Walking onto a college campus is the first step to adulthood and true independence. This step can cause excitement, fear and anxiety for most young people. For students with learning disabilities and on the autism spectrum, these emotions are magnified. It is a new world of unchartered territory that they have only dreamed of and possibly thought out of their reach. As excited about that reality as they might be, there are many unsuspected challenges that they will encounter. Most special education public high school programs do not prepare a special-needs student for the demands of college. In fact in many ways, even neuro-typical students are often not prepared for the huge difference between high school and college that they will face, and inevitably often meet that challenge with disappointment, frustration, and a sense of, if not an actual, academic failure. So imagine how a learning disabled or autistic student feels when meeting these challenges. So much of this problem has to do with change in structure from high school to college. In addition to all the other challenges, the lack of structure in college is a huge problem for students on the autism spectrum or with a learning disability. Students with autism thrive in a structured environment. It provides predictability and a sense of safety. The step from high school to college can make an ASD/LD student feel completely ungrounded. According to Education News, “More and more students seem to be less prepared for college” (Are Public High School Students Fully Prepared for College? 2011). There are many different theories as to why this happens, but “College and K-12 officials blame the performance declines on a myriad factors, from inadequate high school preparation to high school grade inflation, newfound independence and increased partying away from home” (Education News, 2011).
Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education states that an inconsistent grading system is a real problem. “I don’t believe you do anyone any favors by artificially boosting a grade. To do what? All that does is give students a false sense of security” (Education News, 2011). As far as boosting and ballooning grades, this is especially true in a special needs environment. “Translating each student’s performance into a letter grade can be a challenge – and inevitably, the most troublesome questions relate to the fairness and accuracy of the grades given to exceptional learners” (Lee Ann Jung 2010). Students with disabilities learn and engage differently; therefore, making it all the more difficult to fit them within the “box” of grading. Another challenge for disabled students is meeting the necessary traits that are essential for success in an academic setting. Again, these can be traits that a neurotypical student would struggle with. Students on the Autism Spectrum and students with learning disabilities intrinsically struggle with flexibility, communication and organization. Ellen Korin of the Autism Society states, “Students with (AS) frequently find themselves unprepared for the transition to independent life upon graduation from high school. Communication, pragmatic language and social skills are limited. Interactions are awkward, hard work and stressful. While neurotypicals seem to instinctively know “the rules of the road,” “Aspies” frequently feel like “aliens who have landed on an unfamiliar planet where they do not know the rules (Korin 2010). They must be taught these skills in a direct and explicit manner. So, as a comparison, neurotypicals who know the rules of the road so to speak and can naturally integrate, still find college an incredible challenge full of new territory they are not prepared for.
Ideally, the first year of college is a time for young people to strive for adulthood, dreams, friends, and independence. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many students are overwhelmed and frankly in a state of shock at the difference in residential college living and living under their parents’ rules and guidelines. The scaffold that all good parents build for their children is removed and many times the child falls without that support. Joe Smydo cites students’ stories in the Pittsburgh’s paper the Post Gazette. “The first year of college is an opportunity to stretch one’s wings, but it’s also a minefield that many students struggle to navigate. Students are living on their own for the first time. There’s no one to tell them to eat properly, to study, to go to bed at a decent hour or to get up in the morning in time for class” (Smydo 2008). ASD students and LD students are not the only ones who need a comprehensive transition plan, but they are definitely individuals who especially need one. All of our young people struggle with the change which emphasizes both the failure of a transition plan for neurotypical students and especially our students with ASD and LD disorders.
According to Ellen Korin, “Authentic, comprehensive transition plans need to be developed as the student moves to the high school level. These transition plans need to be developed from the results of a formal assessment of the communication, presentation of self, social, organizational and life skills that our teens with AS often do not acquire as easily as their neurotypcial peers” (Korin 2010). True, these skills are not as easy for ASD students but they are also a struggle for our neurotypcial students. Joe Smydo states in his article that “nearly 33 percent of 20,500 students surveyed last year reported that stress negatively affected their academic performance, and 15.1 percent said excessive use of computer games did so, according to the college health association’s National College Health Assessment” ( Smydo 2008). These facts just highlight the greater need for disabled students to get a proper transition plan in addition to neurotypcial students. ASD and LD students are known for their propensity for video games and their inclination to become addicted and therefore completely distracted from a healthy college experience. As stated in WordPress where many mothers were interviewed about the maturation of their Asperger’s child, one mother speaks to the video game problem. “I tried to limit the tv and computer. Daniel would completely melt down – biting, kicking, screaming. I noticed he really wasn’t progressing in his speech at all. He wasn’t interacting with anyone. He had no interest in anything outside the electronic world of tv and video games. When I eliminated those, every day was hellish from the moment he woke up until he went to sleep” (2011).
From the onset, ASD and LD children need interventions for a myriad of behaviors, but this shouldn’t stop in high school. There is an incredible need to prepare both our disabled and neurotypical young people for the world that lies ahead. Clearly, ASD and LD young people will have significantly more challenges, but transition needs to be addressed for both populations, especially in order to highlight the struggle of the disabled person and the incredible need for preparation. “Some students find that their educational background or their lack of effort has not prepared them for the academic demands of the college they have chosen. They may need remedial programs to make up for past deficiencies” (Causes of Failure in College, 2010). In other words, many neurotypical students are entering college as freshmen and failing both the writing and math placement tests that would put them in a credit-bearing class. This is clearly a failure on the part of their high school education. In order to move forward these young people will need to rebuild the scaffold they had at some point in their elementary and high school education and replace it with the support they can find in writing centers and tutors on the college campus.
This scenario is true for both Neurotypical and LD students. The difference is, it might and probably will be a lot easier for the neurotypical student to navigate the classroom, the interaction with professors, the learning center, the writing center and the student solutions center. Their success with support will be more attainable than it will be for the ASD/LD student. The bottom line is the link from high school to college needs to be a lot stronger for both populations in order for them to succeed. All students and especially ASD/LD students need to self-advocate, communicate, organize, manage daily living tasks, manage money, meet deadlines, and schedule their time. There appears to be a huge gap in our high-school education that could be taught to all populations so that our young people can succeed in their respective lives as they achieve their individual goals with both neurotypical and ASD/LD challenges.
As the situation stands now, only 20 percent of young people who begin their higher education at two-year institutions graduate within three years (Public Agenda Report, 2009). This is a general number and the numbers are even bleaker in a post-secondary college servicing learning disabled and autism spectrum students. The bottom line is both neuro-typical and learning disabled and autistic students need to be prepared and taught key transitional topics that will support students when they graduate high school. It is important that students learn to communicate their needs, capitalize on their strengths, seek assistance, schedule time for task completion, handle work in a timely manner, and follow academic rules promulgated by teachers. Basic skills must also be addressed – management of daily living tasks, cooking and laundry, money management, transportation options and self-care and self-knowledge and advocacy skills. Until this crucial learning agenda is addressed, all of our young people are going to struggle from home to college and the on the road to independence.
The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) Program. To learn more, please visit www.nyit.edu/vip.