College is a transformative period in a young adult’s life, offering a platform for growth, self-discovery, and academic achievement. However, for students on the autism spectrum, navigating the challenges of college life can be particularly overwhelming. College students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a lower likelihood of completing their degree than either students with other disabilities or students in the general population (Jackson, 2018). Studies have shown that only 34.7% of young adults with ASD attend college (Shattuck, 2012). Of the group of students with ASD who attend college, only 38.8% will graduate (Cox, 2017). However, there are several steps students with ASD, their families, and schools can take to increase the likelihood of completing their degree.
Local school districts often provide students with ASD an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to provide special education and related services. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) provides for these supports from age 3 through 21, or until the student graduates from high school. However, IDEA does not apply to post-secondary institutions. Instead, students are provided with accommodations through a 504 Plan under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (504). Unlike the IDEA, there is no mandatory process schools must undertake to identify students with disabilities and provide the appropriate services. Instead, the student must seek out and obtain the supports they may require to be successful in school. However, colleges that accept federal financial assistance are required to provide equal access for students with disabilities provided the requested accommodations are reasonable, do not provide an undue administrative or financial burden on the institution, and do not alter the essential nature of the education (ADA & 504).
Applying to Schools
The transition to college starts while students are still in high school. The college application process can be long and difficult. Students with ASD have the added decision of whether they should disclose their disability during the application process. While colleges are prohibited by the ADA and 504 from discriminating against a student due to a disability, college admissions are competitive, and it is understandable that students are concerned that the disclosure of a disability could negatively impact their application. Nonetheless, disclosing a disability may help an admissions officer understand an unusual pattern of grades or discrepancy in grades versus standardized test scores. Whatever decision a student makes is personal to that student, and there is no right or wrong approach.
Schools with Formal Programs for Students with Disabilities
Transition Programs – When researching schools, one option available to students with ASD are schools offering formal transition programs. These types of programs are designed to assist students with disabilities develop the requisite skills necessary for successful completion of college, including support with executive functioning, independent living and self-advocacy. One such program is College Steps, which offers academic, social, and vocational support for students. Although College Steps does not offer a traditional college degree, it provides a transition for students who may require more support prior to enrolling in a degree-granting program. Many of these programs often include a residential component, as well as academic support and counseling, such as The College of New Jersey’s Career and Community Studies program.
Degree Granting Programs – Other schools offer formal support programs within their traditional degree-granting programs. Websites such as MyAutism.org and HereOnTheSpectrum.com provide information about a variety of colleges that have robust programs geared toward students with ASD. The exact components vary by institution, but they often include academic support, counseling, peer mentoring, specialized housing, and social activities. Some of these programs do have an additional cost associated with them.
Disability Services Departments
In addition to specific programs for students with ASD, almost every college has a disabilities services office. Students with ASD should obtain information about the types of disability accommodations available to students, and how they can access them. Some schools require students to register with the disabilities services office prior to starting classes, and each subsequent semester or academic year. They may also require updated medical or educational documentation.
Students should make an appointment with the disabilities services office to discuss their needs soon after receiving an acceptance, and prior to accepting an admission offer. Students should be prepared to ask questions about the services provided, how to obtain them, and if any additional documentation is required. Questions can include:
- What accommodations do you offer?
- How do you qualify for them?
- What assistive technology devices do you provide?
- Is there a transition summer or program that is available to students with disabilities?
- Is there a cost for any of the services provided by your office?
- What is the four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities? How does it compare to the general student population?
- Does the office provide assistance if a professor does not comply with a student’s accommodation plan?
In addition to direct questions, a lot can be learned about an institution’s attitude toward students with disabilities, including ASD, by general observation. Is the disability services office appropriately staffed? Is the office in an area accessible to students? Is the office pleasant and well-maintained? There is a significant difference between a school that is simply providing the minimum legal requirements versus one that is supportive and welcoming of all types of students, including those with ASD.
While the specific accommodations available may vary by institution and student, these are some of the most common that are available to students with disabilities.
Extended Time for Exams – The availability of extra time on exams allows the student time to process what the questions are asking and respond in a way that permits them to provide complete answers that showcase their knowledge. In addition, the extended time may also help alleviate stress and anxiety often experienced by students with ASD during exams. This can be combined with an alternative testing site to allow students to take tests in low distraction environments.
Note-Taking Assistance – Providing professor notes, outlines from lectures, or having another student take notes allows students to focus on the material being taught in class instead of struggling to take notes.
Preferential Seating – Allowing a student with ASD to select a seat that minimizes distractions and sensory overload permits them to better focus on the material presented in class.
Counseling Services – Most colleges offer some form of counseling services to their students. Counseling focused on the stressors associated with college and navigating interpersonal relationships can be particularly beneficial.
Housing/Residential Life – Whether it is a single room or a room in a quiet dorm, the selection of housing cannot be overlooked as a key aspect of success in college. Having a space that is quiet and private can allow students who need to decompress and regroup with the privacy required.
When considering what accommodations a student may want to request, a good starting point is reviewing their IEP accommodations section from high school. This section will contain a list of the accommodations provided by the local school district which may be useful in determining what accommodations they want to request.
The most important part of any support system for students with disabilities is their family. In addition to providing financial and emotional support, there are several practical steps parents can take to assist their child. First, the student can provide a Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) waiver for the parents. This will allow the parents to communicate with administrators, staff, and faculty on behalf of their child so they can assist if there are any issues with things like financial aid, registration, housing etc. Next, the student may execute a power of attorney permitting their parents to take action on their behalf with banks, insurance companies, landlords, etc. Neither the FERPA waiver nor the power of attorney take away any rights or responsibilities of the student. They simply add another person who can act on their behalf.
Attending college is pivotal for many young adults. For students with ASD, this step may be more difficult than for a nondisabled student. However, there are academic programs that can support students who seek to attend, and complete, their college education. The level of assistance provided may vary by school, so it is important that students and their families research prospective schools and make an informed decision.
Denise Gackenheimer Verzella, Esq., MA, is a Senior Associate at the law firm Manes & Weinberg, LLC, Special Needs Lawyers. She focuses her practice on special education and education law. Throughout her career she has worked at several institutions of higher education including as the Director of Student Services for a New York area law school where she was responsible for providing accommodations for law students with documented disabilities.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 (1990). https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm. (n.d.).
Cox, B. E., Thompson, K., Anderson, A., Mintz, A., Locks, T. Morgan, L., Edelstein, J., & Wolz, A. (2017). College experiences for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Personal identity, public disclosure, and institutional support. Journal of College Student Development, 58(1), 71-87.
Jackson, Hart, and Volkmar. (2018). Preface:Special Issue – College Experiences for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 639-642.
Shattuck, P. T. (2012). Postsecondary Education and Employment Among Youth With an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatrics, 1042-1049.
United States. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Office for Civil Rights. (1978). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973 : fact sheet : handicapped persons rights under Federal law. Washington :Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of the Secretary, Office for Civil Rights, 1978