Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Communication and Information
Devendra D. Potnis
Dania Bilal, Eric J. Moore, Clayton A. Copeland
Students in higher education are expected to master everyday life, which involves receiving and processing copious information, completing assignments, communicating with professors and peers, planning for their careers, and building life skills (e.g., budgeting finances, managing schedules, securing housing). Autistic students, however, encounter affective, cognitive, technological, and social barriers when engaging in everyday information practices (i.e., seeking, using, and sharing information) to accomplish those tasks. Higher education institutions unaware of or unwilling to accommodate autistic students' wide-ranging information needs may not provide these students with helpful supports. Without having their information needs met, students on the autism spectrum cannot receive the same quality of education as their neurotypical peers.
Referred to as structural agency, scholars should investigate the effects that an institution's people, information, norms, and tools have on consumers' everyday information practices. Research with autistic students has rarely addressed the influence of structural agency on their information practices. Hence, the purpose of this dissertation is to understand - from autistic students' perspectives - how people, information, norms, and tools belonging to higher education institutions enable these learners' mastery of everyday life.
To accomplish this purpose, I employed Grounded Theory Method to investigate the relationship between the structural agency that higher education institutions provide and autistic students' information practices. Taking a user-centered approach, I conducted 16 initial and 13 follow-up interviews with undergraduate and graduate students with autism belonging to two flagship universities in the Southeastern United States. To collect the richest data possible, I invited participants to create everyday life maps, which are illustrations of the people, information, norms, and tools that influence how they balance the academic and everyday demands of higher education. Following multiple rounds of initial, axial, and theoretical coding of participants' transcripts and maps, I found that (a) structural agency, (b) personal support systems, (c) everyday information practices, (d) optimal functioning, and (e) belonging collectively contribute to autistic students' sensory and social well-being. To conclude, I propose and apply a theoretical model of sensory and social well-being and recommend actionable strategies that professors and staff members can implement to enhance students' sensory and social well-being.
Mallary, Kevin Joseph, "Investigating Higher Education Institutions' Influence on the Everyday Information Practices of Students with Autism. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2022.
Available for download on Friday, August 15, 2025