Date of Award

Spring 2024

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


STEM Education & Professional Studies


Instructional Design and Technology

Committee Director

Tian Luo

Committee Member

John Baaki

Committee Member

Anne Perrotti


Online learning is becoming more prevalent (Aylmer, 2020) and institutions are seeing an increase in disabled students (HEFCE, 2017; Italian National Agency for the Evaluation of the University System and Research [ANVUR], & National Conference of University Delegates for Disability [CNUDD], 2021; Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015). Meanwhile, this group experiences an achievement gap concerning learning and outcomes (ECU, 2017; Eurostat, 2014; Eurostat, 2019; Pearson et al., 2019). Therefore, exploring potential uses of online learning may be beneficial. One related use for online learning is its potential as a tool for accessibility for autistic students. Moreover, a literature gap exists surrounding autistic adult students’ perspectives and their experiences in online learning. Thus, a need to explore the intersection of online learning and accessibility within autistic students’ experiences becomes apparent.

This phenomenological study aims to explore autistic higher education students’ experiences in online learning courses and describe the phenomenon of autistic students’ experiences using online learning as a tool for educational accessibility. The following research question and sub-questions guide this study: How do autistic higher education students perceive online learning? (a) How do autistic higher education students perceive the accessibility of online learning? (b) What specific aspects of online learning, if any, do autistic higher education students find beneficial to their learning? (c) What specific aspects of online learning, if any, do autistic higher education students find disadvantageous to their learning?

This study’s findings suggest that access to online learning may contribute to an increased perception of educational accessibility for autistic students. Benefits included helpful characteristics like flexibility, different modes of engagement, and ease of issues related to disability (e.g., sensory input). Largely, autistic students preferred online learning over an in person class setting. However, they encountered some challenges learning online, but these seem small in comparison to the net benefits perceived. For example, students perceived some faculty members to be uncomfortable teaching in an online setting. Accordingly, this study suggests that faculty members participate in relevant training opportunities. Further, the discussion and implications advise (a) Educational Accessibility Offices, (b) higher education instructors and other faculty members, and (c) autistic students.


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