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Living in the College Dorms with Autism

October 4, 2010 7 comments

This guest post is by Autism Speaks staffer Kerry Magro. Kerry, an adult who has autism, is a rising senior at Seton Hall University, majoring in Sports Management. He started an Autism Speaks U Chapter: Student Disability Awareness on campus to help spread awareness and raise funds for those affected by autism. Autism Speaks U is a program designed for college students who host awareness, advocacy and fundraising events, while supporting their local autism communities.

One issue, in my opinion, that isn’t addressed enough on college campuses, is accommodations within the residence halls for those with disabilities. Yes, from time to time you will see a residence hall with an elevator, maybe bed shakers for those who are hearing impaired, but does that make a residence hall “disability friendly?” I don’t think so. A disability friendly residence hall should be accommodating to all disabilities, especially autism.

For people just starting college, living away in a dorm can be a difficult transition. For an individual with autism who is affected drastically by change it can make that transition almost impossible. The argument to this, is that those affected by autism who actually attend college are just a small enough quota where it doesn’t really matter. The thing is, most accommodations for those with autism in the dorms just rely on having a good and understanding friend. It’s easy in college to fall into a pattern of anti-social tendencies when work builds up on you.

I have seen this from every angle imaginable. My freshman year in the dorms, I was a resident. During my sophomore and half of my junior year, I was a Resident Assistant (RA) who helped residents while living in the dorms. Living in the residence halls wasn’t much of a difficulty for me, but that was because I had great friends early on who supported me in everything that I did. Being able to socially get my way through that first year, where I was seen as enough of a leader to be one of the only autistic RA’s not only in New Jersey, but in the country.

So what can autistic individuals living in the dorms do to make themselves ready for the transition? Firstly, strongly consider requesting a single room. Most colleges are very willing to give someone with a registered disability a single. I have lived alone and have loved the benefits. Mainly, the best benefit is that you have your own place to unwind. You don’t have to worry about whether you get along with other individuals. The pros outweigh the cons in most cases.

Secondly, make sure you get yourself out there. Most residence halls have programs within the first couple of weeks of school to get people meeting your fellow peers. Most residence halls will also have a peer support group for those with disabilities where you can interact with others who have similar difficulties within the dorms. We also live in a technology related world, so if you don’t feel comfortable with face to face conversations, virtual communication (Facebook, instant messaging, texting) is a great way to practice your social capabilities. Just make sure it doesn’t become a habit, if you are never leaving your room!

Take some time to meet with the director of your dorm. If you are open with them about having a disability, they can’t turn you away, and have to give you proper accommodations. You need to force yourself out of your comfort zone because that’s where the most progress can be made.

Now, this is a process. There is no game plan to every disability. You have to create your own plan of attack. Independence is not learned overnight either, so take the steps needed to make your own personal plan and then follow through.

(This is one of my Autism Speaks U related blog posts. If you would like to contact me directly about questions/comments related to this post I can be reached at kerry.magro@autismspeaks.org. Thanks everyone!)

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