The transition from high school to college may be challenging for all students, but especially for those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and related learning differences. With so many changes in academic, social/emotional, and independent living demands, it is essential that students transitioning to college be proactive with regards to setting up the appropriate accommodations and supports to help encourage academic success. Each institution has its own system of accommodations; therefore, it is imperative that students know in advance not only their eligibility for accommodations, but also how to access and utilize them.
Accommodations are not intended to change the expectation of what a student is to learn; rather, accommodations make adjustments in how the student engages with classroom material and/or allow for flexibility in how students demonstrate that learning has occurred. Eligibility in the higher education environment fall under The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which requires institutions to provide access to accommodations to students that disclose a disability and can provide documentation demonstrating a qualifying need (American Psychological Association, 2018).
Barriers to Receiving Accommodations in Higher Education
Although higher education institutions are required to make reasonable accommodations accessible to students with supporting documentation on the college campus, there appears to be a discrepancy between students being eligible for accommodations and students actually utilizing them. This is a concern because, according to research conducted by Kim and Lee, utilizing accommodations have a significant impact on students’ overall GPA (2015). It is important to identify which barriers are preventing students eligible to utilize accommodations from actually following through with using them in the postsecondary environment.
Marshak, et al. (2010) identified five major barrier categories that prevented students with disabilities from utilizing accommodations in the college environment. The first category, issues with identity, includes students’ desire to be self-sufficient and remove the stigma of having a disability from their identity in college. The second barrier, avoidance of negative social consequences, includes students’ fear of being singled out as receiving special treatment and, thus, being resented by peers. The third category, insufficient knowledge base about the process, includes students questioning the fairness of being able to utilize accommodations, not knowing what services were available and where to receive them, and a lack of ability to describe their disability and advocate for supports that have been historically beneficial. The fourth category, the perceived overall quality of the services, includes initial negative experiences when trying to set up accommodations or negative experiences when trying to actually utilize them. The final category, negative experiences with faculty, identifies students’ experiences that faculty did not believe the accommodations were needed, nor did they demonstrate a follow through in assisting in the implementation of the accommodations.
Overcoming the Barriers Through Self-Advocacy
By identifying the barriers associated with the avoidance of using accommodations in the post-secondary environment, we can take a more proactive approach to clearing up any confusion and misconceptions about the process. Encouraging students to advocate for supports that will assist in a smooth transition to college may lead to greater success and retention. An important skill set to develop prior to the transition is self-advocacy.
Self-advocacy is one’s ability to speak on behalf of themselves, and requires one to understand who they are as a learner. Students should go to college with a clear understanding of the purpose of accommodations, how specific accommodations relate to their learning style, and where to go to discuss options. Such conversations should begin, at minimum, when transition services begin, and can be role played during CSE meetings, meetings with tutors, coaches, therapists, and others in the students’ lives that are supporting them through the transition to college. Many students have a difficult time discussing their learning challenges, and practice in having those conversations prior to the accommodations intake meeting is essential to easing anxiety in the process.
What is the Process for Being Approved for and Utilizing Accommodations?
Once students are comfortable with sharing their strengths and needs as a learner, it is important for them to begin to understand how to advocate for accommodations on the campus. Students need to understand that obtaining approval for accommodations is a different process from actually utilizing them. Typically, students have to schedule an intake meeting with the office on campus responsible for providing accommodations. If possible, this meeting should occur prior to the transition to the campus so the student has the accommodations solidified prior to classes beginning. In order to practice self-advocacy, students should call or email the office depending on the school’s specific process, and schedule the appointment themselves. When scheduling the appointment, students should confirm what they need to bring to the appointment or what they need to send to the office in advance of the meeting. It should be noted specifically what type of documentation the office requires to be considered for accommodations and any date concerns that may make the documentation obsolete (i.e., a neuropsychological that was written 10 years prior, etc.).
During the intake meeting, the student will be approved for certain accommodations based on the interview with the counselor and their supporting documentation. Students also tend to find out in this meeting how to then access the accommodations. It is important to note that students need to understand that the office will not be reaching out to them to utilize their accommodations, and that it is the students’ responsibility to advocate for setting them up at the appropriate times. Because each institution has its own system of accessing accommodations, it is important for students to identify in this meeting exactly how to access the accommodations at their specific school.
What are Some Common Accommodations Approved in College?
Exam accommodations are common for students who can provide documentation that supports a need for an altered testing experience. Accommodations may include extended time, distraction-reduced environment, readers or scribes, and computer access. If such accommodations are approved and on record at the school, students will be responsible for accessing them, in that they are responsible for finding out the system for setting up exams (paper, email, online request forms, etc.) and the amount of time needed to fulfill the testing accommodations request.
Classroom accommodations, which may include copies of notes, notetakers, audio recording, and e-texts, are sometimes offered to students who demonstrate a deficit in attention, auditory processing, or visual processing. Some schools offer notetaking services, where a student in the class takes notes for students with such an approved accommodation.
Assistive technology options allow for audio recording in the classroom. Textbook accommodations are also offered to assist students who struggle with reading. Students should find out in advance what specific systems are offered to assist students (i.e., notetakers, audio recording accommodations, notes in an alternate format, etc.), the specific system for receiving notes, if audio recording is used in place of a notetaker, and whether the school provides the technology for audio recording or access to e-textbooks.
Advisement accommodations, such as course substitutions, reduced course load, and priority registration are offered to students with a variety of learning differences, and course substitutions are offered on a case-by-case basis. Often course substitutions are offered to students with language-based learning disabilities to substitute alternative classes in place of foreign language requirements. Reduced course loads are also offered to students who demonstrate difficulty managing a full course load. This accommodation is especially important when a student takes a reduced course load to ensure that he or she is eligible for all the benefits offered to a full-time student.
American Psychological Association (2018). Reasonable accommodations explained. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/disability/dart/toolkit-three.aspx
Freedman, S. (2010). Developing college skills in students with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
Kim, W.H., & Lee, J. (2015). The effect of accommodation on academic performance of college students with disabilities. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin. 60(1), 40-50.
Marshak, L., Van Wieren, T., Raeke Ferrell, D., Swiss, L., & Dugan, C. (2010). Exploring barriers to college student use of disability services and accommodations. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 22(3), 151-165.