In my work helping autistic students apply to college, the question of disclosure comes up frequently. I think it’s important for people to become comfortable with their authentic selves, and I usually disclose my own autism to families early on to set an example.
Disclosing on college applications
The question of whether to disclose autism in college applications, however, is a very personal decision. In general, there’s no reason to assume that disclosure will either help or hurt a student’s chances of being admitted. While colleges often affirm their commitment to diversity, their definition of diversity doesn’t necessarily include neurodiversity, and there’s no “quota” for students on the spectrum. Conversely, rejecting students on the basis of their autism could be considered a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so in theory disclosure shouldn’t prevent students from getting into college. While some students worry that colleges might discriminate anyway, others feel that they wouldn’t want to attend a college that is unwelcoming to autistic students, so they are willing to take the risk of disclosing.
Sometimes students choose to report their diagnosis on their applications to provide an explanation for something that might otherwise be puzzling to the admission committee, such as an unusual pattern of grades on their transcript, a transfer to a new high school or a large discrepancy between their grades and standardized test scores. For example, if their grades improved in the middle of high school because they were diagnosed and began receiving needed accommodations (e.g., extra time on tests), mentioning their autism might reassure admissions staff that they will be able to do well in college with the proper accommodations. The Common App has a section where students can include additional information like this that could be helpful to application readers.
In some cases, students view their autism as a central part of their story, and feel compelled to write about it in their Common Application essay so that the admissions committee will truly understand them. I’ve had numerous students discuss their autistic identity on their applications–and get accepted to MIT, Brandeis, Northeastern, Berklee College of Music and elsewhere.
Disclosing to the disability services office
Some students are entitled to disability accommodations in college such as a notetaker, an emotional support animal or a single room in the residence hall. Whether or not they disclose during the application process, once they’ve been accepted and put down a deposit at the college they plan to attend, I recommend they reach out to the Disability Services Office (sometimes called the Accessibility Office) and set up an appointment. They can provide any required documentation (e.g., neuropsychological evaluation, doctor’s letter) and discuss the accommodations and services they’ll need. Even if they’re not sure whether they’ll use the accommodations, it’s better to have them in place just in case.
At many colleges, disability services will provide students a letter outlining their approved accommodations. In the case of classroom accommodations, it is typically the student’s responsibility to approach each professor every term to arrange these accommodations. At some colleges, the disability services staff will communicate directly with faculty or residence life staff. (In general, however, they won’t otherwise disclose a student’s diagnosis outside of the disability office without a student’s consent.) But across the board, the more students are able to self-advocate for their needs, the more likely it is that they’ll receive all of the accommodations for which they’ve been approved.
Disclosing to peers, staff and instructors
Once students begin attending college, they face the disclosure question over and over again: should I disclose to this particular instructor, advisor or peer? Students must weigh the pros and cons for themselves in each case. There is the possibility that a student or staff member might be more patient and understanding if they’re aware of an autism diagnosis–but there’s also a chance they’ll have a negative or prejudicial attitude. Unfortunately, outdated stereotypes (e.g., the notion that autistic people aren’t capable of empathy or humor appreciation) still persist.
Of course, there are some situations in which disclosure occurs by default, such as when joining an autism or neurodiversity club in college. These can be great places for students to make friends, and to be their true selves without fear of reprisal. If there is no such club at their college, students are free to start one.
Whatever their concerns they have, families may be pleased to learn that some colleges are especially supportive of neurodivergent students; I’ve compiled an extensive list of them here. I hope that one day there will be little need for such a list, because all colleges and universities will be truly welcoming and inclusive.
- 7 Things Students with Disabilities Should Do When Starting College
- College Readiness and Transition for Students on the Autism Spectrum
- 7 Secrets to Seeking Learning Disability Services in College
- What Questions Should I Ask the Student Disabilities Office?
- Truly Inclusive Admission: Recruiting Students with Disabilities
Don’t miss hearing from Dr. Endlich at AANE’s Webinar Series: Recent College Graduates and College Professional Panels on July 13!
Eric Endlich, Ph.D., founder of Top College Consultants®, helps autistic students worldwide transition to college. An experienced clinical psychologist, Dr. Endlich helped found AANE’s Neurodiverse Couples Institute and serves on the Learning Differences/Neurodiversity and Diversity/Equity/Inclusion Committees of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. A frequent conference presenter, professional writer and former college instructor, Dr. Endlich has co-written a book on autistic adults. He is also an autism parent and autistic adult.