What can help a student on the spectrum succeed in college?
Back by popular demand: The “Got Questions?” feature of the Autism Speaks Science blog. Today’s answer comes from…
I can remember starting college and how anxious I felt facing the new and challenging environment. I had to meet such a range of new people, deal with academic pressures, organise my day and get to appointments on time, manage my finances (I still struggle!) and generally look after myself. Such an upheaval tests any young person—all the more so for a young adult on the autism spectrum.
So what can help? First, remember that US and international legislation supports the right to a college education for individuals with disabilities. Educational institutions are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide services for students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The college are required to make all reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of students on the autism spectrum and to avoid discrimination based on their disability. (See Ralph Savarese’s blog post on Oberlin’s acceptance of his son, DJ, possibly the first nonspeaking student with autism to live in a US college dorm and be accepted to such a highly selective US college.)
In addition, there are many steps that parents can take to help their son or daughter have a rewarding college experience. Transition planning is key. I encourage you to work with your child’s high-school and college advisors to draw up a transition plan that extends from before the freshman year to post-graduation. Consider such issues as the appropriateness of a college’s location, available facilities and course content. It helps to visit the college, meet with at least some of the teaching staff and tour classrooms and dorms with an eye for how well they accommodate your student’s needs.
As part of the transition plan, work closely with the college’s disability services. Of course, this requires that your son or daughter discloses his or her ASD and, if necessary, provides the necessary documentation of disability and needs. Armed with this information, the disability office can organize an assessment of need and provide learning supports. These can include both psychological and behavioral services, assistive technologies (e.g. a recording device for a lecture) and academic aids such as note-takers and extra time in exams. It is important to have assessments of need conducted early so that learning supports are in place when the student starts coursework. Then, once a year, ensure that college staff review the effectiveness of the support program.
Having a social mentor can be particularly useful. Autism Speaks’ college program–Autism Speaks U–promotes awareness and advocacy for students with ASD and may be one source of social mentoring during college. Sometimes just a friendly ear is needed, particularly at times of increased pressure (e.g. first week of college and exams).
Before the start of classes, see if you can get an advanced class schedule. Consider the timing and distance between classes—again from the point of view of the demands placed on your student.
Finally at least a year before your son or daughter graduates, begin planning an “exit strategy” in consultation with the school’s careers office and other college staff familiar with your now-adult child.
With the right planning and support, college can be a great environment for young adults on the autism spectrum. I hope your son or daughter has as much fun as I did.
Here are some additional resources:
1. The Autism Speaks’ Transition Toolkit, particularly the section on Post-Secondary Educational Opportunities.
2. The TEACCH Autism Program of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
3. Preparing Students with Autism for College, and Preparing Colleges for Students with Autism, Hurewitz and Berger (2008).
4. Supporting More Able Students on the Autism Spectrum: College and Beyond Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders VanBergeijk, Klin and Volkmar (2008).
5. The [UK] National Autism Society’s Guidelines for Student Mentors.
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