Just getting into college, let alone succeeding there, is stressful for many students and their families. When a student is on the autism spectrum the whole process can seem unmanageable. What do you do when you have what it takes to succeed in higher education, but you struggle with things like time management, organization, changes in routine, or the social aspect of your environment? How do you figure out what you need to do your best in school, and how do you get it?
There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and many of them have excellent supports and even dedicated programs for students with disabilities. It takes both planning and effort, but many students on the spectrum can and do earn college degrees; including those who have struggled in the classroom.
One of the first steps is determining the right level of support. Offering the highest level are the special disability programs, which can be either internal or external to a school. These are often transitional, particularly the external programs, but some take students all the way through a degree. Virtually all such programs offer supports outside the academic realm, such as social skills training or support with daily living skills. The more common, and generally less expensive, model is individualized support. This means being accepted into the school through the typical process, applying for specific supports or accommodations, and then usually advocating on your own behalf to see that your supports are received on a class-by-class basis. Housing accommodations and non-academic supports exist, but they may be harder to get.
When a student knows approximately what level of support is appropriate, the next step is figuring out exactly what accommodations are needed and what shape they will have to take. Examine the IEP closely, if there is one, but also consider the differences between high school and college. Think about the new challenges that college brings and what extra supports could smooth the way. A high school day is one continuous block for most students, but this is not true in college. Will managing a daily schedule for class, homework, and study time require extra help?
Some of the most common supports in higher education are uncommon or irrelevant in high school. Preferential seating, for example, might not have been needed when students had assigned seats. Being allowed to use a calculator, have a laptop in class, and to leave the classroom for self-regulation breaks may all be new potential accommodations. Access to speech-to-text software or assistive devices, note takers, alternate exam formats, extended deadlines, tutoring, altered assignments, tape recorders, and access to instructor notes are less likely to be new, but they may become important to students who didn’t require them at lower grade levels.
With this groundwork laid, you can evaluate specific schools and programs. In examining your choices, it’s not sufficient to know that certain accommodations are offered. Not all institutions implement them the same way. Tutors, for example, can be professional or peer. You need to know how many are available, what kind of training they get, whether or not they are certified, how much experience they have, and whether they are available for every subject or class.
To determine if a school is implementing something poorly or in a way that just won’t work for you, think about what each service really means and why it’s needed. Consider a student who receives extra time on tests. Why? Does it have to do with concentration, verbal processing, both, or neither? If concentration is a factor, will he need the entire test time to be uninterrupted? Does he also need a distraction-free area? If he hasn’t needed a separate testing area in high school, is it possible he will in college, when classes are in large lecture halls with hundreds of other students? Some schools offer extra time on tests by creating a dedicated, distraction free test area outside the classroom. At others, all students take the test together in one lecture hall and the majority of students are released when their time is up, which creates noise and other distractions for the students who receive extra time. In the least effective cases, all students receive the same amount of test time in the classroom, and when that time is up, those receiving extra time are escorted elsewhere to finish the test.
The best way to find out how an accommodation works in reality is to spend time at a school’s Disability Services Office (DSO) or its equivalent. The DSO employees will be able to explain the services and accommodations available, give you advice on describing the accommodations to professors, and should also be able to describe how various supports are implemented. Don’t be afraid to press for details. This office may even be able to connect you with current students on the spectrum who are willing to talk about their experiences.
Required classes also vary between schools, both for majors and the general education requirements. If an individual has significant trouble with a specific type of class, then it may be worth looking for a school where that subject won’t be needed. Some schools may not require the problematic class; others may be willing to negotiate or waive requirements. If you think you’ll need to have some requirements waived, look for schools that have an established process for documenting and granting such requests.
Evaluating a school’s class structure can be a way to address students’ needs though good fit, rather than actual accommodations. Some students on the autism spectrum will have an especially hard time with huge classes and crowded lecture halls. Not only does it mean dealing with more people, it may also be harder to self-advocate when there are more students making demands on a professor’s time. Others may have a harder time with small classes that place more emphasis on group work, discussion, or other social interaction. There is no single ‘right’ class structure for individuals on the spectrum; it’s just one more thing to think about when choosing a school.
When visiting a campus, ask about average class size within departments. Ask about specific courses. Ask to peek into classes in action. Most students will have to take some classes that don’t suit them well, but different schools emphasize different teaching methods and there is considerable flexibility in this area. Aim to have as many classes as possible geared to the individual’s learning style.
Perhaps the greatest change between high school and college, for most students, is the need to make housing choices for the first time. Some will choose to live at home to create a longer transition between high school and full independence, which has the added benefit of saving money, but many will live on campus.
A single room in student housing is a good option for many individuals on the spectrum. This offers the social environment of a college campus with a private place for needed retreats. Not being assigned a roommate, who is usually a stranger, alleviates some of the most difficult aspects of the college transition. Some self-advocates strongly recommend a single room, but others caution that it can allow some students to miss meals or classes unnoticed. Single rooms are also almost guaranteed to cost more: very few schools offer the upgrade to a single room as an accommodation for students with autism or any other intellectual or developmental disabilities. This is an area where competing needs will likely have to be weighed against one another very, very carefully. The guiding principle must always be the needs of a specific individual.
The final major area of consideration is not an accommodation per se, but rather a matter of fit. There is a huge variety of design and layout among college campuses. When visiting schools, evaluate as many areas as possible for lighting, spaciousness, and other issues of sensory-friendliness. Most guided tours don’t include every building and may focus on the newest and most updated structures, so ask where a specific student would be living or taking classes.
Wherever possible, try to see things at different times of day. Tours are often conducted during times when they will be least disruptive to, and least disrupted by, current students, but a prospective student with sensory concerns needs to know what campus spaces will feel like during a typical day. The best way to find good, quiet places for decompressing and alone time is to see how the library, dining hall, computer labs, and other common areas are used throughout the day during an active semester.