Home > Got Questions?, Science > What can help a student on the spectrum succeed in college?

What can help a student on the spectrum succeed in college?

Back by popular demand: The “Got Questions?” feature of the Autism Speaks Science blog. Today’s answer comes from… 

Simon Wallace, PhD, Autism Speaks director of scientific development for Europe

I can remember starting college and how anxious I felt facing the new and challenging environment. I had to meet such a range of new people, deal with academic pressures, organise my day and get to appointments on time, manage my finances (I still struggle!) and generally look after myself. Such an upheaval tests any young person—all the more so for a young adult on the autism spectrum.

So what can help? First, remember that US and international legislation supports the right to a college education for individuals with disabilities. Educational institutions are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide services for students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  The college are required to make all reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of students on the autism spectrum and to avoid discrimination based on their disability. (See Ralph Savarese’s blog post on Oberlin’s acceptance of his son, DJ, possibly the first nonspeaking student with autism to live in a US college dorm and be accepted to such a highly selective US college.)

In addition, there are many steps that parents can take to help their son or daughter have a rewarding college experience. Transition planning is key. I encourage you to work with your child’s high-school and college advisors to draw up a transition plan that extends from before the freshman year to post-graduation. Consider such issues as the appropriateness of a college’s location, available facilities and course content. It helps to visit the college, meet with at least some of the teaching staff and tour classrooms and dorms with an eye for how well they accommodate your student’s needs.

As part of the transition plan, work closely with the college’s disability services. Of course, this requires that your son or daughter discloses his or her ASD and, if necessary, provides the necessary documentation of disability and needs. Armed with this information, the disability office can organize an assessment of need and provide learning supports. These can include both psychological and behavioral services, assistive technologies (e.g. a recording device for a lecture) and academic aids such as note-takers and extra time in exams. It is important to have assessments of need conducted early so that learning supports are in place when the student starts coursework. Then, once a year, ensure that college staff review the effectiveness of the support program.

Having a social mentor can be particularly useful. Autism Speaks’ college program–Autism Speaks U–promotes awareness and advocacy for students with ASD and may be one source of social mentoring during college. Sometimes just a friendly ear is needed, particularly at times of increased pressure (e.g. first week of college and exams).

Before the start of classes, see if you can get an advanced class schedule. Consider the timing and distance between classes—again from the point of view of the demands placed on your student.

Finally at least a year before your son or daughter graduates, begin planning an “exit strategy” in consultation with the school’s careers office and other college staff familiar with your now-adult child.

With the right planning and support, college can be a great environment for young adults on the autism spectrum. I hope your son or daughter has as much fun as I did.

Here are some additional resources:

1. The Autism Speaks’ Transition Toolkit, particularly the section on Post-Secondary Educational Opportunities.
2. The TEACCH Autism Program of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
3. Preparing Students with Autism for College, and Preparing Colleges for Students with Autism, Hurewitz and Berger (2008).
4. Supporting More Able Students on the Autism Spectrum: College and Beyond Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders VanBergeijk, Klin and Volkmar (2008).
5. The [UK] National Autism Society’s Guidelines for Student Mentors.

Got more Questions? Please email us at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org.

  1. August 19, 2011 at 8:31 am

    What Simon Wallace says makes great sense. Planning is absolutely key. In addition to the specific groups or offices on campus that he mentions, I’d contact campus security. I’d have my son or daughter meet the various officers and educate them about what kind of autism they have. This will deflate in advance any awkward–and likely misinterpreted–event that might happen. I’d also, at least if you’re in the States, find the nearest satellite of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). If you’re lucky, the college or university your child has chosen might have its own branch. Run BY autistic people FOR autistic people, ASAN will help your child to a) feel good about autism and b) learn to advocate for themselves. It will help your child to identify sympathetic resources, resources that not only want him or her to be successful in college but that will also work to mitigate the efforts of far less sympathetic people and groups.

    Ralph Savarese, PhD

  2. August 19, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Established by students with special needs, helping other students needs in college and university. We contribute by providing help for students to access human and financial resources in special ed schools. We help special need student.

    Thanks By
    Julia stiles
    Student Needs

  3. August 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    This is really great advice! My dd is on the high-functioning end of the spectrum and won’t be in college for several years but this is great to think about NOW. Thank you!

  4. Jenn
    August 19, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    My daughter is a high-functioning Aspie. She will most likely require a bit more time to complete assignments &/or tests in college. What kind of documentation is necessary to allow for those things? She is currently enrolled at a private Christian school…and is doing exceptionally well. She has 2 years of high school left before entering college. It’s exciting that she is even talking about this next step since kids with Asperger’s often don’t look at future events. Are there any scholarships that we can pursue for her…when the time comes?

  5. Janet
    August 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    My son has PDD-nos,and will be entering his senior year at college. We work with disability services very closely. This year, they are offering a support group to meet 1x a week so others who are on the spectrum can meet up. Very exciting!! I am so proud of him and can’t believe he will be graduating this year. These children/adults need all support that we can give them…so help them dream their dreams!!

  6. Juvencia
    August 19, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    I have the oldest grandbaby having Autism….its been suspected that MY oldest child (22 yrs now) might have some sort of Autism. How do you go about getting him tested? I do not want to shatter his spirit. I do not know how to bring this up to him. But he had attended 2 semesters in a local college here in Dallas….as usual he didnt like it….he does have some social problems. He seems to like to be ‘alone’.
    When he was in 2nd grade….the psychologist tested him and thought he had ADHD…the psychologist thought he does ‘think’ differently then others….they gave him a math problem…he solved it differently then the way they taught him…but came to the same conclusion.
    So I am not sure if at all he might have spectrum or something else….But how do you approach such subject to a young adult?


  7. Adam Vogel
    August 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    I thought it was extremely important that I took the Project Assist’s summer transition program in the summer prior to attending college. Porject Assist is a part of the Center for Students with Disabilities program at UW-Whitewater. I can remember how difficult a transition from high school to UW-Whitewater was a first. However, I got used to the college atmoshpere and I thrived. Like, I’ve said before I think Autism Speaks should some research how many of the 1.5 million Americans who have autism have graduated from with either an assoicates or bachelor’s degrees.

  8. August 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    These are all good tips! In my experience, the majority of young adults on the spectrum come out of a high school environment lacking the skills necessary to successfully attend a college. They cannot consistently get themselves to class, manage their time effectively and may have trouble bonding socially with peers. I would agree that social mentoring is very useful, especially with navigating the social scene of a college campus. Many students on the spectrum are dying to fit in, and without some guidance can be susceptible to things like inappropriately loaning money, etc. This is a good article from Psychology Today on social mentoring (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-trouble-eye-contact/201106/shoulder-lean-social-mentoring-young-adults-asperger-s-syndrom-0)

    I work at one of CIP’s postsecondary programs which assist students with ASD in a wide variety of areas while they attend local colleges. The biggest areas of need for our students fall within executive functioning and self-advocacy. Unfortunately many students have been hand-held through their adolescence and lack the experience, self-confidence and know-how to take charge of their lives.

  9. August 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    I agree with everything the author is saying, and I also feel that we can help more students with ASD succeed in college (and in life) by focusing more on the practical skills they will need. This focus can begin when the child is very young, or as soon as a diagnosis is made. If you’re interested, check out my book, “Developing College Skills in Students with Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome” (2010, Jessica Kingsley Publishers). I outline and define a number of important skills, and present ideas for how each skill can be developed in young children as well as in older students. This is such an important area of focus because there will be high numbers of students who are capable of attending college on an academic level, but their life skills are equally as important as their academic abilities. I’m glad to see that Autism Speaks is on the forefront of recognizing this very important area!

  10. August 21, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    I really appreciate this article. My kid may have years ahead of them, but just knowing what I need to do to make him college material and help him and help him succeed once he gets there is beneficial. Thanks!

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