My 24-year-old son, Sean, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at eight years old. He graduated with a degree in Informatics from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, in 2017. Sean is a voracious reader, writer, and standup comic whose greatest pleasure is correcting his mother’s use of the English language. Now that Sean has successfully completed his degree, I thought it would be helpful to other families to share some of the important things I wish I had known as a parent when he first headed off to college:
- Sean’s reason for going to college was to actually LEARN, not to earn a degree, socialize, or date. Sean attended IU for six years and never attended a college football game, basketball game, or ‘barn dance.’ Sean graduated without regrets, on his terms, on his schedule.
- He would not self-report about class work, grades, work, or academic progress toward graduation accurately—not because he didn’t care, but because his reason for attending college was to LEARN, not to get an ‘A’ (see #1 above). Sean rarely remembered to check his grades at all and was astonished to learn he had made the Dean’s List. Oh, and then he FORGOT that he had made the Dean’s List. I doubt he knew his overall GPA or even cared.
- I needed to be on a first name basis with his academic advisor. You and your child will need to get a release signed with the university so you can access academic records and add/drop options. That way, you can be included on the pathway to graduation. Thank you, Melody, for making us aware of the critical dates and for showing us the options available to Sean, so I could continue to advocate (from afar) on his behalf.
- My son’s living situation was a key success factor. Living alone was NOT AN OPTION. Not all introverts should have single dorm rooms on the third floor with little to no contact with the outside world.
- Your child will surprise you with the things he/she figures out without your help: doing laundry, paying bills, depositing checks using the ‘app,’ ordering pizza without ever greeting a delivery person, and getting a haircut. However, refilling prescriptions on time will ALWAYS be a challenge. Set up a mail order service to avoid medication interruptions.
- Your child may lose most of his interest in Nintendo, Wii, Xbox, Pokémon, or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. Most, not all.
- Accountability partners are critical. These can take the form of friends, roommates, counselors, and therapists. These amazing people made sure Sean went to class, kept his commitments for meetings and appointments, took his medication, and cleared his voicemail to make room for new phone messages. The relationships that evolved naturally were the most powerful (such as his peers), but a weekly therapist visit reinforced conversations between us as parent and child. See #3 above, related to mutual release of confidential information.
- Never underestimate the value of a mundane, hourly wage job. After six months working at a grocery meat counter (originally self-reported as the ‘deli’…see #2 above), Sean confessed that he was surprised to find that he was able “get out of his head” long enough to complete low-level job tasks. These work successes on his own terms proved to be far more valuable than anything I could have orchestrated.
- My child did not want to wear the cap and gown and walk across the stage. It turns out you can have a remarkable graduation celebration without baking in the hot sun in a polyester cap and gown with thousands of people you don’t know. Don’t force your definition of ‘success’ on him…it’s his life, not yours.
Colleen Hittle is a mom to five children. The oldest, Sean, was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of eight. Sean recently graduated with a degree in Informatics from Indiana University after a six-year journey of successes, failures, self-discovery, gained independence, and parental imperfections.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions