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Determining Perceptions of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Trish Oyaas
Trish Oyaas did her UROP on college student perceptions of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Psychology undergraduate student Trish Oyaas is exploring the world of student perception. She is specifically looking at how students perceive their fellow classmates affected with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Inspired by her experience mentoring a student with ASD while attending Maple Grove High School, Oyaas’ genuine curiosity about the disorder led her to develop a research project at UMD. In spring 2014, Oyaas presented her proposal to her mentor, Kathy Dowell of the Psychology Department, and hopes to have the project finalized by December.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. New discoveries about ASD and its many forms has heightened public awareness. Though many young adults affected by ASD are capable of university-level education, they require a range of academic and supportive accommodations.

Testing Reactions
Oyaas’ goal is to assess how college students react to people with ASD, how accepting they are, and what programs the University should implement to help students with ASD make the transition successful.  

“College Student Perceptions of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder” is the title of Oyaas’ undergraduate research project. Oyaas is replicating a similar study of student perceptions done at a technical college. She wanted to discover if the UMD results would be different than the technical college results, considering the varying resources and population of the schools. This research will also serve as Oyaas’ University Honors senior capstone project.  

The Questions
The first step in Oyaas' research was to survey UMD students about how they felt regarding a hypothetical interaction with an ASD student. There were two surveys given with the exact same description of the student with ASD and their behaviors – with one difference, in one of the descriptions the student had the label of ASD, the other did not. Participants were given one or the other. Oyaas presented a specific situation where the survey takers were then asked to rate statements on a scale from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” Statements included asking whether or not the student would hang out with the person with ASD in their free time, whether or not the person made them feel afraid, and whether or not the person seemed different.

An early review of the results showed that students felt discomfort around students with ASD because of perceived differences. Oyaas believes that the answer to these fears lies in educating people about the disorder. She said, “The more we know more about ASD, and the more resources we can provide, the more comfortable students will be with each other.”

“Initially, my hypothesis was that students would be more open and accepting of students with ASD who were not labeled with the disorder," Oyaas said. "It turned out the results were the exact opposite.” The research showed that students feel more open and comfortable to the student when knowing the student has ASD compared to the students who did not know. The research previously done on perceptions about ASD have been done primarily with children, and rarely among college students.  

About Oyaas
A peer advisor in the CEHSP department, a member of University Honors, and assistant teacher at YWCA preschool are just a few of Oyaas' many commitments. Oyaas plans to graduate in spring 2015 with a double major in psychology and political science and hopes to continue her education in a master’s program. Eventually she wants to work in child protection services. 

While Oyaas continues to configure the results and conclusion of her study, she hasn't given up on her aspirations to create a collegiate environment with appropriate support and resources for students with ASD.

by Courtney Salmela, November, 2014

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Contact Cheryl Reitan creitan@d.umn.edu

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