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Room for improvement in autism awareness

More than 1,000 people in higher ed quizzed on the prevalence, causes and signs of autism
University Business, January 2014

Does autism run in families? Can children with autism grow up to live independently? These questions were part of a survey that tested University of California, Riverside faculty and students’ knowledge of autism spectrum disorder to help guide the support of these students through their college years. More than 1,000 people were quizzed on the prevalence, causes and signs of ASD in the largest known higher ed autism awareness survey.

Most respondents correctly knew it is important that all children with autism receive special education services. However, many incorrectly answered that all students with autism display poor eye contact. People who have a family member diagnosed with ASD have more knowledge about the disorder than those who do not, according to the survey.

Jan Blacher, who conducted the research, is founding director of the SEARCH (Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community, Hope) Family Autism Resource Center at UC Riverside.

One in 88 children has been identified as having autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And according to a study in the journal Pediatrics, one-third of students with ASD attend college in the six years following high school.

Boys are found to be five times more likely than girls to be identified as autistic. However, women performed statistically significantly better than men on the survey. “I can only speculate that this is because fields like psychology, where one would learn about autism, attract more women than men,” says Blacher.

While 76 percent of respondents had more correct answers than neutral or incorrect, Blacher is still concerned about the number of people who believe autism is caused by the MMR vaccine. “This is a highly educated sample group, and the scientific community has made great efforts to set this rumor to rest,” says Blacher. “However, clearly there’s still work to do.”

The survey is the first step of a voluntary faculty education program at UC Riverside called Autism 101, Blacher says. “We do not want faculty to diagnose students. We want to inform them of ASD behaviors and give them tips for how best to serve these students.”

The program is comprised of a 15-minute faculty education video that will be produced and posted online. Viewers will learn facts such as that ASD students tend to perform poorly in small group projects and advice on how to work with students who may be disruptive in class. Faculty seeking additional information can contact SEARCH.

“We want professors to build on these students’ strengths, not weaknesses,” says Blacher.

The faculty-student relationship is key to student success on campus, Blacher says. “And without faculty intervention or education, it can be hard for ASD students to have a successful relationship.” —Kylie Lacey