Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Experiences of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in College: A Heuristic Exploration

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Experiences of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in College: A Heuristic Exploration

Article excerpt

Until recently, autism was considered a rare diagnosis. However, since 2000 the Centers for Disease Control have gradually increased their official estimates of the rates of autism, with the most recent statistics placing current diagnostic rates at 1 in 88 children (CDC, 2012). This increase in rates of diagnosis has caused an increase in funding for research into autism spectrum disorders overall (Singh, Illes, Lazzeroni, & Hallmayer, 2009). Much of the research regarding autism spectrum disorders focuses on the way the brain influences behavior, as well as genetics (Singh, Illes, Lazzeroni, & Hallmayer, 2009), with considerably less research on issues such as treatment and family services. Research regarding the experiences of individuals with autism spectrum disorders is not mentioned by Singh, Illes, Lazzeroni, and Hallmayer at all. This lack of research into the experiences of individuals with autism spectrum disorders presents a gap in current research regarding autism spectrum disorders. As Martin (2006) concludes, individuals with autism spectrum disorders are the experts in understanding their experience, so excluding their voices from research does a disservice to the research community, as well as those people who have ASDs.

In the past there has been considerable research into the outcomes of individuals with classic autism and, in more recent times, autism spectrum disorders overall. Much of this research has predicted a low outcome for children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. For example, Eisenberg and Kanner (1956) presented a longitudinal study in which 50 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders were followed into adulthood. Most of these individuals continued to have major social issues in their adult life and were not able to achieve in ways that are considered traditional, such as living independently and having a career (Eisneberg & Kanner, 1956). These sentiments are reflected by many other authors who have followed those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders in longitudinal studies (Rumsey, Rapoport, & Sceer, 1985; Rutter, 1970; Venter, Lord, & Schopler, 1992).

Of the authors that report a higher adult outcome for students who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders as children, the issue of higher education is often used as a measure of achievement. Kanner (1972) discusses several cases of individuals with autism spectrum disorders who were able to graduate with undergraduate degrees and one student who achieved a Master's degree. Brown (1978) discovered similar findings with 24 of the 100 individuals involved in her longitudinal study achieving some level of higher education experience. Both Kanner and Brown noted that despite receiving degrees, many of the individuals in their studies were employed at levels well below that expected for their education. These lower employment levels were due to the social difficulties that are a major part of autism spectrum disorders (Brown, 1978, Kanner, 1972). This trend of longitudinal studies reporting a small number of individuals with autism spectrum disorders who achieve degrees in higher education settings continues into modern research (Howlin, Goode, Hutton, & Rutter, 2004).

The CDC's increase in diagnosis of ASDs has led other researchers to look into the challenges faced by students with autism spectrum disorders as they enter the higher education system. These challenges focus on issues of transition (Adreon & Durocher, 2007), scholastic issues (Luckett & Powell, 2003), and social interaction (Harpur, Lawlor, & Fitzgerald, 2004). Despite these challenges, several authors with autism spectrum disorders have described higher education as their ideal environment (Grandin, 1995; Perner, 2002; Prince-Hughes, 2002; Shore, 2003; Williams, 1992). A subset of these authors have chosen careers in higher education (Grandin, 1995; Perner, 2002; Prince-Hughes, 2002). …

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