For many students, college is a series of firsts. With independence comes responsibility for many things they previously had assistance with. These firsts are challenging for many, however students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face additional, unique challenges —significant impairments in social and communication skills, repetitive behaviors and narrow interests— compounded by a lack of understanding of ASD among staff and peers (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Glennon, 2016; Van Hees, Moyson, & Roeyers, 2015). Autistic college students are also confronted with the expectation of advocating for themselves, a service provided by their parents during high school. Under federal law, colleges are required to provide accommodations to students with disabilities. However, many students with ASD do not understand how to effectively advocate for their needs.
Increasingly, after completing high school autistic students continue onto college. To help autistic students successfully integrate into college, it is important to understand colleges have different responsibilities from K-12 when it comes to accommodations. This article will specifically discuss four differences: laws, responsibility for accommodations, documentation, and the role of parents. It should be noted that the term “college” in this article refers to community college, colleges, and universities.
Both high school and colleges are subject to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In addition, high schools are subject to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides funds to assist in making a free appropriate public education available to eligible students with disabilities. Colleges have no legal obligations under IDEA since they are subject to the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibiting discrimination based on disability. In general terms, this means a college must guarantee access to a student whereas high schools must guarantee the success of a student. Colleges are not required to provide the same level of support they received in high school. For example, the Individual Education Plans (IEP) is a legally binding document in high school but has no power at the college level (Latham, 2018). Many students are caught off guard when they discover their IEP doesn’t transfer to college. The reason for the difference is that K-12 attendance is compulsory and publicly funded while a college education is voluntary, and the student is responsible for funding their education.
Responsibility for Accommodations
Colleges are not mandated – like K-12 schools – to identify students with disabilities. Once in college, the primary responsibility for accommodations rests with the student. A college student does not have to disclose that he or she has autism, however to obtain academic accommodations students must identify themselves with the Disability Support Services (DSS) Office and make a request for accommodations. Prior to admission, colleges may not inquire about prospective students’ disabilities. Students may include information about their autism diagnosis in their application, but it is voluntary and does not guarantee accommodations.
Even though colleges must provide equal access to students with disabilities, colleges aren’t required to offer accommodations beyond reasonable ones. Each college is different in the level of support provided; some offer the bare minimum while others offer more. A student meets with a coordinator in the DSS office, who determines whether a student meets the requirements for reasonable accommodations and what type. After a decision is made, a letter stating the accommodations is drafted, which the student gives to each of their professors. It is ultimately the student’s job to make professors aware of the accommodations.
In high school, communication with parents is an integral part of the accommodation process. College students are considered to be their own legal guardian unless there is a court order to the contrary. Parents do not have access to any student information unless the student provides written consent. Most college DSS personnel understand this is a transition for both students and parents and welcome parents’ involvement during the accommodation process. However, most DSS offices require students to initiate the accommodations request, articulate their needs, and pursue resources rather than relying on parents to advocate.
Section 504 and IDEA require K-12 schools to conduct evaluations of a student suspected of having a disability at no cost to the parents or student. Colleges, however, are not legally required to pay for such evaluations, and the cost falls on the student. Students entering college provide documentation stating their specific functional limitation supporting their accommodations request. Colleges also have requirements stating that documentation must be less than five years old. It is important to note that high school IEP’s and 504 Plans are not sufficient documentation for accommodations in colleges.
Tips for College Success
Here are a few tips for students of the autism spectrum considering college:
1) The DSS office should be at the top of the list when visiting prospective colleges to assess accommodations the college provides and whether they meet your needs. The level of support for students of the autism spectrum varies from one institution to another. Most colleges offer accommodations such as note-takers, extended time on tests, alternative testing arrangements, and alternative formats of textbooks, but some colleges go above and beyond by providing services tailored for autistic students. Approximately 60 U.S. colleges offer autism support programs such as social skills training, support groups and mentors, tutors trained in how to work specifically with students of the autism spectrum, and time-management workshops. Be aware that many of these colleges charge an additional fee for these services.
2) Update your disability documentation with a licensed psychologist – preferably during the later part of junior or senior year of high school – so the documentation is less than five years old. You can ask for recommended college accommodations to be put in the documentation, serving as a discussion starter when you meet with the DSS Office.
3) All colleges require general education classes and these classes can be completed at a community college instead of at college. This will allow you to integrate into college life at a smaller college and not be overwhelmed by a large college, and it helps you save money.
4) You don’t have to take a full course load of classes. Start with one or two classes and grow into a full load. Many students take a full load because of a financial aid requirement but find themselves overwhelmed and struggling. Taking it slowly the first few semesters might be worth the time and expense.
5) Most professors often rely on lectures and tests. To mitigate the heightened anxiety about lectures, students on the autism spectrum may request an accommodation of recorded lectures. Professors are not required to allow their lectures to be recorded, but students with an accommodation to record lectures are legally permitted to.
6) The best time to transition to college life is during the summer, when the campus is quieter and less crowded. Students can explore campus noting where services are located, plan their route to classes, and gain a feel for campus. For students living on campus, choose a dorm that is an environment you feel comfortable to live in. For example, if you prefer quiet, request a dorm tailored to upper classmen rather than the freshman dorm. In addition, it might help to move in as soon as the dorms opens, allowing time to become familiar with the environment and amenities before classes begin.
7) Distance from home is a significant factor in college success. Students on the autism spectrum often benefit from being able to frequently visit home. Look for colleges within a two-hour range that have the majors you are interested in. Smaller colleges are sometimes more advantageous when it comes to accommodations. They offer smaller class sizes, individual attention, more opportunities to ask questions, and the ability to become familiar with professors and classmates.
8) Enjoy the experience! Unlike high school, in college you can choose classes that interest you and college students are usually more accepting of your quirks.
Parents experience some degree of angst as their children navigate the college admissions process. Understandably, parents of autistic students often experience an additional amount of anxiety. However, with the proper planning, your child can experience a successful college journey. A good first step to college success would be to start building your child’s self-advocacy skills in high school by allowing them to share control of their educational process.
For more information Heidi Hillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (5th ed). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing
Glennon, T. J. (2016). Survey of college personnel: Preparedness to serve students with autism spectrum disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 70, 1-6.
Latham, P. (2018). At a glance: Which laws do what? Retrieved December 1, 2018 from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/your-childs-rights/basics-about-childs-rights/at-a-glance-which-laws-do-what
Van Hees, V., Moyson, T., Roeyers, H. (2015). Higher education experiences of students with autism spectrum disorders: Challenges, benefits, and support needs. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 1673-1688.