Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

The Ever Changing Landscape of Higher Education: An Opportunity for Students on the Spectrum

Changes in the college-aged population in the United States are among the evolving opportunities for higher functioning individuals on the autism spectrum. According to the U.S. Census, from 2015-2065 we will see about a 2% drop in the percentage of 18-24 year olds. Two percent sounds like a small number, but in light of a population expected to exceed 400 million people during that time period, 2% will mean 8 million less college-aged students available to the over 7,600 Institutes of Higher Education (IHE) in order to make their enrollment. The colleges must fill seats in the classroom and beds in the dorms. This presents a unique opportunity for students on the autism spectrum to pursue higher education.

Thanks to early diagnosis, school districts using empirically based interventions, and a push for inclusion of students on the autism spectrum with general education peers, we are witnessing better outcomes for students. Now, many of these students are going onto college, vocational training programs, and post-secondary transition programs. Most colleges do not realize the sheer volume of students on the autism spectrum. However, students on the autism spectrum who are otherwise qualified to attend college are able to access reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Special education, as conceptualized in public education, does not exist in college. Colleges are feeling the impact as the demands for services and reasonable accommodations are changing and increasing with the influx of higher functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders. College offices, tasked with assessing and providing reasonable accommodations to students with a disability, are seeing an increase in the distinct needs of students with an autism spectrum diagnosis, as opposed to students with a physical disability or other learning disabilities.

Increasingly, states, school districts and parents are realizing that IEP transition goals for work, college and independent living must include intermediate steps with specific targeted interventions. It is a quantum leap to go from a high school, in one building with bells demarking every class period, to college where a student must negotiate an entire campus and a variable schedule with no prompts from the institution. The change to a college environment is even more radical than the transition to the world of work and independent living. College schedules vary by the day of the week – with, at times, large chunks of unstructured time. Recognizing these leaps, parents and school districts are drawing upon funding under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004 to fund transition services which can include either community based or college based transition programs. To justify the expenditure to school boards or state offices of education advocates will, at times, cite the U.S. Department of Education’s stance that Committees on Special Education have always had the power to use funding under Part B of IDEA to fund community based or college based transition services when appropriate.

“…as with all special education and related services, it is up to each child’s IEP Team to determine the special education and related services that are needed to meet each child’s unique needs in order for the child to receive FAPE (A Free Appropriate Public Education). Therefore, if a child’s IEP Team determines that a child’s needs can best be met through participation in transitional programs on college campuses or in community based settings, and includes such services on the child’s IEP, funds provided under Part B of the Act may be used for this purpose.” (Assistance to States for Education of Children with Disabilities, 34 CFR parts 300 and 301, 2006, p. 46668).

Some states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts have gone one step further to create “dual enrollment” and “Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment” programs, whereby the students take some college classes while still being enrolled in special education programs in their high schools. Typically the students will attend classes at the local community college or state school.

A third development, increasing the number of students with autism and other developmental disabilities in higher education, has been slow to gain traction. This is the adoption of the Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) program model. In 2008, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, a reauthorization and significant revision, of the 1965 Higher Education Act. Title IV of the Higher Education Opportunity Act governs all forms of Federal Student Aid. Prior to 2008, in order to be eligible to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid students had to be enrolled in a degree bearing program full-time. Many academically bright students who are on the autism spectrum cannot handle the full-time load of 12-18 credits. It often has nothing to do with their academic ability. Rather, it has to do with deficits in their executive functioning, or their social and communication skills. Although all colleges have an office of disability services, the quality of support for students with autism varies widely. Often the staff in these offices have had little experience, or training, in the unique needs of students with an autism spectrum diagnosis. With the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, students with an intellectual disability (broadly defined, which can include autism) who are enrolled in a U.S. Department of Education approved CTP can receive certain forms of federal student aid (i.e. grants only) – even if they have not yet received their high school diploma or even if they are not pursuing a college degree full time. The added benefit for families is that the student with an intellectual disability, who is enrolled in a U.S. DOE approved CTP, now “counts” as a child in college under FAFSA. This can lower the Expected Family Contribution for families with other children in college and can increase the amount of possible student aid to the family as a whole. The roll out of the Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary Program model has been slow. Out of the over 7,600 Institutions of Higher Education with approved Title IV programs, only 34 colleges have received approval for CTPs by the U.S. Department of Education, or less than 1% of all institutes of higher education.

It is unclear why the adoption of this model has been slow. The only real requirements for the colleges in terms of the CTPs are that the CTPs must have a curriculum and advising structure that address the needs of this population AND the institutions must ensure that the students with an intellectual disability are engaged in coursework and other activities with non-disabled peers at least 51% of the time over the life of the CTP. Perhaps, the administrative burden and application process has been a deterrent to many colleges.

Research into successful transitions for young adults with a variety of disabilities has now begun to emerge. Wehman et al. (2013) conducted the first clinical trial of vocational training as an intervention with transition-aged young adults on the autism spectrum. Participants were randomly assigned to vocational training in a hospital setting versus a control group referred to as “business as usual,” meaning the participant received services through the local school district and the state office of vocational and rehabilitative services. Participants in the vocational training condition had an employment rate of 87.5% after completion of the study as compared to the “business as usual condition” where only 6% of those participants were employed. Furthermore, Lounds Taylor, Smith and Malick (2014), found that greater vocational independence and engagement were related to subsequent reductions in autism symptoms, and maladaptive behaviors. They also found increased improvements in activities of daily living. The prevailing wisdom had been that one needed to teach social and independent living skills prior to vocational training to achieve good outcomes for individuals on the spectrum. The Lounds Taylor, Smith and Mailick results indicate that providing well-structured opportunities for employment and community engagement can result in improvements in activities of daily living. Research by Moore & Schelling (2015) points to the importance of post-secondary transition programs. According to Moore & Schelling, 9 out of 10 students with an intellectual disability who participated in a postsecondary program were employed within two years of the study. However, when they compared their results to that of National Longitudinal Study 2, only about 51% of the students with intellectual disabilities were employed within the same two year period. These preliminary results suggest that post-secondary transition programs like CTPs are effective in helping students with autism and other kinds of disabilities transition to the world of work and independence. Research by Klinger (as cited in Diament, 2015) presented at International Meeting for Autism Research earlier this year, suggests that mastery of self-care skills are a better predictor of post-secondary transition success than intellectual disability. Individuals with the highest self-care skills were better able to maintain employment, utilized employment support services less often, and worked more hours, regardless of symptom severity or intellectual ability. This further affirms our assertion that merely providing access to, and support in the area of, academic credit bearing coursework is insufficient for students on the autism spectrum. A transition program curriculum must contain aspects of independent living and self-care skills.

The latest development in the ever changing landscape of higher education comes in the form of federal legislation. The Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (2014) now requires state offices of vocational and rehabilitative services to allocate at least 15% of their budgets to transition aged youth. Further, the Act allows these agencies to be more flexible in what they are able to fund. Prior to the passage of this act, vocational rehabilitation agencies were reluctant to fund aspects of a person with a disability attending college unless it was directly linked to an employment outcome. Also, these agencies were very reluctant to fund programs that dealt with the “soft skills” of employment which were deemed as “pre-vocational” and yet essential to successful transition to the world of work and independent living for young adults on the autism spectrum. This new act may provide a wider variety of supports for individuals with an intellectual disability transitioning to the world of work.


Drs. VanBergeijk and Cavanagh are the Associate Dean and Assistant Dean of New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (respectively), which is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) program. The duo also administer the Introduction to Independence (I to I) Program which is a 7 week summer bridge program for students ages 16 and up. For more information, please visit


34 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Parts 300 and 301 Assistance to States for the Education of Children With Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children With Disabilities; Final Rule: Washington, D.C.: U.S. Printing Office.

Diament, M. (2015). As More with Autism Near Adulthood, Clues to Success Emerge; Disability Scoop, May 29, 2015, retrieved from:

Higher Education Opportunities Act of 2008. Pub.L., 110 -315, 20 USC 1001.

Lounds Taylor, J., Smith, L.E., and Mailick, M.R. (2014). Engagement in Vocational Activities Promotes Behavioral Development for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44: (6) pp.: 1447-1460.

Moore, E.J. and Schelling, A. (2015). Postsecondary inclusion for individuals with intellectual disabilities and its effects on employment. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities. DOI: 1744629514564448

U.S. Census Population Projections (2014).

Wehman P.H., Schall, C.M., McDonough, J., Kregel, J., Brooke, V., Molinelli, A., Ham, A., Graham, C. W., Erin Riehle, J., Collins, H.T., and Theiss, W. (2013). Competitive employment for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Early results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, DOI 10.1007/s10803-013-1892-

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, Pub. L. No. 113-128, 29 USC 3101.

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