Identifying effects of COVID-19 pandemic related changes on academic and social experiences of autistic university students


The COVID-19 pandemic related isolation measures have caused rapid changes in education delivery and social interactions. Similar changes and measures are known to have a long-lasting impact on the general population, with autistic individuals experiencing even greater difficulties than their nonautistic peers. Autistic individuals are now facing an unprecedented change in their daily routines. Given a growing enrollment of autistic students in universities worldwide, there is a need to develop an understanding of the effects of the COVID-19 related a) rapid changes in the mode of academic instruction delivery and b) unexpected isolation measures on this student population. By drawing on interviews with and a survey of autistic university students in Canada and internationally, the proposed study will have direct implications for the mitigation of academic and social challenges the autistic student population experiences, and, ultimately, for the retention of autistic students under rapidly changing conditions.

Description Of Research

  • Research challenge: Within a limited timeframe, to identify and investigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic related changes in academic instructional delivery formats and social interaction on the autistic university students in Canada and internationally, and disseminate this information through an open access online source (cf. Hume et al, n.d.).
  • Goals and objectives: Goal: to develop an understanding of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic related changes in the academic instructional delivery formats and social interactions on autistic university students. Objectives: a) collect and analyze autistic university students’ responses to semi-structured interviews and a survey designed to obtain information regarding their experiences with the COVID-19 related changes; b) identify the effects of the changes on autistic university students; c) develop an open access website and disseminate recommendations for effective academic and social supports for autistic university students at the time of change; d) prepare an application for a Spencer Foundation grant.
  • Innovation and originality: A number of studies addressing the effects of the rapid unexpected changes associated with COVID-19 pandemic on autistic individuals have been published (e.g., Espinosa et al., 2020; den Houting, 2020); however, research that focuses on autistic university students has been limited so far (e.g., Smile, 2020). The proposed project will fill in the existing research gap and identify the effects of these changes on autistic university students, as well as provide recommendations for academic and social supports for these students at the time of the global pandemic.
  • Context: Evidence from previous quarantines (e.g., SARS, Ebola) suggests that exposure to a pandemic may be associated with long-lasting symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder in the general population (Brooks et al., 2020). For autistic individuals, maintaining “sameness” (Prince-Hughes, 2002, p.125) in their daily routine appears fundamental, and rapid unexpected changes have a significantly more prominent impact on them than on their nonautistic peers (Hillier et al., 2018). During the current COVID-19 pandemic, college and university students experience school closures and isolation as well as a rapid switch in academic instruction to internet-based delivery. And yet, it has been indicated that the requirement for self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic may have positive consequences for autistic individuals (den Houting, 2020) and that online learning and social interactions may be preferred by autistic students (Sinclair, 2010). Given the increasing numbers of autistic students at universities (Gelbar et al., 2014), it is important to develop an understanding of the effects of the rapid changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on these students in order to provide them with timely supports.
  • Theoretical framework and methodological approach:The proposed study uses the non-deficit, neurodiversity perspective on autism (Pellicano, et al., 2019), which views autistic individuals as part of the full range of human diversity, rather than requiring cure or remediation (Ballantine & Artemeva, in press; Sinclair, 2010). The study draws on Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS), one of the prominent contemporary theoretical approaches to genre (e.g., Miller, 1984) and from the field of disability studies (e.g., Carpenter, 2011; McGuire, 2015). The concept of genre, defined in RGS as a typified response to a perceived social need (Miller, 1984) will guide the identification and interpretation of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic related changes on autistic students’ academic learning experiences, and their interactions with university instructors and other students (cf. Ballantine & Artemeva, in press; Carpenter, 2011).  The study requires approval of the Research Ethics Boards (REBs) of the three participating universities (two in Canada and one in Australia). Methodologically, the proposed mixed methods study  will use a two-phase exploratory sequential design (Creswell, 2015). Phase One includes semi-structured interviews with a purposive sample of six-eight autistic university students recruited from the three universities regarding their experiences with the changes in academic delivery formats and social interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a concurrent qualitative thematic analysis of the anonymized interview transcripts (cf. Charmaz, 2006) assisted by software package NVivo. Phase Two includes a) the development and administration of a survey informed by Phase One findings and b) a quantitative analysis of the survey responses assisted by SPSS. The findings from both phases will be integrated and interpreted from the neurodiversity and RGS perspectives.