It has been clearly established that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders have difficulty with transitions. One major transition for a young person is the transition from secondary educational settings to the college environment. It can be overwhelming for any college freshman, but it is particularly stressful for a student on the spectrum.
In high school most courses and sources of support are contained in one building. Classes are regularly scheduled and transitions between classes are clearly denoted by bells to tell students when to go to their next class. Classes meet generally every day at the same time and location. Only one meal is eaten at school. Students can escape social pressures at the end of the school day by returning home and can socialize as they see fit. They are not expected to do their own laundry, pay bills, and regulate their free time. During high school, if a student on the autism spectrum needs help, his or her parents can advocate for the student at school or with health professionals. The parents are monitoring the student’s sleep patterns, medication, computer usage, and socializing. In fact, parents are often a major source of scaffolding and support. They often keep track of the student’s assignments and deadlines. The parents motivate the student to complete the assignments and supplement the student with an ASD’s impairments in executive functioning.
Most college campuses are contained in multiple buildings spread over acres of land. Classes are not held on a daily basis. Some classes are even held in the evenings and weekends. Support services are contained throughout the campus in a variety of buildings. No bells ring to tell students when they are supposed to go to the next class. The student on the autism spectrum has to be able to read a schedule full of abbreviations for the course name, time and day of the class, and the building name and room number. A student on the spectrum must be able to decode all of this information and must know that they should consult a map to find the class. Classes instead of being potentially down the hall from each other can now be spread all over campus. The student must be able to factor in travel time in order to reach class. Structure is at a minimum and a student is left to his or her own devices regarding when to eat, bathe, do laundry, take medication, allot time for research and other assignments, etc. No one is there to tell them when to go to class, or to sleep, what and how much to eat, or when to exercise.
A student with a disability who is enrolled full time in a college degree bearing program presumably has graduated from high school. After years of being in the special education system and being protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the student with an ASD is no longer guaranteed a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Parents may not advocate for the student to receive special education services in college. Special education does not exist in this environment. Under IDEA, a student’s school district is required to provide FAPE until he or she graduates from high school or through the student’s 21st birthday. The law that governs colleges in relation to people with disabilities is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Here, the law is designed to prevent the individual with autism, or any “otherwise qualified individual” with a disability, from being denied the opportunities the college has to offer solely because of his or her disability. The student must self-identify as a person with a disability in need of reasonable accommodations. It is up to the student to not only self-identify with the college’s office of disabled student services, but also provide documentation of the disability and need for reasonable accommodations.
The academic demands of college are not usually the downfall of students with autism spectrum disorders who seek higher education. After learning the system and routine, many students with ASDs adapt quiet well to the academics. It is the demands of the social environment where students on the spectrum struggle. The unwritten rules of the college classroom are quite different than in a high school setting and vary across instructors and even departments. Some instructors may be referred to by their first names. Others expect to be called “Dr.” or “Professor.” Often the nature of the lecture style classes is such that the professor is there to impart knowledge and will speak at length. They do not expect or even welcome interruptions during a lecture. Incessant questioning can alienate not only the professor, but classmates as well. Publically correcting a professor on a perceived factual error is another unwritten rule that a student must not do. Students on the spectrum must be explicitly taught these rules.
Perhaps, the most unpredictable and consequently most stressful social environment for students on the spectrum is living in the residence hall. Students with ASDs often have qualities of extreme naiveté and rigid adherence to rules. They can become victims of practical jokes and outright bullying. They can alienate their peers by strictly enforcing rules like “quiet hours” and running to the resident advisors at the slightest infraction. Impairments in executive functioning can lead to poor organization of their personal possessions, which can lead to roommate conflicts. Sensory integration dysfunction issues can be triggered by fluorescent lighting, typical dorm noise, and a roommate’s use of perfumes or deodorants also can lead to conflicts.
The transition to college environments must be well planned and detail oriented. It is not simply sufficient for a student on the autism spectrum to be able to read, write, and do mathematics at a college level. Orienting a student with an ASD to the physical environment and the structure of college classes is only one part of the equation. The other parts of the equation are insuring that they are able to advocate for themselves in order to receive the services they are entitled to, providing skills to help them navigate the social environment, and instruction in a whole host of independent living skills. Planning for this eventual transition should begin in childhood in the family with the student learning basic independent living skills like cleaning his or her room, and the as the child ages these skills should become more advanced to include things like setting and waking up using his or her own alarm clock, and washing his or her own laundry. Formal transition planning can begin at age 14 through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. Parents as members of the IEP team should consider adding in other independent living skills as goals such money management skills and travel training. If appropriate, IEP team members should consider sending the student to summer college programs which are residential. Many colleges have a variety of programs where teens can live on a college campus and take enrichment courses. The focus for students with ASDs should not be on the academics, but on the independent living and social skill aspects. By sending a student on a spectrum to a college campus one or two summers prior to enrolling full time, parents and schools can ease the student’s transition to college.
Some students, despite receiving special education services, will not be ready to enroll full-time in a degree bearing program or in a vocational training program after reaching age 18. These students with ASDs and other disabilities might be good candidates for Comprehensive Transition and Post-Secondary Programs (CTP). These programs can act as a bridge between high school and the post-secondary environment. If the program is being used as a transition program, then it can be written into the IEP. The federal government re-affirmed this position when it responded to public commentary calling for explicit language concerning the funding of transition programs even those that are college based. The federal government’s position was that the language was not necessary because IEP teams have always been able to write this into an IEP as they see fit in order to achieve FAPE for a student with a disability. The position was made clear when Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) in 2004 and solicited public commentary (See http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p /%2Croot%2Cregs%2C).
For those students on the autism spectrum who have graduated from high school and are no longer eligible for services and funding through IDEA, changes to the Higher Education Opportunities Act make it possible for students with intellectual disabilities (IDs) to receive federal financial aid. If a student with an intellectual disability is enrolled in a Comprehensive Transition and Post-Secondary Program that is approved by the U.S. Department of Education, then they can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Currently, students with IDs, including autism, are eligible to apply only for Pell Grants and Student Work Study monies by completing the FAFSA. A complete list of approved CTPs can be found at www.thinkcollege.net.
Paul Cavanagh, PhD, MSW is the Director of Academics and Evaluation at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program. Ernst VanBergeijk, PhD, MSW is the Associate Dean and Executive Director at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program.