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Adults with autism spectrum disorder: experiences related to post-secondary education, employment, and supports

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posted on 24.11.2022, 03:26 authored by Stacey AndersonStacey Anderson

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition characterised by poor communication and social interaction skills, and restricted interests and behaviours. These characteristics may impact the university and post-university experiences of students with ASD. Indeed, university completion rates in this group remain low despite ability and strengths, and rates of unemployment and underemployment are much higher than the general population of workers. Though research has since increased, at the time this thesis began research on the university and employment experiences of students with ASD was very limited, especially from Australia and New Zealand. To address the need for more research that might identify possible reasons for the poor outcomes, and ways of addressing their concerns, four related studies were conducted. The first study was an on-line survey of 102 current undergraduate and post-graduate Australian and New Zealand university students with ASD (chapter 2). It confirmed several key findings revealed in prior smaller studies. Namely, that students with ASD study a broad range of disciplines and have diverse strengths and challenges. It was found that despite high satisfaction ratings, most participants used only a few supports, possibly suggesting a mismatch of needs and supports. They further indicated that their greatest concerns were academic requirements and mental health, and the rate of self-reported suicidal ideation and self-harm was very high. This study was the largest survey of current university students with ASD at the time it was published, and the participants were drawn nationwide from Australia and New Zealand. Qualitative methods were used to investigate the university and employment experiences of 11 Australian and New Zealand former university students and their significant others. The university experiences are reported in chapter 3 and the employment experiences in chapter 5. Issues that were analysed included reasons for completion and non-completion, perceptions of strengths, difficulties and supports, coping strategies, and university structural and organisational issues. The participants’ suggestions for future students and their recommendations for making universities more autism friendly were a key contribution of the research. In addition, it was noted that most participants had made slow progress due to having changed their study discipline and/or because they switched to parttime study to manage poor mental health and/or executive function. The possible need for transition and structured study supports at university was also identified. Factors that may facilitate student achievement were highlighted, including the need to identify student strengths, interests, weaknesses, and an appropriate discipline choice. This study contributed to the then limited research on the university experiences of students with ASD by presenting the retrospective perspectives of Australian and New Zealand university students and their significant others. Further, it illuminated several participant suggestions for improving supports and services. The findings from a systematic literature review of 24 empirical studies of interventions used in post-secondary contexts with students with ASD are reported in chapter 4. Preliminary evidence for a range of interventions was noted but the findings are tentative. Most studies were pre-experimental, and few examined academic interventions though many students with ASD indicate academic supports are their most preferred. At the time of the research, the review was the most extensive and it included a comprehensive examination of article quality. Furthermore, the need for more studies beyond the US and UK, and for researchers to consider participant preferences when planning projects were identified. Chapter 5 includes a report about the employment experiences of the 11 former university student participants that were described in chapter 3. While some former student participants had positive working experiences, despite many strengths and high academic achievement, most had extensive periods of under-employment and/or unemployment, and all but one had poor mental health. Facilitators, barriers, and suggestions for improving employment prospects were provided. All former students reported that while their autism-related problems reduced over time, they nevertheless continued to some extent throughout their life, yet few had support after leaving university other than that provided by their family. The study contributed to the research by providing retrospective insights into employment experiences from a diverse range of former university students that included graduates and those who did not complete a qualification. Moreover, their very broad age range provided a cross-section of experiences across the lifespan.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction -- Chapter 2: An On-Line Survey of University Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Australia and New Zealand: Characteristics, Support Satisfaction, and Advocacy -- Chapter 3: Perspectives of Former Students with ASD from Australia and New Zealand on Their University Experience -- Chapter 4: A Systematic Literature Review of Empirical Research on Post-Secondary Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder -- Chapter 5: A Qualitative Study of the Employment Experiences of Former University Students on the Autism Spectrum from Australia and New Zealand -- Chapter 6: Conclusion – Appendices


This thesis is presented for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Department of Educational Studies, Faculty of Arts, Macquarie University

Department, Centre or School

Department of Educational Studies

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Mark Carter

Additional Supervisor 1

Jennifer Stephenson


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer: https://www.mq.edu.au/copyright-disclaimer




259 pages