FSU professor receives $300K to study autism in college students

Brad Cox, associate professor in the College of Education
Brad Cox, associate professor in the College of Education

A Florida State University researcher has received a National Science Foundation grant to study how autism-related characteristics in college students influence their performance in STEM courses. 

Brad Cox, associate professor in the College of Education, will use the three-year, $300,000 award to conduct the largest ever study on autism-related characteristics among college students in the United States. More than 16,000 students with autism begin college each year, and one in three of them choose to study one of the STEM fields. 

“One commonly cited statistic suggests that one in every 68 children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a rate of diagnosis that has more than doubled in the last decade,” Cox said. “Students with autism are increasingly making their way to college, yet it is unclear whether current postsecondary institutions’ support systems are ready or able to facilitate these students’ success.” 

One big challenge for institutions hoping to support these students is identifying who they are. College students with autism are typically reluctant to divulge their diagnosis or seek formal disability accommodations. As a result, these students are often an invisible minority on campus. 

Cox will look to determine the prevalence of autism-related characteristics among college students entering STEM fields and assess the effect of these characteristics on student performance in gateway STEM courses.

Characteristics sometimes associated with autism, like the ability to observe, identify, construct and apply logical systems of reasoning, mean students with autism may be particularly well suited for work in STEM fields.

Other characteristics often associated with autism, such as rigid patterns of thought or anxiety associated with social awkwardness, might interfere with student success in high-stress gateway courses like calculus or chemistry.

The study will also examine the possibility that an already existing intervention could serve as a low-cost, high-yield mechanism to help college students with autism leverage their unique characteristics to complete their degrees, enter the workforce and contribute to the national economy. 

“This is an opportunity to help a growing but underserved population of students,” Cox said. “We’re hoping our study will begin to show schools how to unlock these students’ potential for college success.”

Cox recently established the nonprofit College Autism Network (CAN) to help translate emerging research into real-world improvements for students’ well-being and educational achievement. Results of the study will be released on CAN’s website, Facebook and Twitter.

The CAN team will be making presentations and sharing results from the study across the country in the coming year. Stops will include the 41st Annual Association for the Study of Higher Education Conference in November and the 2017 NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education Annual Conference in March.