“There is relatively little research on postsecondary educational outcomes for those with ASD”….
”Little is known about the obstacles students with autism face in college”….
”Despite the increased number of students with ASD attending college, few studies have attempted to understand their experiences.”
It was almost funny reading the dozen or so variations and permutations of these introductory phrases on presentations of research of ASD in higher education at IMFAR. While the core claim “we do not know terribly much about the college experience for individuals with ASD” still holds true, the idea that “few” studies are being conducted in this area is starting to shift. We’ve certainly noticed the uptick in studies on the topic, but we didn’t know how this would be represented in Baltimore.
Coming to the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) as presenters was a somewhat foreign experience for our team. Although Brad had attended dozens of education conferences, and I had done a previous poster session in an undergraduate research conference, neither of us could fully anticipate what the feel of the conference would be. In particular, as an undergraduate researcher (among the most junior of all scholars at the conference) I anticipated feeling like a bit of outsider before I even arrived. This feeling was heightened by our expectation that most of the sessions I would attend would be focused on the medical aspects of autism or early identification / intervention, effectively relegating studies of adults on the autism spectrum to the margins of the conference.
And to some extent, our expectations were fulfilled. Indeed, the majority of the sessions were medically focused and/or child-based studies. However, each day, a small smattering of sessions included college students or college-age individuals on the spectrum as part of their discussions.
On day one, in a workshop on cultural diversity in autism research, the involvement of students with ASD in higher education almost immediately came into play through Rachel Brezis’ presentation of her cross-cultural study. Examining acculturation in individuals with ASD in New Delhi, India and their counterparts at and around the University of Los Angeles (UCLA), United States, this study presented a unique, interdisciplinary perspective. Moreover, it showcased that our expectations in novel autism research may not always hold water. Case in point: despite the research demonstrating difficulties with expressing “self” for individuals with autism, Brezis’ study indicated that those with ASD acquired views of “self” relative to their native culture. The presentation left the audience with a message of inclusion, justified through evidence of shared cultural adoption.
This continued right into the second day where, alongside the early intervention sessions and brain functioning presentations, a panel regarding adult behavioral interventions for adults with ASD discussed recent work in aiding adults on the spectrum. One of these, based out of Virginia Commonwealth University, looked into the effectiveness of Project SEARCH in finding employment and improving quality of life for adults with ASD; another, headed by Caitlin Connor and Susan White of Virginia Tech, presented a pilot study on mindfulness practices for the purposes of improved emotional regulation, with encouraging results. Each study, while not focused on college success explicitly, presented work relevant to the success of young adults (ages 18-25) with ASD.
Our poster session, “Adult Outcomes: Medical, Cognitive, Behavioral” proved to continue this trend in an even more encouraging light. Studies, programs, and institutions involved in some way with the college experience for those on the spectrum could be found with relative ease. While we’ve definitely still got a long way to go in understanding and supporting students with ASD, the momentum has begun to build.
Furthered by discussions with individual researchers (Kristen Gillespie-Lynch (CUNY), and Elizabeth Fein (Duquesne), just to name a few), the overall feeling leaving IMFAR is one of optimism; we’re not the only ones trying to address this critical need. Many of the efforts are highly localized, as one might expect, but we cannot say programs working to support college students with autism do not exist – they’re just taking some time to mature.
Undergraduate Research Assistant
Florida State University