Autistic students are more likely to drop out of university, while facing both challenges and opportunities within university environments. This study compared the experiences of autistic and non-autistic current United Kingdom students, in terms of thoughts about dropping out, burnout, mental health and coping, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Burnout was of particular interest as this is a relatively unexamined phenomenon for autistic students. Seventy autistic and 315 non-autistic students, completed a mixed methods questionnaire with standardized measures of burnout (personal and academic), mental health (depression, stress, and anxiety), and coping styles (adaptive and maladaptive). We also included qualitative questions about dropping out and COVID-19 experiences. We found autistic participants experienced higher rates of burnout and mental health symptoms and were more likely to have thought about dropping out. Reasons given for thinking about dropping out, for both groups, focused on poor mental well-being, doubts about university, and academic challenges. For autistic participants, further analyses did not identify specific predictors of thinking about dropping out, but for non-autistic participants, this was predicted by maladaptive coping styles and academic burnout. Academic and personal burnout predicted one another for autistic students, and age, maladaptive coping, autistic characteristics, stress, and anxiety additionally predicted burnout for non-autistic students. Similarities in experiences during the pandemic were noted, with both groups experiencing negative social implications, difficulties adjusting to emergency online learning, and poorer psychological well-being. Moving forward from COVID-19, universities must find ways to enhance both academic and social support, to enable equal opportunity within Higher Education for autistic students.


© 2022 Cage and McManemy. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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Cage, E. & McManemy, E. 2022, 'Burnt Out and Dropping Out: A Comparison of the Experiences of Autistic and Non-autistic Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic', Frontiers in Psychology, 12, article no: 792945. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.792945

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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