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Supporting the College Student with Autism

August 14, 2020

According to a 2011 study, about 17 percent of young adults with autism enroll in a four-year college, compared with 21 percent of people with learning disabilities and about 40 percent of people with visual or hearing impairments.

Supporting the College Student with AutismAmong those who attend any type of postsecondary educational institution, including vocational schools and community colleges, only 39 percent earn a degree, compared with 52 percent of typical young adults.

Findings (2001-2009 study) suggested that most college bound students with an ASD enroll in a 2-year community college at some point in their postsecondary careers (81 percent).

Those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields were more likely to persist in a two-year community college and were twice as likely to transfer from a two-year community college to a four-year university than their peers in the non-STEM fields.


Meet the Students

Paul, a man living on the spectrum, shared a little bit about his college experiences.

“I felt like I had major communication disconnect issues in all areas of social interactions. Many times, they were subtle and I did not realize it was happening until later in my life when I understood. That college situation eroded my self-confidence very much but I finally finish my degree.”

He reported that he had trouble organizing information from academic subjects. It was hard to figure out where to focus and the right amount of focus on any given topic. Even more, making sure he got all the notes during the class lecture was a challenge. Information was coming too fast at him at times. He felt like his processing speed just couldn’t keep up.

Then there was Anlor, who described her college experience to me. She said she was overwhelmed sensorially at college. The lights, the noise of slamming doors, and the fragrances everyone wore elicited a lot of anxiety for her. Another nuisance was finding the free parking area. Trying to navigate her way around the campus was never a sure thing, so she had to give herself more time, but she never stopped stressing until she arrived in her classroom. Bathrooms, even with their awful smelling soaps, provided refuge for her at times.

Paul shared, “I wish I would have had supports and mentors help me navigate. I needed help plugging into social groups and organizations. I needed help with my academic challenges.”

So, how can young people with ASD be better supported in college?

Accommodations Suggested to Instructors at the College of Marin, in Kentfield, California

  • Provide the instructor’s lecture notes or a note taker to help key-in on important information.
  • Provide study guides for tests.
  • Accommodate for a longer verbal response time from the student on the spectrum.
  • Allow important exchanges of information to be done in written form.
  • Instructors could be more clear, concise, concrete, and logical when communicating as well as asking for clarification. Don’t make assumptions about what students truly understand.
  • A student with an autism spectrum diagnosis may find that a small sensory item brings comfort in class.
  • Be aware that a student may make a last-minute request for a seating change or leave abruptly due to sensory overload.
  • Help devise an acceptable plan to address urgent sensory issues for the student.
  • For a student with sensory differences, allow hats, sunglasses, tinted lens glasses, ear plugs or earphones to be worn.
  • Allow the student to choose their seat and help to assure it is always available.
  • If requested by the student, an alternative writing instrument for tests and assignments could be allowed.
  • For some students on the autism spectrum with motor skills difficulties, you may need to allow a computer for in class work, tests and assignments.
  • Allow work assignments to be done at a slower pace and provide models and step by step instruction.
  • Provide extra time to take tests and provide readers and scribes (or technology that reads and takes notes).
  • Accommodations might need to be considered for students taking physical education courses in which motor skill differences might provide further complications for them in the class.
  • If possible, pair with peer mentors who might help with feedback and provide proof-reading opportunities and ongoing structure to keeping them on target with work assignments.
  • Other accommodations might be allowing advanced negotiation of deadlines or a separate “quiet” place for tests.

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Advice from Parents and Counselors

  • Students might want to take a light case load for the first couple of semesters
  • Pick classes that don’t start too early or go on too late, keeping in mind sleep, fatigue, medication constraints.
  • Encourage balance by taking two required classes and two for fun classes.
  • Work to identify areas of interest or a major, then lay out all requirements to complete degree and create an action plan.
  • Take time to revisit the plan to check on progress.

Prepare Answers to The Following Questions

  • Where do I park? How do I get to the college?
  • Where do I get tutoring? What does it look like?
  • How do I make an appointment with a counselor?
  • How do I look up instructor’s office hours?
  • Where and when do I use college health services?
  • Where can I go to eat? How do I pay?
  • How do I comprehend a syllabus or calculate my grade?
  • How will I know when to speak to an instructor about my grades?
  • What do I do if I am failing a class?
  • How will I know if I need a tutor?
  • What happens if I miss an appointment?
  • What do I do if I get lost on campus?
  • What do I do if I am late to class?

Someone Needs to Be Identified to Help the College Student

  • Deal with newness (site, schedules, people, test preparation, assignment completion)
  • Manage their time
  • Organize themselves
  • Develop a system of self-reminders (they are not still in high school)
  • Deal with sensory overload
  • The college student with ASD will need support in Executive Functioning Development
  • They may have challenges coordinating each task in front of them (reading, thinking, calculating, perceiving)
  • They may have challenges initiating, judging, accessing their working memory, decision making, sequencing, monitoring themselves and making predications.
  • They may have challenges in foresight, hindsight and insight.
  • The student with Executive Functioning challenges may live in the moment.
  • Do things on impulse.
  • Have poor short-term memory and forget the plan.
  • Get stuck on one assignment too long.
  • Be unsure how to treat others.
  • They may have trouble getting started (initiating)
  • They may not respond well to novelty.
  • They may not scan a situation for cues and may interrupt during odd times.
  • They may not be aware of the steps to achieving a specific goal.
  • They may have poor time passing concept.
  • They may not be able to maintain sustained attention.

How College Instructors or Family Can Help

  • Using repetition in teaching and preparing.
  • Providing structure and routines (schedules, lists, environment, rules).
  • Creating seminars/sessions on: how to solve problems, understand relationships, understanding feelings, thinking through a situation to come up with appropriate responses.
  • Providing support in: establishing social networks, enhancing conversation, and perspective taking.
  • Advisors can help in selecting classes, obtaining accommodations and self-advocacy.
  • Advisors can help them set up weekly schedules identifying their classes, advising meetings, workshops, planning time, wellness, exercise, study times and social activities.
  • Make sure the students know how to contact you, when you are available, why they might need to connect with you (all the reasons: check in on understanding, check in on when something is due, check in on how to study for a test, what do they do when they are ill, forget something, going to be late for a class, etc.).
  • Make sure it is all in writing, not just verbally. Both on paper and email.
  • Remember, asking for help may be hard. Make sure they know you are comfortable with them asking for help.

Additional suggestions can be found in the following resources:




This article was featured in Issue 102 – Supporting ASD Needs Everyday

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