Autism Spectrum: A Parent Primer for the College Years

Parents of students on the autism spectrum are already used to things being different. Whether their sons or daughters have trouble with social interaction or connecting with peers, organization or academics — adapting is a necessary part of parenting these often gifted, sometimes challenging individuals.

Students on the autism spectrum seek special college programs
Students on Autism spectrum deserve special college programs

So why should the college search be any different? With 1 in 68 children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) more high-functioning, academically achieving students are applying to and attending colleges at a higher rate than ever before. And their parents are seeking the best place for them, just like all soon to be college parents. But seeking their perfect spot may involve a little out-of-the-mainstream investigating.

Level of student’s self-sufficiency is an important metric

A realistic look at how self-sufficient a student is will help parents determine how much support they may need on campus. My son attended a wonderful program at a major public university at a cost of $3,000 a semester (he had an Honors scholarship that covered his tuition, even though it was out-of-state). The program was excellent for academics: a mentor helped him with class registration, walked him through delivering his letters of accommodation (signing up with the Office of Disability Services was the first step) to his professors and setting up required tutorials and study halls. All these things are great for the ASD student who needs academic structure.

(About filing for Disability Services: ironically, having spent plenty of education dollars already on a private high school can leave a family even less prepared for this transition. Many private elementary/high schools do not require an official diagnosis, Individualized Education Program [IEP] or disability paperwork in order to provide accommodations, so the paperwork connected with getting this “official” type of help may be new as well. The college’s disability services department should be able to help parents get these filled out prior to or shortly after admission.)

Accommodations are the key to success for those with ASD

For many with ASD, accommodations that also work for students with ADD/ADHD are very helpful: these can include note-taking, extra time on tests/exams and tutoring to reinforce lecture material. (If the college has no specific program for ASD students this help can be lined up through the school’s Office of Disability Services after supplying the necessary documents from a psychiatrist or doctor. Keep in mind it will need to be done before classes start and may entail delivering letters to the individual professors.

At the University of Alabama’s ACTS (ASD College Transition and Support Program), Dr. Sarah Ryan (with mentors from the graduate psychology department) has helped about 20 students each year who qualify and enroll for the past 10 years. She says help with Executive Functioning is probably the “most important” service the program provides: “Breaking down big assignments into manageable deadlines” being critical for success at the university.

The social aspect of college, daunting for most every new student on campus, is even more stressful for those on the spectrum. No matter how on point the academic support, equally important is social interaction: they are going to be completely on their own, and need to be able to handle free time and possible loneliness.

For my son, this proved a game changer. Transitioning from a small, private high school to a giant state university he envisioned making lots of new friends – but just didn’t realize how hard it would be. While he attended a few Honors College functions and every new student gathering he could, he still felt lost and alone, on weekends especially. While his special ASD support program provided plenty of academic support and some group counseling, it did not include helping the students to plan social activities on the weekend. He stuck it out a year before transferring to a much smaller school close to home, without the intense fraternity and football atmosphere at the big school and is happier.

Because ASD students are often more dependent on their families socially, parents often look at university programs near their homes, so their student can come home on weekends. Thankfully increased awareness, cultural acceptance and need have multiplied the number of college programs for students with ASD: there are now programs in many states and in every region of the country.

Parents should find out exactly what services the schools they are considering offer

There are also different types of programs: some fully integrate ASD students in mainstream dorms while others have dorms or halls where they can practice life skills and socializing. And because of the wide range of options and prices, educational consultants recommend parents and students do their homework and find out exactly how much time the student will have with therapists and mentors during the week.

Lida Griest, an educational consultant based in Atlanta, says parents should make sure anyone they hire to help in their search has been accredited by the Independent Educational Association (IEA) because they have been trained to work with disabilities and have a master’s degree in counseling. “Parents are coming to us are tired, they’re exhausted and scared – they don’t need someone to lead them the wrong way.”

She has traveled to many campuses and also kept up with which ASD programs are getting acclaim and – most importantly – graduating successful students. Besides the Alabama program, she says there is a “phenomenal” program at the University of the Ozarks and names University of Arkansas, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (Mosaic Program), Curry College, Mitchell College, the SALT Program at The University of Arizona, University of Iowa and University of Connecticut as others she’s explored.

Most hopefully, as higher numbers head to college shifting attitudes on campuses are making these students feel more accepted than ever by other students as well as professors. “Perception is improving a little bit,” says Dr. Ryan, “Students have always been in classes with [ASD] kids.”

Additional information about college programs for students with an ASD:


Best Colleges Online

Best Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities 

More to Read:

Ready for Takeoff? Facing the Question With Autism 

Loosening the Ties that Bind: Growing Up with Autism

About Amy Bonesteel

Amy Bonesteel has written for Time, Atlanta Magazine, Paste, and many other newspapers and magazines. She’s the mother of three and lives in Atlanta, GA, where she is also a substitute teacher at two k-12 schools.

Read more posts by Amy

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