which cannot be reduced to simplistic autism-specific models of personal development.

Shared Responsibility: Although autistic individuals gain personal empowerment through self-advocacy, educational institutions and society at large share responsibility for creating and maintaining environments in which autistic students are understood, respected, valued, and provided opportunities to achieve success as they define it themselves.

What We Say

Person-first or identity-first? We do both. Here’s why.

There is considerable disagreement about the appropriate use of language associated with autism (see Lydia Brown’s article for details), with members of some organizations preferring “identity-first” language (e.g., autistic student) while other advocates (and the APA manual used by most academic journals) promote “person-first” language (e.g., individual with autism). The students we interviewed for one of our recent studies used a wide variety of terms when describing themselves and others with autism.

Moreover, although the American Psychological Association labels autism as a “disorder” and the medical field speaks of “co-morbid” conditions (other medical or psychological conditions occurring concurrently with autism), some advocates challenge the use of pathological terminology to describe what they view as a manifestation of “neurodiversity.” Complicating matters further is the recent change in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) that eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome as a distinct diagnosis and folded it into the broad “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD) label. Furthermore, rapidly increasing rates of diagnosis and emerging research suggesting gene variations linked to autism are also common in the broader population have undermined any effort to claim the existence of a universal understanding of what is meant by the term “autism.”

Because the College Autism Network seeks to bridge gaps between stakeholders, we are consciously not “picking a side” regarding terminology. Rather, we use both person-first and identity-first language throughout our materials but try to retain students’ and authors’ original language whenever possible.

What We’ve Done

The work of the College Autism Network (CAN) began informally during the fall semester of 2014. The College Autism Network was formally incorporated as a non-profit organization in January 2016. Although we see our mission as three-fold (Advocacy, Research, and Teaching), our work thus far has focused on research. We started with research for two reasons. First, our Founding Director (Dr. Bradley E. Cox) is a faculty member at a major research institution, Florida State University. Second, research will provide the foundation for effective advocacy and evidence-based training products. We have been pursuing three lines of research.

Amplifying the Voices of Autistic College Students through In-Person Interviews
Drawing from personal interviews with a diverse group of students with autism, the current study (1) amplifies these students’ voices, (2) describes tensions between their public and private identities, (3) outlines the academic, social, emotional, self-advocacy, and communication challenges they face in college, and (4) proposes both general principles and specific practices that could be leveraged to facilitate postsecondary success for students with autism.

Initial results from this study have been presented at the 2015 meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA). Here are the slides from the presentation and the original conference paper. A revised version of the paper has now been accepted for publication.

Forthcoming Article: Cox, B. E., Thompson, K., Anderson, A., Mintz, A., Locks, T. Morgan, L., Edelstein, J., & Wolz, A (In Press at Journal of College Student Development). College experiences for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Personal identity, public disclosure, and institutional support.

Understanding Online Support Communities for Individuals with Autism
This study explores how these college students with autism described their experiences within an online environment among their peers. The study used unobtrusive qualitative methods to collect and analyze data from online forum discussion posts on WrongPlanet.net. Results have uncovered a variety of student concerns about college, the existence of “safe spaces” on campus, and the variety of support services available to autistic college students.

Initial results from this study were presented at the 2015 Florida Association of Speech-Language Pathologists (FLASHA), where it was recognized as the best poster at the conference. The poster presentation is available here.

Reviewing the Current Literature on Autistic College Students
To date, few studies have attempted to synthesize the literature about college students with autism – in part because there’s been relatively little written about them. Indeed, one recent study found that the current understanding of autistic college students is based on empirical evidence from just 20 studies and only 69 students! Therefore, we take a broad approach to identifying relevant literature and review it with an eye toward developing actionable insights that can inform targeted initiatives designed to address specific issues affecting college students with autism.

Each article we review is summarized, critiqued, and explicated in short (2-3 page) annotations, available here. With these annotations, we hope to make the scholarly literature more widely accessed by researchers and more accessible to stakeholders outside the academy.

Goals

What We Want

Student Well-being: We want autistic students to feel confident that they have the personal qualities and institutional support necessary to succeed in college.

Educational Achievement: We want to maximize the likelihood that students with autism enter, persist, and graduate from college.

Institutional Responsiveness: We want educational institutions to be responsive to autistic students’ specific needs, appreciate their distinct perspectives, and highlight the unique contributions these students can make to their institutions, fields of study, and society at large.

Activities

What We Do

Advocacy: We empower college students with autism by amplifying their voices within the academic community and by providing free access to materials designed to facilitate their successful transition into, through, and out of college.

Research: We facilitate research that uses qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the systemic, institutional, and personal conditions that shape college access, experiences, and outcomes for students on the autism spectrum.

Training: We conduct professional development workshops and distribute training materials to administrators, researchers, students, parents, and instructors.

Principles

How We Operate

CAN’s principles guide the implementation of our activities.

Open Source, Open Access: The College Autism Network is a nonprofit organization. Therefore, whenever possible, we provide free and open access to all of our materials, typically via Creative Commons license.

Proactive Inclusion: We consider the needs, abilities, interests, and opportunities for individuals across the autism spectrum, as well as those variety of stakeholders.We wish to speak with, not for, people with autism. We use our network to extend the audience that hears the voices of autistic college students.

Collaboration: The College Autism Network’s purpose is broad, our activities diverse, and our goals multi-faceted. To achieve these goals, we will work with wide-ranging stakeholders to create synergistic initiatives designed to magnify our collective contributions.

Beliefs

How We Think

CAN’s beliefs about autism and college student success continue to evolve in response to emerging research and personal experiences. These core beliefs undergird our current activities.

Holistic Integration: Institutions and society can do more than reactively offer piecemeal accommodations to meet legal/policy mandates; they can proactively question convention, challenge assumptions, and explore possibilities for structural and cultural changes that incorporate autistic individuals as valuable contributors to a diverse human tapestry.

Distinctive, Not Disabled: We acknowledge the very real physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges that often accompany autism. However, we are critical of the medical model that presents autism as a “disorder” or “disability” characterized by “deficits.” Although these terms may be necessary to establish policy-level protections and resources for autistic individuals, we believe it more appropriate to refer to people with autism collectively as “distinctive” and individually as “unique.”

Identity Intersectionality: Autism is one element of a complex personal identity which cannot be reduced to simplistic autism-specific models of personal development.

Shared Responsibility: Although autistic individuals gain personal empowerment through self-advocacy, educational institutions and society at large share responsibility for creating and maintaining environments in which autistic students are understood, respected, valued, and provided opportunities to achieve success as they define it themselves.

Langauge

What We Say

Person-first or identity-first? We do both. Here’s why.

There is considerable disagreement about the appropriate use of language associated with autism (see Lydia Brown’s article for details), with members of some organizations preferring “identity-first” language (e.g., autistic student)while other advocates (and the APA manual used by most academic journals) promote “person-first” language (e.g., individual with autism). The students we interviewed for one of our recent studies used a wide variety of terms when describing themselves and others with autism.

Moreover, although the American Psychological Association labels autism as a “disorder” and the medical field speaks of “co-morbid” conditions (other medical or psychological conditions occurring concurrently with autism), some advocates challenge the use of pathological terminology to describe what they view as a manifestation of “neurodiversity.” Complicating matters further is the recent change in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) that eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome as a distinct diagnosis and folded it into the broad “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD) label. Furthermore, rapidly increasing rates of diagnosis and emerging research suggesting gene variations linked to autism are also common in the broader population have undermined any effort to claim the existence of a universal understanding of what is meant by the term “autism.”

Because the College Autism Network seeks to bridge gaps between stakeholders, we are consciously not “picking a side” regarding terminology. Rather, we use both person-first and identity-first language throughout our materials but try to retain students’ and authors’ original language whenever possible.

History

What We’ve Done

The work of the College Autism Network (CAN) began informally during the fall semester of 2014. The College Autism Network was formally incorporated as a non-profit organization in January 2016. Although we see our mission as three-fold (Advocacy, Research, and Teaching), our work thus far has focused on research. We started with research for two reasons. First, our Founding Director (Dr. Bradley E. Cox) is a faculty member at a major research institution, Florida State University. Second, research will provide the foundation for effective advocacy and evidence-based training products. We have been pursuing three lines of research.

Amplifying the Voices of Autistic College Students through In-Person Interviews
Drawing from personal interviews with a diverse group of students with autism, the current study (1) amplifies these students’ voices, (2) describes tensions between their public and private identities, (3) outlines the academic, social, emotional, self-advocacy, and communication challenges they face in college, and (4) proposes both general principles and specific practices that could be leveraged to facilitate postsecondary success for students with autism.
Initial results from this study have been presented at the 2015 meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA). Here are the slides from the presentation and the original conference paper. A revised version of the paper has now been accepted for publication.
Forthcoming Article: Cox, B. E., Thompson, K., Anderson, A., Mintz, A., Locks, T. Morgan, L., Edelstein, J., & Wolz, A (In Press at Journal of College Student Development). College experiences for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Personal identity, public disclosure, and institutional support.

Understanding Online Support Communities for Individuals with Autism
This study explores how these college students with autism described their experiences within an online environment among their peers. The study used unobtrusive qualitative methods to collect and analyze data from online forum discussion posts on WrongPlanet.net. Results have uncovered a variety of student concerns about college, the existence of “safe spaces” on campus, and the variety of support services available to autistic college students.

Initial results from this study were presented at the 2015 Florida Association of Speech-Language Pathologists (FLASHA), where it was recognized as the best poster at the conference. The poster presentation is available here.

Reviewing the Current Literature on Autistic College Students
To date, few studies have attempted to synthesize the literature about college students with autism – in part because there’s been relatively little written about them. Indeed, one recent study found that the current understanding of autistic college students is based on empirical evidence from just 20 studies and only 69 students! Therefore, we take a broad approach to identifying relevant literature and review it with an eye toward developing actionable insights that can inform targeted initiatives designed to address specific issues affecting college students with autism.

Each article we review is summarized, critiqued, and explicated in short (2-3 page) annotations, available here. With these annotations, we hope to make the scholarly literature more widely accessed by researchers and more accessible to stakeholders outside the academy.