AAT banner

Voices of the Global Community


Matthew Nathaniel Bumbalough, PDR Advising Community Chair
Shantalea Johns, PDR Advising Community Member
Amy Sosanko, PDR Advising Community Member

Matthew Bumbalough.jpgAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that can cause difficulties in thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The effects of autism and the type of symptoms are different in each person (Centers for Disease Control, 2014). A diagnosis of ASD includes several conditions that were once diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, a pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Shantalea Johns.jpgSince the mid-1990s, there has been a rise in the prevalence of students diagnosed with ASD. The current prevalence rate is 1 in 59 with an estimate of 49,000 students with autism who have graduated from high school and are now in college (Buescher, Cidav, Knapp, & Mandell, 2014; Centers for Disease Control, 2014). While the rise in appropriate diagnostics is a promising trend in recognition of ASD, research has shown that students with autism have lower graduation rates and lower rates of post-graduation employment as compared to students without disclosed disabilities (Barnhill, 2016; Gobbo & Shmulsky, 2014; Newman et al., 2011; Vanbergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008). According to Roux et al. (2015), 20% of college students with autism have not graduated or were not on track to graduate from college five years after high school. The lower rate of college completion for students with ASD indicates a need for earlier transition planning and support services geared towards their college and career success.

Amy Sosanko.jpgInterventions that offer continued support with social and educational skills may prove critical to improving success in college for students with autism. Equally, the informational component of the NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies stresses that academic advisors remain knowledgeable of the needs of emerging student populations (NACADA, 2017). As such, academic advisors can support college students with autism by becoming knowledgeable of evidence-based interventions that encourage persistence, retention, and graduation among this population. As the academic community for probation, dismissal, and reinstatement issues at NACADA, we outline several promising proactive interventions below and suggest how advisors and campuses may support students with ASD if they encounter academic hardships.

Intervention 1: Developing Social Skills

A recent study by Elias and White (2018) explored the main concerns of students diagnosed with ASD and found that developing social skills and living independently were the main apprehensions for a student in post-secondary education. While certainly not the only concern of students with ASD, advisors can take several steps to help mitigate these concerns through intentional and specific outreach. Ashbaugh, Koegel, and Koegel (2017) suggest several ways to engage students with ASD, finding that creating a menu of social activities geared specifically to the student and clinical intervention for training in social skills lead the students to participate more in those activities and improved the student’s communication with others. Most universities have websites dedicated to the activities on campus, and as a way of being intentional with students with ASD, part of the advising session can be used to explore the interests of the student and create a list of three or so activities taking place on campus. An advisor can give contact information of a specific administrator in the disabilities office or counseling service office to refer the student to as well. By being more intentional in outreach and having specific social organizations in line with the student's interests and desires, the advisor can ensure that the student is able to alleviate fears of finding a peer group.

Intervention 2: Moving away from Deficit Language

Another intervention advisors can make in their interactions with students with ASD is to strive to move away from the current deficit model of an ASD diagnosis. Cox et al. (2017) found that students with ASD themselves many times use language that is self-deprecating about their diagnosis, drawing from current societal norms that differentiate the students as abnormal (p. 81). There is an attempt by many of these students to pass as normal to fit in with peer groups. However, organizations are striving to challenge this model and promote an identity of ASD not as a disorder, but rather a condition (p. 82). While most of the literature and models surrounding autism are using a deficit model, advisors can be intentional with students who self-disclose their diagnosis in ensuring they move way from language that sees autism as an abnormality, and instead embraces it as part of their identity. Advisors can also encourage students to advocate for institutional intervention which will promote greater inclusion and student success both inside and outside of the classroom.

Intervention 3: Learning-Centered Theory

Because goal setting might have particular value to students diagnosed with ASD, advisors could adopt a Learning-Centered theory approach to their sessions, one that shifts the focus of instruction to the student and seeks to mitigate passive involvement. On a small scale, advisors can help students to relate to the tasks at hand in individual appointments. Open-ended questions such as “What three tasks should we accomplish in the next thirty minutes?” can help to direct the student’s expectations and give the student a sense of accomplishment. Task and time-oriented questions can also reinforce new goals for future meetings. In a recent study conducted by the University of Michigan, 52 students diagnosed with ASD described the importance of goal setting to achieve academic success. One participant stated, “I liked setting goals even if I didn’t think of it all of the time. I would at least go out of here thinking this is what I need to do this week” (Hillier et al., 2018).

An advisor might additionally use the Learning-Centered advising model to support an individual with ASD who is struggling academically. By helping a student define the connections in current class content and the course objectives, or between goals in general education requirements and future job responsibilities, the advisor hopes to inspire the student to find a clear, linear direction in their efforts. According to a recent study on academic approaches, as a diverse and capable student population, students with experience with ASD may excel in building relationships with advisors through the Learning-Centered theory, as it encourages both an individually-tailored approach as well as one marked by high expectations (Hughey & Pettay, 2013).

Intervention 4: Peer Support Group

Gaining new skills is an inherent demand of being a college student. For instance, adapting to changes in routine, roommates, a sporadic class schedule, greater independence, and self-advocacy are examples of social activities that are part of college life for an incoming student (Van Hees, Moyson, & Roeyers, 2015). College students with ASD may experience loneliness or frustration as they try to adjust to their new role, responsibilities, or routine on campus. To address this need, advisors can help students with ASD by creating a peer-led support group for them. Hillier et al. (2018) found that by designing a peer support group for students with ASD, participants in the group showed higher self-esteem, reduced loneliness, and lower anxiety by the end of the program. Peer-led support groups allow students with ASD a chance to voice their opinions and discuss problem-solving strategies. Peer-led groups can also guide further intervention efforts to improve retention and success for students with ASD. 

Intervention 5: Thinking Communicatively about ASD

Despite our best proactive efforts, advisors may still find that their students with ASD struggle academically. A final way to intervene is to ensure that the communication the student is receiving is the best for them. At the UI REACH Program developed by the University of Iowa, training for peer tutors who work with students with ASD includes “active listening techniques, serving as a scribe, [and] organizational strategies” (Hendrickson, Carson, Wood-Groves, Mendenhall, & Scheidecker, 2013). In addition to strategic tutoring support, UI REACH advisors “facilitate systematic student-family communication, and support students and families as they adjust to the increased independence of their son or daughter”; after all, students with ASD are much like any other undergraduate student, often academically affected by loneness and homesickness (Hendrickson, Carson, Mendenhall, & Scheidecker, 2013). Students with ASD may be more likely to use on-campus resources and services to support their needs, since access to community health service providers can be hindered by transportation concerns or lack of self-advocacy skills (Kaffenberger & O’Rorke-Trigiani, 2013, p. 177). Direct referrals and communication from advisors is crucial, and an increase in meetings with advisors may provide the support needed to help students meet the academic challenges of their institutions.


Retention and graduation are within reach for students with ASD. Advisors can support the concerns of their students with both proactive and reactive methods, and continue to learn new methods to help these often innovative and bright learners. As Kaffenberger and O’Rorke-Trigiani suggest (2013, p. 324), given the number of students who are now requiring mental health services, advisors must “identify resources and build alliances in their community” to ensure that receiving a degree is an attainable goal for students with ASD.

Matthew Nathaniel Bumbalough
Indiana University
Academic Advisor, University Division
[email protected]

Shantalea Johns
Wayne State University School of Social Work
Academic Services Officer III 
[email protected]

Amy Sosanko
Community College of Allegheny County
Academic Advisor
[email protected]

References and Further Reading

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Ashbaugh, K., Koegel, R. L., & Koegel, L. K. (2017). Increasing social integration for college students with autism spectrum disorder. Behavioral Development Bulletin22(1), 183.

Barnhill, G. P. (2016). Supporting students with Asperger syndrome on college campuses: Current practices. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 31(1), 3–15.

Buescher, A. V., Cidav, Z., Knapp, M., & Mandell, D. S. (2014). Costs of autism spectrum disorders in the United Kingdom and the United States. JAMA Pediatrics, 168(8), 721–728.

Cox, B. E., Thompson, K., Anderson, A., Mintz, A., Locks, T., Morgan, L., . . . & Wolz, A. (2017). College experiences for students with autism spectrum disorder: Personal identity, public disclosure, and institutional support. Journal of College Student Development58(1), 71–87.

Hughey, J., & Pettay, R. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping advisors initiate change in student behaviors. In J. Drake, P. Jordan, M. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 67–82). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Elias, R., & White, S. W. (2018). Autism goes to college: Understanding the needs of a student population on the rise. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders48(3), 732–746.

Gobbo, K., & Shmulsky, S. (2014). Faculty experience with college students with autism spectrum disorders: A qualitative study of challenges and solutions. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 29(1), 13–22.

Hendrickson, J., Carson, R., Wood-Groves, S., Mendenhall, J., & Scheidecker, B. (2013). UI REACH: A postsecondary program serving students with autism and intellectual disabilities. Education and Treatment of Children, 36(4),169–194.

Hillier, A., Goldstein, J., Murphy, D., Trietsch, R., Keeves, J., Mendes, E., & Queenan, A. (2018). Supporting university students with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 22(1), 20–28.

Kaffenberger, C. & O’Rorke-Trigiani, J. (2013). Addressing student mental health needs by providing direct and indirect services and building alliances in the community. Professional School Counseling, 16(5), 323–332.

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A.-M., Marder, C., Nagle, K., Shaver, D., & Wei, X. (2011). The post-high school outcomes of young adults with disabilities up to 8 years after high school: A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Washington, DC: National Center for Special Education Research. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED524044.pdf

Roux, A. M., Shattuck, P. T., Rast, J. E., Rava, J. A., & Anderson, K. A. (2015). National autism indicators report: Transition into young adulthood. Philadelphia, PA: A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Retrieved from http://drexel.edu/autismoutcomes/publications-and-reports/publications/National-Autism-Indicators-Report-Transition-to-Adulthood/#sthash.hsxlU214.dpbs

Vanbergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: College and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1359–70.

Van Hees, V., Moyson, T., & Roeyers, H. (2015). Higher education experiences of students with autism spectrum disorder: Challenges, benefits, and support needs. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(6), 1673–1688.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). CDC estimates 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0327-autism-spectrum-disorder.html

Cite this article using APA style as: Bumbalough, M.K., Johns, S., & Sosanko, A. (2018, December). Proactive approaches for academic advisors supporting students with autism. Academic Advising Today, 41(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


There are currently no comments, be the first to post one!

Post Comment

Only registered users may post comments.
Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.