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Autism in College: 10 Tips on How to Prepare

May 10, 2024

Many students and parents think about college. Can someone with autism go to college? How can we prepare? Where do we look? What do we ask for? All good questions. Many students with autism graduate high school with good grades that make them candidates for college.

The rates of children being diagnosed with autism are rising fastest among those who have average or higher intellectual abilities. Each year, about 49,000 high school students with autism graduate, with around 16,000 going on to college.

National statistics in 2011 showed only 38.8% of autistic college students graduated. Many of them struggle, not just academically but socially and emotionally too. So, how can we help them prepare for college? Here are some tips that you can try.

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1. Look for resources

In a high school or school district, parents could ask if graduates on the autistic spectrum currently attending college might come in for a discussion with college-bound juniors and seniors.

There are college fairs where colleges send representatives to meet students and share information, but many students with autism find these events overwhelming.

Students can acclimate to the demands of college and try out clubs and activities such as theater or sports while having the safety net of support at home.

There are bridge programs that offer a supportive post-high school experience to adjust to dorm living and the demands of college. Some are summer only, and some are year-long programs that might include taking classes or working.

Having other pre-college experiences, such as jobs or internships, can be very helpful in building confidence. Ideally, a volunteer job or internship would be in an area of interest.

Schools are required to plan for post-secondary transition, although IEPs rarely are comprehensive in this area. It’s important to include the competencies a student will need and an appropriate level of intellectual ability.

2. Consider social challenges

Social skills groups, in general, have not been found to generalize well. Joining an activity at school or outside school provides social interaction with peers who share an interest. 

Summer programs or camps focused on interests (computers, graphic design, arts) can also prepare students for social experience in settings with like-minded peers.

3. Keep in mind the emotional challenges

I always suggest teens develop a “tool kit” of strategies for handling difficult emotional times. Often, OTs have identified sensory tools for relaxation.

Other “tools” might include:

  • meditation,
  • playing music,
  • journaling,
  • taking time out to walk or to be somewhere quiet,
  • visualization or mindfulness exercises, etc.
A teenager meditating and listening to music to relax https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-preparation-college/

Students should learn to identify trigger stimulations or recognize when feelings start building up.

Some individuals with autism have alexithymia (difficulty identifying feelings), so “early warning” strategies are important. If finding self-calming tools requires professional help, an IEP should include school counseling or outside therapists can help.

4. Pay attention to executive functioning

Too often, we “help” our children by organizing work for them and then prompting them to initiate their work. At college, this organizational help won’t be available unless they ask for it.

They will need to initiate work independently or set up a structure to help themselves get going. As difficult as it is to let students struggle, it’s important for students to understand their needs for support.

It’s important to teach metacognitive skills:

  • how to identify the components of a task,
  • how to break it down into steps,
  • how to organize materials and
  • how to plan time management.

IEPs need to include modification of assignments to allow students time to go through this process.

Extended time isn’t always helpful, as the backup of work that’s due just continues to grow. Other executive functions include:

  • initiation,
  • making transitions and shifting,
  • inhibition/focus, and
  • self-checking work.

IEPs should include these skills when needed, including what strategies will be taught and measured. Students need to learn to use their strengths to accommodate challenges, for example, using verbal skills to talk through tasks.

5. Help them prepare for independent living

Since colleges do provide meals, cooking usually isn’t essential, but independent self-management skills and self-care skills are critical.

Getting up in the morning, eating well, getting sleep, hygiene, planning clothes, using transportation, buying needed supplies, and managing money are all necessary skills.

Cellphones, computers, and apps can be helpful. In addition to alarms, timers, calendars, and notes, there are apps for what to wear, planning transportation, monitoring spending, and tracking exercise and sleep.

6. Help them understand self-advocacy and communication skills

Students with autism are often hesitant or unsure of how to express their needs, and it’s important to develop those skills. Sometimes IEPs say, “Student will self-advocate,” with no specifics on how skills will be facilitated.

Students generally don’t know what they missed or misconstrued. It can be important to identify common “misses” and to create strategies to compensate.


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Assistive technology (AT) centers help students identify AT that might be useful. For example, there are smart pens that actually record a lecture as you take notes in a special notebook. Afterward, the pen replays the lecture at the point in the notebook where one taps.

7. Choose the right college

If your child has decided to attend college, choosing an appropriate college is essential to a successful outcome. What’s important is that there’s a good fit between the college, the student’s strengths, and social, emotional, and academic needs. 

What appeals to any student can be somewhat random: the look of the buildings or the interests of the tour guide might decide the experience. It’s important to dig deeper into all the elements of fit: size, setting, resources, opportunities, activities, and career planning.

8. Consider educational counselors

Some public high school college counselors will take the time to really know your child and give excellent advice. Some have huge caseloads and just don’t have the time.

If financially possible, independent educational counselors take the time to know a student and visit college campuses so they know what they’re recommending. Some of these consultants specialize in special needs or twice exceptional (special needs and gifted) students.

9. Consider self-disclosure of an autism diagnosis

Self-disclosure of an autism diagnosis on a college application is an important initial decision. According to a 2017 study, only one in 225 college freshmen self-reported ASD, based on a study of over 2,200 students.

Some student don’t self-disclose because of a fear of being stigmatized, the fact they don’t feel they will need help, or they want to feel independent and that they can achieve on their own.

Unless your child is applying to a special autism program at college, it’s okay to wait until after admission to disclose a diagnosis.

Your child can also wait and see if difficulties come up, and at that point, go to the Office of Disability Services. At any time, disclosure requires documentation.

What’s important is to research upfront to be sure services appropriate for ASD and for your child are available if needed.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

On college visits, ask questions. How large are the classes? How accessible are professors? What kind of learning and emotional support are there? 

Is there an individual advisory system, and how often do students meet with advisors? What majors and interest groups exist that might appeal to your child’s preferences? What kinds of dorms are there, and what kind of supervision?

Are there people with training in working with students with ASD? Whether a college program is specific to autism or not, many schools are becoming sensitive to the needs of autistic students.

Are there stated goals for inclusion of all kinds of diversity, and is anyone in charge of making sure goals are implemented?

Teen asking questions and doing research about college https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-preparation-college/

It’s important to ask about opportunities a school offers in areas of your child’s skills and interests. Is there an opportunity for strength-based learning (independent projects, working with professors) and for internships?

Is one-to-one support available if needed? Are advisors assigned to each student? Can they pre-arrange meetings with students, or are meetings only on demand? Is there any tracking to identify students in trouble?

Preparation and support are the key

Yes, even though you may have been focused on college since kindergarten, life goes on, and there’s increasing emphasis on providing support for employment opportunities and skills for young adults on the spectrum.

College is another step in a path that is highly individualized, and paths can be bumpy. Many students have setbacks, drop classes to adjust the load, or change schools; this is true for all students, not just those with ASD.

As colleges learn to provide better support to autistic students and students learn to ask for what they need, the success rate will be rising. The track record of students with autism will be improving as understanding and awareness are increasing steadily.

This article was featured in Issue 109 – Attaining Good Health

FAQs

Q: Can people with autism go to college?

A: Yes, people with autism can go to college. While it may present challenges, with support and accommodations, many successfully navigate higher education.

Q: Is it hard to study with autism?

A: Studying with autism can present unique challenges, as individuals may experience difficulties with sensory processing, communication, and social interaction. However, with understanding, accommodations, and support, many individuals with autism can thrive academically.

Q: What are the best jobs for people with autism?

A: Jobs that capitalize on their strengths, such as data analysis, software development, or creative fields like graphic design, where attention to detail and focus can be assets, are often well-suited for individuals with autism. Roles with clear routines and structure, like library work or laboratory research, can provide a supportive environment for their unique abilities.

References:

Cox, B. E., Edelstein, J., Brogdon, B., & Roy, A. (2021). Navigating Challenges to Facilitate Success for College Students with Autism. The Journal of Higher Education, 92(2), 252–278. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2020.1798203 

McLeod, J.D., Meanwell, E. & Hawbaker, A. The Experiences of College Students on the Autism Spectrum: A Comparison to Their Neurotypical Peers. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 2320–2336 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03910-8 

Flegenheimer, C., Scherf, K.S. College as a Developmental Context for Emerging Adulthood in Autism: A Systematic Review of What We Know and Where We Go from Here. J Autism Dev Disord 52, 2075–2097 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05088-4 

Accardo, A.L., Bean, K., Cook, B. et al. College Access, Success and Equity for Students on the Autism Spectrum. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 4877–4890 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04205-8 

Viezel, K. D., Williams, E., & Dotson, W. H. (2020). College-Based Support Programs for Students With Autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 35(4), 234-245. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357620954369

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