Understanding the role of self-determination in shaping university experiences for autistic and typically developing students in the United Kingdom

Jiedi Lei, Ailsa Russell

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With more autistic students enrolling in higher education, little is known about how autistic students can actively and effectively shape their own university experience through self-determination. This study explores how both autistic (n = 18) and typically developing students and recent graduates (n = 18) perceive their self-determination during their transition into, through and out of university in the United Kingdom. Students reported many shared and unique aspects of autonomy, competence and relatedness underlying self-determination. Many autistic students also discussed autism-related strengths facilitating academic pursuit at university, though found coping with transitional changes more difficult than typically developing students. Using strength-based approaches to help autistic students to actively adapt to routine changes might facilitate their self-determination during transition to university. Lay abstract: Prior research suggests that autistic students in higher education might struggle with developing autonomy, competence and establish relatedness due to their executive functioning and social communication difficulties. We interviewed 18 autistic and 18 typically developing students to explore how students perceived themselves to be in control of their university experience. Both groups provided anecdotal examples that supported similar perceptions of self-determination in shaping the academic, daily living and socialisation aspects of university life. Autistic students reflected on their cognitive strengths such as attention to detail, persistence and ability to tailor their academic studies towards their interest. Varying degrees of sociability were noted, with some autistic students preferring to focus their self-determination efforts on academic success, while others treasured the novel social experiences including peer support and friendship at university. Compared to greater flexibility endorsed by typically developing students, autistic students perceived establishing a routine at university to be a necessity and were self-determined in maintaining stability amid a sea of change. Recognising strengths and self-determination efforts in autistic students can help stakeholders support their personal development towards independent living and self-sufficiency in adulthood and to successfully transition into, through and out of university.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1262-1278
Number of pages17
Issue number5
Early online date3 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article: The funding for this study came from a PhD studentship awarded to the first author through Widening Participation at University of Bath, funded by Office for Fair Access.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • autism spectrum disorder
  • autonomy
  • college
  • competence
  • relatedness
  • self-determination
  • university

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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