Which colleges work well for kids with AS? How do I help my child transition successfully to college? These are the questions most parents ask as a child with AS nears high school graduation. As the mom of a recent high school graduate, I wanted to share my recently developed perspective on college with other parents as they consider what the right path might be for their children post high school.
While my son was making his way through the school system I, probably like most parents, tended to think from year to year, from IEP to IEP. Each year had its own quite sufficient challenges. The school also thought from year to year and their focus, like mine, was getting my son to college. He was a B+ student at a 766-approved school: a hard worker, very motivated to succeed, and intensely interested in being social. He took charge of his entire college application process and got accepted to four private colleges with scholarship offers. However, because our son has ADHD, slow processing, and language fluency as well as pragmatics difficulties, my husband and I felt that a step by step approach to college would be better than instant immersion. We insisted he do a gap year to work on his language issues, while taking a couple of courses at a community college to get a feel for college work. Against his wishes, we deferred two of the colleges he got accepted to, expecting that he would go the following fall. To appease his desire to start college, he attended Landmark College’s Transition summer program. There he got a chance to experience dorm life, and learned how to discuss his disability and advocate for accommodations.
The gap year was a very smart decision, as my son himself acknowledged during our Thanksgiving dinner. The gap year gave all of us a realistic understanding of where our son stood in relation to the real world, without the expense of paying a full year’s tuition or the emotional trauma of finding he was unable to manage.
The community college courses proved more difficult than anticipated. Most of the material was new; so he did not have any previous knowledge to spiral back to. The tests required applying the learned concepts to new situations. Many accommodations that our kids are accustomed to from public school were not available in college. And despite the accommodations that were available (note-taker, extended time, separate test environment) he struggled and needed significant tutoring help. Given how much time my son had to devote to each course, it became clear to me that he would need a reduced course load, so that college would likely take five or six years instead of four. At around $50,000 per year, that would add significantly to the total cost of college.
My son was seeing a speech language therapist who specialized in working with adults with AS. She told me that she frequently sees adults with AS who have college degrees but cannot get or maintain jobs because they lack the soft skills needed. She had a client who earned an engineering degree, graduating with honors, yet went on fifty job interviews without getting hired. Another client, who graduated with honors in accounting, could not manage the busy pace of an office environment. I heard stories from other adults with AS, or parents, saying the same thing: getting a degree does not level the playing field. Many adults with AS, after earning college degrees, are living at home, unemployed and with college loans to pay back.
I started to rethink college. My son has solid intelligence, determination, and drive. With great effort he could get a degree, especially if he attended one of several colleges that market themselves to students like him, providing more accommodations, usually for an additional fee. Many parents pay that fee, because they want their kids to be successful in college. However, such supports are not available in the work place and the workplace is ultimately where I want my son to be successful. Employers may make some accommodations, but only make extensive accommodations for employees who are extraordinary. In my previous careers at a Wall Street investment firm and a Madison Avenue advertising agency, I encountered two individuals so talented that the firms assigned other people the responsibility of making sure things worked for these favored superstars. If your child with AS is unusually talented, perhaps the workplace will accommodate his or her needs. Parents who have children with more typical abilities, or children with learning challenges like my son’s, have to consider our options very carefully. In college, success is based on coursework and grades, but in the workplace our kids will be measured against their typical peers along multiple dimensions. For my son to be successful in a profession, we need to consider everything about the profession: the typical work environment for that profession the kind of supervisors and co-workers, and those soft skills: the abilities other than knowledge that the profession may require, such as extensive person to person contact verses email contact.
When I went to college, I chose my own courses and decided upon my major. I wanted to let my son do the same. However, he has less understanding of the job market than his typical peers; so he needs more guidance. Since he does not have a special interest in a subject with career potential, as some kids with AS have, there was no obvious path to follow. Experimenting with courses, as many college kids do, would be too random and take too much time. We needed to be more direct in our search, because our son has more criteria for the right profession than most kids do. Fortunately, we found an incredible website, www.onetonline.org, that gives abundant information about the requirements of a multitude of professions, including soft skills needed.
Given the uncertainties of future employment, we have decided that paying private college tuition would not be a good use of our financial resources. We want to keep as much in reserve as we can for our son’s future needs. Community college is a much less expensive way of seeing whether he can succeed at the college level with the supports available. If he can, he still has the opportunity to continue on to a four year state college, where tuition is much less than at a private college. If he can’t succeed in community college, he could do a certificate program that would give him a specific skill set, possibly one more marketable than the skills represented by a liberal arts degree—particularly in this economy, where even many neurotypical college graduates are struggling to get jobs.
Of course college is about more than getting jobs. It’s about my son’s self-esteem and my own desire as a college-educated parent to have a college-educated child. We walk a fine line between what we want and what is realistic. I need time to teach my son that his self-worth need not be measured by whether or not he earns an academic degree. I also need time to reconcile myself to this next stage of life as the parent of an AS adult.
But then again, my son may surprise us. He is just 19, and change happens.