- An Exploration of Actionable Insights Regarding College Students with Autism:A Review of the Literature
A large and growing population of students with autism is increasingly pursuing higher education. Yet, the field has a remarkably small literature base from which to glean actionable insights that might enhance postsecondary success for this population. Our examination of 13,000 items published in sixteen journals over a sixteen-year period revealed only 21 articles on the topic; none were published in mainstream higher education journals. Our explication of this literature maps the contours of the emerging body of literature on college students with autism, uncovers problematic patterns within that literature, identifies important questions that remain unanswered, and provides explicit guidance for future research on the topic. [End Page 935]
As many as one in every 40 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD; Kogan et al., 2018), and effective childhood interventions continue to increase the likelihood that these students will graduate high school and pursue higher education with reasonable expectations for success (Hart, Grigal, & Weir, 2010; VanBergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008). However, nationally representative statistics indicate that fewer than 39% of autistic college students1 earn any postsecondary credential (i.e., certificate, Associate's degrees, or Bachelor's degrees) within six years of completing high school (Newman et al., 2011).
Yet, it appears that autistic college students have received remarkably little attention from scholars in higher education. The term "autism" did not appear in any of the field's traditional "top-tier" journals (i.e., Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, Review of Higher Education; Bray & Major, 2011; Creamer, 1994) until February 2017 (Cox et al., 2017). Moreover, in 2014, Gelbar, Smith, and Reichow found that the current understanding of college students with autism was based on empirical evidence from just 20 articles and only 68 students. More recently, Anderson, Stephenson, and Carter (2017) examined 29 articles reporting on 23 studies, whereas Kuder and Accardo (2018) could find only eight relevant studies.
Moreover, several of the studies addressing the needs of autistic college students (e.g., Newman et al., 2011; Shattuck et al., 2012; Wei, Wagner, Hudson, Yu, & Javitz, 2016) draw from a single national dataset (National Longitudinal Transition Study—2; NLTS2) that has not been updated since 2009, while many of the others (e.g., Gobbo & Shmulsky, 2014; Morrison, Sansosti, & Hadley, 2009) base their conclusions on information collected from parents, instructors, and administrators—not the students themselves. Thus, it appears colleges and universities do not yet have an adequate scholarly foundation upon which they can develop effective initiatives to facilitate the success of autistic students. Likewise, the current literature base offers little guidance for researchers who wish to make substantive new contributions to that body of literature.
The current paper begins to address these problems by identifying, cataloguing, reviewing, and critiquing articles about autistic college students to address three research questions: [End Page 936]
1. What topics, data, and methods have scholars used to shape early development of the emerging body of literature about autistic college students?
2. What limitations, biases, and gaps in the current literature may be addressed by future research on the topic?
3. What actions can researchers take in the future to make the literature base more robust, inclusive, and comprehensive?
To answer these questions, we used an explicit framework to examine more than 13,000 articles published in any of 16 journals between 2000 and 2015. This process allowed us to map the contours of the emerging body of literature on college students with autism, uncover problematic patterns within that literature, identify important questions that remain unanswered, and provide explicit guidance for future research on the topic.
The Framework for the Development of Actionable Insights (Cox & Beebe, 2016) guides our review of the literature. The framework was derived jointly by a group of higher education scholars and practitioners (Cox & Beebe, 2016) looking to support previously underserved student populations (i.e., atheists, formerly incarcerated students) with programs and policies grounded in the best available research evidence. When considering student populations that...