Why We Exist

The College Autism Network links 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 an organization that seeks to provide, whenever possible, 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.