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Key Issues Surrounding Disability Support Services Offices in Higher Education and Autism

by Amy Edwards

Posted on November 4, 2015
ambitious graduate

Public schools are serving more students under the special education category of autism than ever before. The Digest of Education Statistics (2013) reported that 455,000 students ages 3 through 21 years received special education services for autism in 2012. Approximately one-third of students with autism will go on to some type of postsecondary education between high school and their early 20s, according to the National Autism Indicators Report. Disability Support Services (DSS) offices within higher education institutions are charged with serving this population.

Recently, I focused my dissertation on exploring how DSS offices were meeting the needs of students on the autism spectrum. I surveyed fourteen leaders and staff members at DSS offices at four-year colleges across Pennsylvania and followed up with in-depth interviews of six of those surveyed. These surveys and interviews led to two key insights:

1: Staff and administrators varied in their legal interpretations of documentation required to provide disability supports.

During high school, public schools are required to provide a “free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment,” according to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Legal protections for postsecondary students differ, however. For postsecondary education, students are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. According to the National Center of Secondary Education and Transition, Postsecondary institutions are required by law to provide accommodations for students with disabilities to have equal access to their programs and services.

Some college programs go above and beyond what the law requires and provide additional supports and accommodations for students with autism who may pay to enroll in specialized programs. These programs may provide supports for residential and social life in addition to helping students with academic needs.

In this particular study, I asked interviewees for their interpretation of the legal requirements for their institution in providing support service to students with ASD. Twenty-nine percent of respondents felt that their institution was only legally required to provide academic support while 22% felt that their institution was legally required to provide support for residential life as well as academics. Fourteen percent felt the law required support for academics, social interaction and residential life while another 14% felt the language included extra-curricular support as well as those mentioned above. Twenty-one percent felt providing extra-curricular support was not applicable.

2: DSS staff members report needing additional help

With the increase in the autistic student population, the need to build capacity to provide supports within higher education is paramount. Most institutions have one office tasked with managing disability supports, and these staff juggle many roles: decision maker, support program designer, and implementer of services, among others. When I asked what improvements could be made to services for students with ASD, a common theme that emerged from staff was the need for additional help. Several interviewees mentioned that they cannot spend an adequate amount of time with students because there are so many students to see. Some interviewees stated:

  • “It would be nice to do more formalized sessions of study groups and study skills.”

  • “We tend to get backed up in our appointments.That [having more staff] would make more people available more frequently.”

  • “Caseloads have increased dramatically and trying to find time to meet with all the students is very limited.”

Next Steps

Programs for students with autism in higher education are emerging around the country (Take a look at Think College for a great database on such programs). These programs vary widely in whether they target degree-seeking or non-degree-seeking students; whether they are residential or non-residential; whether they support students with autism exclusively or students with a variety of disability types; and many other factors. We need to learn more about the design of these programs and how well they are working for students. The issues above are only a few that DSS staff will need to consider. Additional information about what is working around the nation is critical for better informing disability support services for students with autism.

Amy EdwardsAmy Edwards, Ed. D., leads our projects related to understanding how to help youth enrolled in postsecondary education programs. She is the parent of a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome.




Edwards, A. D. (2014).Serving the needs of students on the autism spectrum in higher education: A study of leadership and support services (Order No. 3672020). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ Drexel University; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1651562840). Retrieved from

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