Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


Institutional Practices that Support Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in a Postsecondary Educational Setting

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Michael Coomes (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Opportune Zongo (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Patrick Pauken (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart (Committee Member)


Almost 11% of college students have a disability (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, Knokey, & Shaver, 2010). Existing research indicates that students with disabilities have difficulty with retention and graduation (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knokey, 2009). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a type of disability that has increased among students in secondary education (Rice, 2009), yet the prevalence of students with ASD in postsecondary education is just starting to be documented. Information about programs, services, and reasonable accommodations in higher education that support students with ASD remains incomplete.

This study applied a mixed-methods approach to a randomly selected national sample of postsecondary institutions to provide insight into effective interventions that support students with ASD. This study used a web-based survey and yielded a 41.9% return rate. Findings indicate that a “base level” of support exists at the vast majority of institutions. Additionally, 28.3% of institutions offered ASD specific services free-of-charge; whereas 2.2% provided ASD specific services for an additional fee. This research revealed significant differences in the number of students with ASD by institution type; however, there were no significant differences in the provision of ASD specific programs. Fifty-five to sixty percent of institutions used workshops, in-services, or online information to educate faculty regarding ASD specific issues. Logistical regression models indicated that existing programs are the strongest predictors of whether or not an institution offers ASD specific services and educates faculty regarding ASD issues. Successful interventions that support students with ASD educate community members (e.g., residence life staff), target ASD specific issues (e.g., transition), and address the institutional culture (e.g., diversity on campus).

Successful interventions also have a proactive purpose and honor the value criterion of equity. Pitfalls to avoid when designing interventions include “one-size-fits-all” programs. Practitioners must carefully consider cost, feasibility, and political support for neurodiversity. Institutions without ASD specific programs support students by using existing reasonable accommodations or general services.

Implications of the findings and recommendations for future research are discussed. Notably, future research should consider exploring the effectiveness of transition programs to support students with ASD.