Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

First Advisor

Dr. Andrea L. Beach

Second Advisor

Dr. Donna M. Talbot

Third Advisor

Dr. Stuart S. Segal


Disability studies, student development, autism spectrum disorder, Asperger's, retention, time to graduation


Students, in general, are not graduating from college in percentages above 60% after five years (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2012). According to the National Council on Disability (NCOD, 2007), more students with disabilities are enrolling in higher education every year; but their graduation rates are declining (Getzel, 2008; NCOD, 2007; Orr & Goodman, 2010; Troiano, Liefeld, & Trachtenberg, 2010). Exploring ways to improve the retention and success of students with disabilities in college, leads to the review of psychosocial student development theory, which has guided student support for many years, but has not been widely applied to students with disabilities.

This qualitative study explored the college experiences of senior students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the meaning they make out their development in three areas of psychosocial growth phases. Through a phenomenological approach, six participants from four different four-year public universities in Michigan described their college experiences, both academically and socially. These three (of seven) “vectors” as Chickering (1969) theorized, are growth phases that most traditional age (18-22) college students eventually pass through (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). They referred to these three vectors as “developing competence,” “managing emotions,” and “moving through autonomy toward interdependence.”

From the interviews, five emergent themes describe the participants‟ experiences in college: a) coming to terms with an autism spectrum diagnosis; b) using the “campus compass” to find purpose; c) being aware of diversity; d) participating in purposeful social interactions; e) being aware of emotional growth. The findings from this study support development in the first two vectors, developing competence and managing emotions, but did not directly support the third vector, moving through autonomy toward interdependence. In addition, participants‟ experiences reflected development along the sixth vector, developing purpose. Conclusions from these findings provide good discussion about what universities are doing well to promote student development, as well as, what more can be done to assist the increasing population of students with ASD to grow more independently while in college.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access