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Autistic tendencies at university: An exploration of distress, coping behaviours, and comorbidities

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of autistic students attempting tertiary education. However, data show that only about a third of autistic students who enrol in university complete their qualification. The literature suggests that this is usually not due to their intellectual abilities. The current study aims to shed light on factors that might contribute to this low completion rate through gathering data on distress, wellbeing, and coping strategies in autistic students. Due to the heterogeneous nature of autistic traits, and the prevalence of autistic tendencies in the general population, this study employs the use of correlational data to explore possible links. Eight tertiary institutions across New Zealand were contacted and 430 respondents completed a self-report questionnaire. Students with higher autistic tendencies scored higher on nearly all forms of psychological distress(Anxiety, Depression, and Stress from the DASS-21; Self-Criticism, and Generalisation of Failure from the ATS; Mental Health Component from the SF-8). Higher autistic tendencies were correlated with scoring lower on most aspects of psychological wellbeing (Overall Wellbeing, Environmental Mastery, Personal Growth, Positive Relations with Others, Purpose in Life, and Self- Acceptance, as measured by the Ryff Scales of Psychological Wellbeing). Results showed an association between higher AQ scores (Autism Quotient; measuring autistic tendencies) and engaging in maladaptive coping strategies (Expression of Negative Feelings, Behavioural Disengagement, and Avoidance; as is measured on the Brief COPE). Finally, students with higher autistic tendencies were more likely to report diagnoses of psychiatric disorders in addition to their autism diagnosis. Students who reported a diagnosis of autism (3.7%), were compared to students who reported clinically significant levels of autistic traits but had no formal diagnosis (5.1%; indicated by a score of 32 or above on the AQ measure). No significant differences were found between these two subgroups for any of the psychological wellbeing or distress variables measured, nor physical and mental health components, or coping behaviours. The only significant difference between the two groups was that the diagnosed group had nearly double the rates of diagnosed depression than the clinically significant group. This is argued to be a result of contact with mental health professionals, and does not appear to reflect a difference in the experienced rates of depression between the two groups. These findings have strong clinical implications for future interventions at university level and highlight the need for universities to screen for autistic traits in order to adequately support vulnerable students. The best way to implement lasting changes will be to provide tailored programmes or services to address specific areas causing student distress. No significant differences were found between the diagnosed students and the students displaying clinically significant levels of autistic tendencies. Therefore, there is a need to support all students displaying clinically significant autistic traits, and not make services contingent upon a student having an official diagnosis.
Type of thesis
Bruwer, M. (2019). Autistic tendencies at university: An exploration of distress, coping behaviours, and comorbidities (Thesis, Master of Applied Psychology (MAppPsy)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/12801
The University of Waikato
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