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Autism Acceptance on Campus

Study suggests greater acceptance of autism-related behaviors when college students know a fellow student has autism
May 03, 2013


The transition to college is an understandably anxious time for many students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). How will they be accepted by other college students? How open should they be about their autism?

At this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), investigators described promising evidence that autism awareness brings greater acceptance of related behaviors – at least when college students know that one of their peers has autism.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, asked 224 college students to read three vignettes describing social situations on campus. The main character in each story was a college student who behaved in ways characteristic of an individual with autism. This included narrow interests and difficulties with social communication.

The investigators told some of the participants that the young man in the story had autism. Others were told that he was a typical college student. Still others weren’t given any label.

The investigators then used a questionnaire designed to assess attitudes toward persons with disabilities. It included three sets of questions on the students’ thoughts and feelings toward the young man in the stories. One set of questions measured agreement with statements like “We might get along really well.” Another set of questions asked the participants to rate the likelihood that they would “find an excuse” to leave or avoid the young man. A third set of questions gauged the participants’ emotional responses (e.g. nervousness, fear, etc.) to the fictional character.

On the first two measures, students who were told that the young man had autism responded significantly more positively toward him than did the students who weren’t given a label. In other words, they expressed more interest in spending time or becoming friends with him.

The responses of the participants told he was a “typical college student” fell in between the “has autism” label and no label. And there were no significant differences between the three groups on the scale that measured their emotional response.

“The media and scientific awareness and publicity around the autism spectrum over the last few years may have worked to create an accepting attitude on the part of the generation coming to adulthood,” says UC-Irvine doctoral student Nicole Matthews. Dr. Matthews conducted the study with psychologists Agnes Ly, Ph.D., of the University of Delaware; and Wendy Goldberg, Ph.D., also of UC-Irvine.

“This is an exciting finding on many levels,” says Peter Bell, Autism Speaks executive vice president for programs and services. “That researchers are even considering this question brings home that that an increasing number of students with autism are capable of attending college, something that many parents were once told was impossible. Second, disclosing an autism diagnosis may actually be beneficial in how others respond to you. And third, younger generations are starting reap the benefits of growing up with peers living with autism. The motto ‘different not less’ may finally be taking hold.”

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