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15 Tips for Navigating College and Autism

January 26, 2024

I am an autistic individual who graduated college. During my college years, I had no idea I had autism. I am writing this article for young adults who are on the spectrum but also for their parents dealing with the challenges of navigating college and autism.

This is how I navigated college as a person on the spectrum, and I am sharing some tips to help others do the same. If I could graduate college without knowing I had autism, I believe others who are diagnosed can go to college, graduate, and exceed expectations. 

Here are 15 tips on how autistic students can prepare for college and how their parents can support them.

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1. Find your passion

Students on the spectrum should find their passion. College will be much more interesting when you study what you enjoy. Find the right school, one that fits your needs. That may be a public university, private school, or community college. If you prefer online classes, go that route. 

Tour the campuses that you are interested in. Once you find a school, do some research. Look at the requirements of the school’s enrollment process. See if you meet the requirements for that particular school. Meet with an advisor at the school to get some other insights. 

If you still think it’s a good fit, then enroll. When you are finally enrolled, you may feel relief. I suggest parents provide help through the process while encouraging independence. I enrolled and graduated from Kansas State University. It was the right fit for me.

2. Find and apply for financial aid

Those who need financial aid should apply adhering to relevant deadlines and dates. If you want a scholarship, look at the school’s requirements. Some schools may require a standardized test like the ACT or SAT.

3. Find the support department

Find the special needs department that provides students with appropriate help. I needed extended tests. Being able to have that helped me to be successful.

I also qualified for others to take notes for me. I never used that service. The majority of the time, I had no problem with note-taking. If I did, I would ask my professors if I could record their classes. That was usually fine.

A recording device was very useful to me. If you have a similar problem with note-taking, I suggest talking to your professor about using a recording device.

4. Talk to the team

Talk to your advisors and professors. They are there to help you succeed. I was shy, but with my mom’s encouragement, I talked to my professors at the start of each semester.

I developed a good rapport with several of them. I asked questions. These teachers were always willing to answer. They may end up being your personal cheerleaders. 

When I missed questions on tests I asked what was wrong with my answer. They were always happy to show me my mistakes and lead me in the right direction. 

If you need a quiet space when there is too much activity, talk to the professor – they will help you find one. The professor could assist you by going over the work covered in class. That helped me. Finding a tutor may also be helpful.

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5. Accept help from parents

Welcome help from your parents. When I had a hard time understanding a paper or something I read in a textbook, I asked my mom. She was able to help me understand what I needed to do. Your parents have a plethora of information and experience; they will help you.

6. Use learning materials

Get used textbooks or access textbooks online. Do whatever is less expensive. I did that to help keep my finances in check. When I got books before classes started, I would start looking through the book.

I would also read the professors’ syllabi. During the semester, I would read ahead, taking notes from the sections that would be covered. After taking notes from the book and in class, I would type the notes up.

I would create test questions from my notes. This helped me get excellent grades. This may also help you.

7. Choose a study space

Find a quiet space where you can study, such as a coffee shop or library. The library is the best choice because it is quiet. I found some quiet spaces at the Kansas State University Library. 

When you need a break, walk around or look at the books all around you. I found some interesting books when studying got tiring. I enjoyed a book about glass blowing and ostriches.  

A young woman studying in a library.

8. Take your time

Take time when writing papers so you won’t get in trouble grade-wise. Follow the directions and read what you write out loud. Start making notes the day you receive the assignment.

Take it day by day till you get it done because you will have other assignments. Study every day. 

I don’t suggest pulling all-nighters because that is hard on the mind and the rest of the body. Regular sleep will help you function.

9. Park in the morning

If you have a car, I suggest parking in the morning when there are parking spaces available. This is so you can walk to your classes while getting exercise. Especially if your classes are close together time- or location-wise.

If you have classes right after each other and are on opposite sides of campus, it is best to walk fast and not stop to chat with others. Something else that helped me was talking to the professors about leaving a little early.

10. Opt for early classes

I suggest morning classes. I found those easier because after being done in the morning, I could go home to study or go to work.

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11. Don’t party too much!

Avoid partying excessively because it could get in the way of learning. Loud parties might not be the best situation for you because they can lead to sensory overload. I never went to any parties. I was perfectly content with that.

12. Don’t overwhelm yourself

Take your time in college. Don’t take too many classes at one time because this might overwhelm you. It would hurt if you get bad grades and have to drop out.

What I did was limit the number of classes I took. It may have taken six years for me to graduate college, but it was well worth it.

13. Ensure other responsibilities are manageable 

If you get a job during college, make sure it’s manageable. If you have a job that becomes unmanageable, talk to your boss. See if accommodations can be made.

I had three part-time jobs in college. They were manageable. My bosses were accommodating of my college schedule.

14. Consider living at home

What helped me in college was that I lived at home. When I moved out on my own to experience life, I did not do well.

Some young adults on the autism spectrum may not be able to live on their own. I was one of them, not used to living on my own and being independent. I did, however, make it work. 

An idea for parents who want to support and prepare their young adults for college is to have them live at home for the first two years of college. After that, you can let them experience some independence.

This can be independent living, living in a sorority, fraternity, or dorm life. Parents can visit, call, or answer questions when needed. This will make it easier to adjust to life after college.

15. Chat with loved ones

Parents and students should have a sit-down before college is over to plan for the future. Life is unpredictable. A plan helps.

Parents and their daughter planning for college.

Navigating college with autism

This is how I got through college. I hope these tips help young adults on the spectrum and their parents. College could be a great experience for autistic individuals if appropriate planning and accommodations are in place.

This article originally appeared in our January 2022 Sensory Solutions (issue 133):  https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/issue-133-sensory-solutions/ 


Q: Is it hard to study with autism?

A: Studying with autism can be challenging for some due to issues like organization or attention, but it varies for each person. Support services and accommodations can make a big difference in helping individuals with autism succeed in their studies.

Q: Can someone with autism be successful?

A: People with autism have incredible potential, and success for them can be achieved through recognizing and embracing their individual strengths. Many individuals with autism have excelled in various fields, showcasing the vast possibilities and encouraging a future filled with accomplishments and personal growth.

Q: What is the best college degree for people with autism?

A: The best college degree for people with autism depends on their interests, strengths, and passions. Whether it’s a degree in STEM, arts, humanities, or any other field, choosing a program that aligns with the individual’s unique abilities and interests is key.

Q: What resources and support services are available for students with autism at college?

A: Colleges typically offer resources such as counseling services, academic accommodations, and specialized programs to support students with autism. These may include social skills training, peer mentoring, and other initiatives to ensure their academic and social success on campus.

Q: How can students with autism navigate the social aspects of college life?

A: Students with autism can benefit from participating in social skills training programs, peer mentoring initiatives, and joining support groups tailored to their needs. Exploring campus clubs or organizations aligned with their interests can provide structured social opportunities.

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