Helping students on the autism spectrum transition to university

  • Jiedi Lei

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Students transitioning to university face increasing academic, daily living, and social demands, and experience changes in both the structure and function of their social network. The ability to form new social ties and develop a new supportive social network at university may be related to students’ social competency at the start of university. For autistic students, their social communication difficulties can limit their ability to form new social ties at university and affect their ability to access the support they need to address challenges across academic, daily living, and social aspects of university life. Many students also experience elevated levels of mental health difficulties such as greater social anxiety, which in turn can affect students’ social confidence in building a new social network at university during the transition process. Beyond that of accessing support from others, transition to university also marks an important developmental milestone towards independent living and adulthood. Therefore, understanding to what extent students are self-determined at university to shape their own experiences can also help university stakeholders identify ways to support students to become more autonomous and competent in their daily lives, and develop more meaningful relationships at university.

This PhD thesis uses mixed methods to examine in both autistic and typically developing students: 1) structural and functional changes in students’ social networks during transition to university through social network analysis; 2) students’ perception of self-determination in shaping their own university experience.

Chapter One (Introduction) provides an introduction to the thesis through a review of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) theories, and current understandings of the strengths and difficulties autistic students face when transitioning to university relative to typically developing students. An overview of current literature examining changes in social network structure (SNS; including both online and offline social contacts) and perceived social support (PSS), as well as self-determination at university offers insight into current research gaps and identifies and justifies the rationales behind research questions that this thesis will examine. Chapter Two provides a systematic review of literature to examine current understanding of how changes in SNS and PSS can affect transition to university in first year undergraduate students.

Chapter Three empirically examines the development and piloting of a novel online tool that can assess changes in social network structure (SNS) and perceived social support (PSS) during transition to university in both autistic and typically developing students. Chapter Four is a cross- sectional study that investigates differences in SNS and PSS in a sample of autistic and typically developing first-year university students who are group matched on various demographic characteristics (e.g., ethnicity, sex, age, subject of study at university) and pre-university academic performance. Chapter Five is a longitudinal study that investigates how changes in SNS and PSS over the first year of university, as well as levels of autistic traits and social anxiety, can affect university transition outcomes for both autistic and typically developing students in their first year of university.

To better understand students’ perceptions of their SNS, Chapter Six uses mixed methods to evaluate the development and delivery of a workshop to help autistic students transitioning to university understand the functional values of their social network structure. The workshop helps students to plan for potential changes in SNS and PSS during transition to university and gather student feedback regarding the use of social network maps to understand social transition changes.

Beyond understanding how perceived social support from others within one’s social network can support students’ transition to university, it is also important to gain insight into how students perceive themselves to be self-determined when shaping their university experience in order to successfully transition into, through and out of university. Chapter Seven uses qualitative methodology by conducting semi-structured interviews with both autistic and typically developing university students and recent graduates on their perceptions of their own self-determination when shaping their own experiences at university. Chapter Eight interprets and discusses the findings from all empirical chapters with reference to theory and practical implications for university stakeholders, as well as highlighting study limitations and future directions.
Date of Award14 Oct 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorAilsa Russell (Supervisor), Mark Brosnan (Supervisor) & Chris Ashwin (Supervisor)

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