Over the past few years, an increasing number of students on the autism spectrum have begun to consider college a viable option. In response to the growing interest in postsecondary education for students with disabilities, many universities are developing special college support programs. We have seen that, with adequate support, young adults with ASD can engage in meaningful academic, social, and career development programs; and that they are able to participate fully in their college community. We also have seen that these students are able to reside independently in college dorms when provided with appropriate supports. Through utilization of research-based practices based on person-centered planning, positive learning environments can be provided on college campuses. Such opportunities for academic enrichment, self-advocacy, and career development are more likely to lead to productive employment and independent living than continuation in traditional secondary programs until age 21 (Zager & Alpern, 2010, Expanding Postsecondary Options for Students with Autism, Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities).
Types of supports available at colleges and universities vary greatly. In determining which college will be best suited to a particular student, consideration needs to be given to the student’s level of independence (e.g., personal hygiene, time management, responsibility for medication); learning characteristics (e.g., academic strengths, in-class supports, study skills); personal traits and preferences (e.g., social competence, sensory issues, preferred area of academic concentration); and environmental preferences (e.g., rural or urban campus). This article highlights some important components of support programs to assist students and their families in selecting a college program.
Four components of successful college support programs that should be present at some level for students with ASD are (1) academic support, (2) campus-life services, (3) career development, and (4) peer mentoring. In order to effectively serve students in these four critical areas, it is necessary for support programs to create infrastructure and build capacity within institutions of higher education. Zager and Alpern (2010) found that it was necessary for stakeholders within the university to come together on an ongoing basis to plan, deliver, and readjust supports and services. Therefore, as parents and students evaluate specific programs, they should look to see whether the program is supported by the university in which it is housed. Remember that buy-in by university administration and faculty is crucial to successful inclusion and support of students with ASD at the college level.
When students with learning differences come to college, they usually have a list of approved accommodations that they received in high school. The high school accommodation list is a good place to begin to plan for the delivery of college accommodations; however, continuing the same academic supports that were provided in high school may be insufficient to fulfill college level requirements. The support menu of accommodations available in high school, which might have included such supports as note takers and distraction-free testing sites, needs to be broadened for college so that it includes academic and campus-life coaches, note taking technology (e.g., LiveScribe), and flexible means to demonstrate competence in subject matter. For example, while extended time accommodations (e.g., time and-a-half) may have sufficed for students to complete tests in high school, the complexity of subject matter and length of college tests can necessitate double time or tests completed in sections over days.
In high school, students are typically well-supervised during exams, but this is often not the case in college. Recently, while proctoring a first-year student with Asperger syndrome and significant learning disabilities on a psychology exam, I read him the four essay questions. He responded that he knew all the answers, and I left him in a quiet cubicle to complete the first question. When I checked his progress 15 minutes later, he had typed only two lines because his anxiety had caused him to become “stuck.” In high school, this student’s accommodation list had not stated that someone needed to be with him for tests because someone was always with him. However, in a more independent and open college environment, we needed to take into account that this student required a coach to help keep him moving, record his answers, and to empower him to demonstrate his knowledge and competence. The young man was able to demonstrate his superior grasp of the material and received a 92 on the test.
Strategies utilizing Universal Design for Learning will help college faculty to reach, engage, and assess all the learners in their classes. It is important for applicants to consider the level of understanding and commitment of the faculty at a particular college in meeting diverse learner needs, as well whether the special program actively supports faculty. Entertain questions such as, “Do professors have access to staff with expertise in autism?” and, “Does the special program teach faculty to accommodate instructional needs of students with autism spectrum disorders in their courses?”
In degree bearing programs, college curriculum cannot be modified (i.e., diluted) for students with disabilities. The academic integrity of college degree programs must remain intact for all students. Maintaining academic rigor is possible through the provision of individualized supports whereby the role of the academic coach may vary by necessity from student to student. Many students may require the coach to assist them with organization and time management. Others may need their work scaffolded and broken into approachable chunks. Some may need their coach to accompany them to classes through transition periods and/or until appropriate college behaviors are acquired and firmly established.
Supervised study sessions with access to academic coaches for several hours daily can meet academic needs in several ways: Such programming can make efficient use of coaching time by having coaches available to groups of students, combining coach expertise in a complimentary manner, accommodating student schedules that are often very full with classes and extracurricular activities, and providing a gathering place that reduces isolation. In addition to study sessions, individual customized tutoring is essential because students in support programs often have information processing challenges that may cause them to miss important information in class; or they may have executive function issues that affect their organization and time management. Academic coaches need to ensure that assignment deadlines are being met and that students are prepared for tests.
The current definition of academic success may need to be revisited so that attainment of an undergraduate degree is not necessarily the ultimate goal for every college attendee. Rather, it is important to realize that education is about individual growth, increased independence, growth in social competence, career preparation, and self-determination. Educating students among their right-age peers on college campuses can contribute to these vital outcomes.
As postsecondary programs have grown, an increasing need has emerged for colleges to provide housing accommodations for students with learning and behavior differences. Services to support students with disabilities in university housing should foster independent living skill development. There are typically three tiers of available college support programs: (a) specialized programs in which students with disabilities are housed and instructed in proximity to each other, (b) inclusive programs for students who need minimal support and are able to self-advocate and navigate their college system to obtain support when needed, and (c) inclusive programs in which students receive varying degrees of intensive supports on a routine basis. The type and level of support is critical so that students may benefit from safe and enriching experiences. Program staff, parents and students should take into account the amount of support required and received in secondary school when selecting a college program. For students that have had one-on-one aides throughout high school, it can be helpful to wean the student from the aide before transitioning to a university.
We know that postsecondary educational experiences lead to better employment and adult living outcomes for individuals with disabilities (Winsor & Butterworth, 2007). The severity of the problem caused by inadequate preparation for integrated employment and adult living becomes clear when one considers that only 22% of adults with developmental disabilities are currently participating in integrated employment. The Olmstead decision, President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (Executive Order 13263, 2002), and Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 address weaknesses in services to support independent living and employment. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides a framework to address the need for supports to fully include all persons in their communities. It is imperative that college programs prepare students with ASD for productive employment. It is not enough to earn a college degree. Students need to be prepared to be contributing members of their community. Support programs should provide access to supervised internships and varied community-based training experiences so that when students graduate from college they have been exposed to varied career options and are ready for graduate school or a career.
Individuals with ASD often require encouragement and assistance in the social interaction arena. Students may come to college and live in a residential hall, but if they remain in their dormitory room engaged in computer games and other solitary activities, they will miss a significant slice of college life. A valuable resource at colleges is the student population. College students, who volunteer as peer mentors, have reported that the experience was rewarding and growth producing. In fact, these peer connections are two-way relationships in which all parties benefit and learn. Students on the spectrum may have special strengths and interests that are channeled into the peer connections, so that, for instance, a student who enjoys watching sports and knows a great deal about baseball statistics may provide excellent company for a fellow sports enthusiast. A theater buff makes an excellent companion with whom to go to movies and plays.
When evaluating college support programs, four essential concerns are academics, campus-life, career development, and peer mentors/connections. If you are considering a program but find it lacking in a certain area, you may be surprised to find that the staff may be receptive to your requests to include a new service. This is a time when programs are growing and we need your input.
Dianne Zager, PhD, is Director of the Center for Teaching and Research in Autism, the OASIS College Support Program, and Michael C. Koffler Professor in Autism at Pace University in New York City.