One of the first stories I heard as director of AANE was about a student on the autism spectrum who had an unsuccessful experience in college. She struggled to complete the assignments, became overwhelmed, and stopped going to class. She stayed in her dorm room the entire semester. She was too ashamed to tell her parents, so they had no idea she had stopped going to classes until they were unable to enroll her for the next term. The impact of failing her first semester of college was devastating for this bright, young woman, and she spent the next few years trying to get back on her feet.
This happened many years ago, and I am grateful that now AANE, colleges, and parents have a much better understanding of how to ensure that college can be a successful experience for a student on the autism spectrum. I would like to share some of what we have learned with parents of teens and young adults who may be approaching the end of high school and thinking about next steps.
Is College the Right Choice?
The first question for you and your child is deciding whether or not college is the right choice. A four-year, residential college isn’t always the best option for everyone. There are other possibilities, such as different kinds of additional training: a professional certificate degree, apprenticeship to the trades, a supported transition program, or alternatively going directly into the workforce.
If college is the right plan, the second question is whether or not your child is ready for college now.
There are three areas in college where students tend to have the most trouble:
- Executive Functioning (getting out of bed, starting and completing assignments, and managing time)
- Social Life and Communication (self-advocacy, talking to peers, talking to professors, understanding when help is needed)
- Independent Living (laundry, keeping track of personal items, maintaining a healthy diet)
I can’t emphasize enough that it is best to wait until your child has developed skills in these three areas before starting college. Although our society may tell us otherwise, there really is no required timeline for starting or finishing college. Often children on the spectrum need a bit more time before they are ready for higher education.
If you determine that waiting a year of two before college is a good idea, put something in place early to avoid year-end anxiety caused by uncertainty about what is coming next. Having a plan which starts shortly after graduation will prevent unstructured lag time with no routine, which can be very unsettling.
Short-term alternatives need creative thinking and research, but might include internships, full or part-time employment, volunteering, travel or an alternative transition program or a mixture of these. Another option is to start college slowly by having the student take one or two college courses at a local, community college while living at home.
How to Choose a College
If your child is ready for college, finding a good match beyond acceptance and affordability is important:
- Identify an academically appropriate institution. Consider any learning disabilities if relevant. What is the math and language requirement? Does the college have courses in line with the student’s interest area? Is there needed support at the school.
- Find a Good Social Fit: Will the student find a cohort of compatible students? Is there enough neurodiversity at the school? Is there pressure to be part of the drinking and partying crowd? Are there clubs and other activities of interest to the student? The best way to judge the social compatibility of a school is to have the student spend time at the school (outside of “accepted student program days”) and if possible, shadow a student already enrolled at the school.
Preparing for College
Once a college is selected, there are other choices to consider:
- Single room vs. Roommate: I know parents feel their child will be isolated if they live alone, but my experience tells me a roommate doesn’t guarantee a social connection and can actually result in repeated social rejection. It is better to find friends in known interest areas, like a robotics, music, or gaming club. In addition, most young adults on the spectrum need time alone to decompress, especially in college, which demands significant social interaction. There are other kinds of living situation where students may be more likely to find a cohort, such as honors housing, non-coed dorms, international student housing, or substance-free dorms.
- Don’t have college be the first time the child is away from home: Try a shorter, less independent program, such as a residential-college summer program during high school or a sleep-away camp. Visit the college as much as possible before going. The more familiarity the better.
- Your student will need advocacy skills: This includes when and how to disclose their autism, how to communicate with professors proactively, and when something unanticipated happens. As a parent, you might want to prepare a written list of who to see or talk to if various issues come up.
Once college begins, make sure the student understands that the first year is hard for everyone; even the most social and organized person often takes freshman year to adjust to college life. Keep your cell phone on and try to have regularly-scheduled, weekly chats. Most students rely on parents for support during the first year.
And be aware that tuition insurance may be available in case things don’t work out. (Be sure to read the small print!)
These are all hard decisions to make and a process that takes time, energy, and research. Ultimately, the plan needs to be a joint discussion and decision with the student, but get as much expert help from other parents, your school, the colleges of choice, psychologists, and educational experts as you can. AANE has an expertise in helping with college questions, including consultations and our annual college panel. Both can provide a wealth of information that can help you feel more confident about this important transition.