Preparing Students with Autism for the Transition to College

776px-Autism_spectrum_infinity_awareness_symbol.svgFor high school seniors, now is an anxious time. College applications are in, and the acceptances and rejections are starting to be sent out. It’s an anxious time for parents as well, whether is the first child to head off or the last. For parents of children on the autism spectrum, the anxieties can be even greater, as a child that has often had an adult to advocate for their needs is now going to need to be their own advocate.

It’s an important transition in life, but one that is especially difficult for students on the autism spectrum. As one student said in an article from the Child Mind Institute, there are so many little tasks involved in walking out the door in the morning (getting up, showering, dressing, eating, packing…) that students with autism often find their executive functioning (their ability to schedule and organize) overwhelmed with all the extra tasks involved in day-to-day living that it can be difficult to get schoolwork done as well.

The free Autism Speaks Transition Toolkit can help families prepare for this change, and a recent post at Chat for Adults with HFA and Asperger’s highlights 25 challenges a student on the autism spectrum may experience when they leave home for college. Among the challenges are:

  • Roommates
  • Class discussions
  • Communicating long distance with parents
  • Maintaining your own schedule
  • Food choices that are not like home cooking
  • Dealing with large lectures
  • Dealing with your first low grades

While these and many of the other challenges listed are common for many students, they can provide extra difficulties for those students on the autism spectrum.

Families should also investigate what supports are available at college for students on the autism spectrum. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires colleges to provide reasonable accommodations for students who need them, but many colleges and universities are going beyond those minimums with special programs. Here in Illinois, Eastern Illinois University offers the Students with Autism Transitional Educational Program (STEP) to provide enhanced support in three main skill areas that these students may struggle with: academic, social, and daily living skills. Other colleges and universities may have similar supports available.

Going away to college can still be a rewarding experience for students on the autism spectrum, providing a chance to live independently and to dive deeply into subjects and activities of interest. Preparing for this transition and discussing the potential changes and issues can help to ease the anxiety both students and parents are experiencing. Be sure to read the full article on potential challenges at college for students on the autism spectrum (and even those who aren’t).