We are entering a new era! As the generation of children diagnosed in the late 1990’s comes of age, following the 1994 entry of Asperger’s Syndrome into the DSM-IV, more Aspies than ever are off to college. (“Aspie” is a name coined by adults with AS who are active in the Asperger Pride movement.) Of course we all know there has always been an AS presence on the college campus. (Tony Attwood has joked about going to the physics or the engineering department and trying to find the neurotypicals!) Now more than ever though, Aspies are entering college with a diagnosis. This puts them in a better position to know what kinds of supports might be needed, and where trouble may be encountered, as well as to be eligible for disability services.
While they have this advantage over their undiagnosed predecessors, Aspie college students may still run into difficulty finding the support they need. Given that Aspies constitute a newly identified population on the college campus, students and parents may find themselves in the position of having to educate the disabilities services office about what help Aspies may need and why. In many ways, this generation of college-age Aspies are the trailblazers. As with all trailblazers, obstacles will be encountered, but each one that is overcome makes it that much easier for the next person. So if you are one of the pioneers of the class of 2011 (or even 2010, 2009, 2012 or 2015 ), here a few suggestions to keep in mind as you plan, begin, or continue, your college journey.
Acquaint yourself with the disabilities services office BUT don’t make any assumptions about their knowledge of AS. As noted before, AS is new territory for many student disability offices. Be prepared to explain some of the characteristics of AS, and be concrete about the help you need. Come prepared with books or articles on AS. If you have a therapist, psychologist or previous teacher who you think could help explain your traits and needs, ask if they would please call the disabilities services office on your behalf. Sometimes that outside, professional perspective can be very persuasive.
Consider disclosure, on an as-needed basis. Many Aspies do not feel the need to disclose their AS to the majority of people they encounter in life. As you become an adult, you will need to begin to assess when disclosure might be in your best interest. For example, in explaining to an English professor why a writing assignment with a focus on taking the emotional perspective of another might prove challenging for you, or to the Resident Assistant in your dorm why you may have to leave floor meetings to avoid a panic attack, it would probably be helpful to explain your AS. Disclosure will be legally necessary to get disabled student accommodations, such as extra time or quiet conditions for testing, or help with note-taking.
Find activity-based clubs. This is sterling advice for Aspies of all ages. Clubs based on activities that you enjoy provide a way to meet people where the focus is the activity, and the social interaction is secondary. There is already a shared interest, and a basis to make conversation with others in the group. Often, you will see signs posted that advertise club meetings, and some college web pages list the on-campus organizations.
Smaller is not always better. In “shopping for” a college, the first instinct of many Aspies, and their parents, is that a smaller college community will be more welcoming and easier to navigate than a larger university. While this is true in some circumstances, it is by no means a universal, mainly for this reason: Going to a college with more people increases the chances of finding people that you fit in with and could become friends with. A larger campus may offer more diversity: a place where some unusual Aspie behaviors may not stand out as much. A larger campus will often offer a larger variety of interest/activity-based groups or clubs, and we already know how important those are!
Choose a campus first, then establish your network of support. It has been said that no matter how much support is available, if the campus community clashes with your own personal style and moral code, your chances for success and happiness there are slim. In other words, if you consider yourself a conservative type, UC Berkeley may not work for you even if they have stellar resources for Aspies!
Take care of yourself. In other words listen to your mother’s advice! While it will be tempting to stay up late or eat greasy dining hall food (and there will be some times when you do this), trying to get adequate sleep, to exercise, and to eat nutritious food will keep your body healthy. You will then be better able to deal with the stress that you will encounter as a college student. It is also a good idea to take time out for stress reducing activities, such as doing yoga or taking a walk.
Find someone you trust and can talk to. This may be a therapist or counselor, a life coach, or campus disability services officer. This person can give you advice on handling new tasks, organizing your time, or understanding social situations. Many Aspies report that this has been crucial to their success, especially if they are going to college away from home. Aspie students often have a desire to fit in, but may lack the social awareness to recognize a situation that could be dangerous. This combination can lend itself to increased risk of getting into trouble when experimenting with alcohol, or (especially for females) increased risk of becoming a victim of sexual assault. You can reduce this risk of harm by having someone that you meet with regularly to discuss the people you are meeting and the social situations that you are encountering, as this person can help recognize a situation that is potentially unsafe.
Just as autism and AS are spectrum disorders, there is a continuum of support developing in higher education to accommodate each person’s unique needs. There are 24/7 supervised residential programs which help students develop the skills that are essential to the level of independent living on a college campus. At the other end of the continuum are coaching support programs which provide a point person to whom you can go to get help in negotiating and integrating into the campus community.
AANE is a good place to start looking for support, especially if you are attending college in New England. Your college disabilities services office, or the Autism Society of America chapter near the college, may also produce some leads. Doing a basic internet search has also proved helpful for many college-bound Aspies. If you would like some help doing the legwork of researching various campuses and available support, many families are turning toward college admissions counselors for guidance. Please make sure that, if you take this route, your counselor is very well versed in colleges with specialized support programs. This is a specialty area and it is important to work with someone who is proficient in their understanding of what sorts of supports may be helpful and which schools can provide the needed help.
One last thing: Call home at regular intervals—even neurotypical students do.
Carolyn K. Hare is the Director of Achieving in Higher Education with Autism and Developmental Disabilities, a Pittsburgh-based agency that provides coaching, mentoring and advocacy for college students with AS, ADD, High Functioning Autism or Non-verbal Learning Disorder. Reach her at (412) 848-9355 or carol@AHEADD.org; or visit the website, www.aheadd.org
Marie Hicks, LMHC works in the Albany, NY area, providing individualized counseling and support to young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism (HFA), primarily in a college setting. Marie also facilitates a social groups for adults with Asperger’s, and has an Aspie sibling. Reach her at (518) 878-5397 or aspergerNY@hotmail.com.