More Autism Awareness Needed at Colleges

As more autistic students go to college, largest known study of attitudes toward autism on a college campus finds limited knowledge of disorder

Jan Blacher standing with arms crossed

Jan Blacher, founding director of SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — A survey about autism awareness of students, staff and faculty at the University of California, Riverside found in many cases limited knowledge of the disorder, particularly relating to causes, symptoms and treatments.

“This a call to action,” said Jan Blacher, who conducted the survey and is founding director of the SEARCH (Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community, Hope) Family Autism Resource Center at UC Riverside. “Young adults with autism at the college level can be somewhat invisible, but as more students with autism enroll, there needs to be an awareness and availability of resources to help them succeed.”

Using the data collected from the 1,057 surveys completed, which is the largest known survey of attitudes toward autism on a college campus, Blacher co-authored a paper, “Brief Report: Autism Awareness: Views from a Campus Community,” with Leigh Ann Tipton, a Ph.D. student at the UC Riverside School of Education. The paper was just published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The survey was conducted at a time when more students with autism spectrum disorders, which includes autism, Asperger syndrome and other disorders, are enrolling in college. A 2011 report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study found 47 percent of individuals with autism in that study had enrolled in college. This is a sharp increase from even a decade ago, when college was less often an aspiration for youth on the spectrum and their families.

“The increase is a result of the intensive early intervention offered to many of these children when they were toddlers or preschoolers,” Blacher said. “Such early intervention can dramatically improve the educational outcome for these kids – so much so that some of them can attend the University of California.”The high percentage of college-going individuals on the autism spectrum is also supported by The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which created transition programs on college campuses nationwide.

The survey of students, staff and faculty at the UC Riverside consisted of several parts. The first part included items about the respondent’s relationship to a person with autism. The second part was a yes/no item about whether the respondent thought autism was increasing. The third part included 14 statements of beliefs about autism that were tallied to create a “total correct score” number.

Findings include:

* The three statements with the highest number of correct responses were, from highest: There is one intervention that works for all children with autism’’ (Incorrect); ‘‘It is important that all children with autism receive special education services’’ (Correct); and ‘‘Children with autism can grow up to live independently’’ (Correct)

* Statements with the lowest number of correct responses were, from lowest: “Autism runs in families” (Correct) and “All children with autism display poor eye contact” (Incorrect).

* Respondents with autism themselves or in their families scored significantly higher than the rest of the campus respondents.

* Women also scored significantly higher than men on campus.

* Undergraduates scored significantly lower than graduate students or faculty.

* While 70 percent of respondents said autism seemed to be increasing, most of these also thought the increase was due to vaccine usage. This is unfortunate, the authors wrote, because of the solid evidence base that counters this claim.

The survey results show there is a need for more training of faculty so they understand some of the differences in which students on and off the autism spectrum learn, Blacher said. For example, a student on the spectrum may learn better by doing an individual research project in the library, as opposed to a group research project.

Given the number of students who are likely enrolled throughout the UC system, this has implications for instruction and student success. STEM faculty, in particular, are likely to have the most contact with these students. Therefore, Blacher would like to begin building an empirical basis focusing on this sub-group of faculty who are in a unique position.

“With a better understanding of autism, faculty can actually improve the academic and social outcomes of their students on the spectrum,” Blacher said.

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