Students with Autism in College: Finding Campus Support

Students with Autism in College: Finding Campus Support

Within the next ten years it is estimated that there will be a half a million children with autism who will become adults. As these children transition into adulthood some may become interested in a postsecondary education as a means of pursuing their career goals. In a Forbes article Living Life with Autism: Has Anything Really Changed?, findings from recent studies indicated that “56 percent of people with autism graduate from high school, and 14 percent of young adults with autism go to college, but how many graduate from college is less clear.”  For adults who consider the traditional college route there are resources available to help address their needs, which may also increase the possibility of completing the degree successfully.

Adults with Autism and Learning

Adults that have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are “characterized by social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors.” While this is a lifelong condition that may also include other medical challenges, it does not mean that these adults cannot learn. A recent study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that one of the strengths that these adults possess is an enhanced ability to process information. More specifically, they are “able to figure out which information is crucial and comprehend it better” than adults without autism.

In a report Individualized Educational Support Strategies for Students with Autism in Inclusive Classroom Settings, it was noted that these adults experience difficulty asking for help, especially if they are unable to comprehend any aspect of the class or the assignments. In addition, it was determined that because of communication and language developmental challenges, “students with autism may rely predominantly on visual input as a way to acquire new knowledge.” They have difficulty processing “visual and auditory input at the same time.” For nonverbal students, they may rely upon the use of flashcards, with words and pictures, to learn new concepts. Of course there are many variations possible for the types of learning challenges encountered and there isn’t one set formula for teaching adults with autism.

Children with autism are typically supported in school “through school based 504 plans, IEPs and/or from counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists in their community.” Once adulthood is reached, they must learn how to become independent and implement what they’ve learned through the specialized treatment programs provided in primary education. The implications for postsecondary education are that they would be responsible for their progress without the benefit of an individual evaluation plan (IEP) that has been custom designed for their specific learning needs.

The Reality of Going to College

Within the online autism guide Self-Advocacy: A Key Skill in a College Environment, an important point is made that “students with disabilities must first disclose and describe the need for accommodations to the Office of Disability Services, which determines their eligibility for those accommodations.” It is also recommended that once students make this disclosure they should “explain their accommodations to others, such as professors and/or roommates.” The purpose is to learn self-advocacy by developing productive working relationships, so that students are more comfortable asking for help when it is needed.

Within the article Leaving Free and Appropriate and Avoiding Expensive and Mismatched, a study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Special Education Research was discussed. The focus of the study, which spanned an eight year period, was on the educational and career outcomes of special education students that graduated from high school in 2001. The results indicated that students with autism have “lifespan issues that go far beyond the plan of a typical college student.” It was further concluded that these students should consider skill set development as their number one priority when making a decision about starting a degree program.

Support for Adult Students with Autism

There are specialized sources available for adult students with autism that help to provide support and connections to colleges with resources. Here are some examples that students may find beneficial as they make a decision about going to college.

1. Think College: It is a “project of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston,” and the “Think College initiatives are funded by grants from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, the Office of Special Education Programs, and the Office of Postsecondary Education.” There is a searchable database with 166 specialized programs and colleges that have programs to assist students with special needs.

2. College Autism Spectrum (CAS): This is an “independent organization of professionals whose purpose is to assist students with autism spectrum disorders, and their families.” The consultants provide assistance for students by working with disability services offices and helping students learn self-advocacy.

3. AHEADD (Achieving in Higher Education): This is a private, community organization designed to help “college students succeed academically and socially at some of the country’s most competitive colleges.” Through the online directory students can search for schools in 14 cities across the United States that works with AHEADD. The AHEADD Model of Support is used in conjunction with the support and consists of four components:
1. AHEADD Professional Staff Involvement
2. Development of Campus and Community Support Network
3. Utilization of Campus Resources
4. Peer Mentoring

AHEADD also offers a Remote Support feature that “provides additional options for some students who do not reside, or go to school, in our program areas.” This service is available for students who are “enrolled at virtually any college or university across the nation.” The support is provided through such interactive tools as video communication, Skype, email, and phone.

Adults that are weighing their options for a college degree can utilize the resources listed above to find schools with programs that are designed for students with autism, along with resources to support their progress. Once a list of potential schools is developed, contact the school and talk to the disability support services department to verify the accuracy of information received. A school advisor is another resource that could provide information necessary to make an informed decision. If a career services department is available at the school, this would also be a helpful resource to explore career options that may be possible after completing the degree.

Before starting a degree program, take time to find out what resources are available so that there is a greater chance for support and success during college.

If you are an adult with autism, have you considered going to college? If so, share the options you’ve explored via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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