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Autism and College: Your Comprehensive Preparation Guide

Any new college student faces challenges while adjusting to campus life. However, for students with autism, this transitional period can be incredibly daunting — and sadly, this hinders many adults with autism from seeking post-secondary education.

Research suggests that approximately 17 percent of young adults with autism enrolled in a four-year college program; and while just 39 percent earn a degree, barriers to graduation are rarely about grades alone. After all, approximately half of the population diagnosed with autism showcase an average to above-average intellectual ability.

Feeling isolated is a major concern for more than 75 percent of college students with autism, which is why it’s so important to take a proactive approach when selecting a school. The ultimate goal is to be as prepared as possible, increasing the student’s chances of success — here’s how to tackle autism and college.

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First Lets Ask The Question: Can Someone with Autism Go to College?

In 2000, the reported ratio of children born with autism was 1 in 150, and by the year 2010, this ratio increased to 1 in 68. This has resulted in the need to create more autistic-friendly learning programs and environments.

While high school graduates with autism showcase many strengths, including great attention to detail, a passionate interest in select topics, and an excellent memory, some of the core challenges these students face include:

  • Difficulty with the social world that surrounds them
  • A strong preference for routine
  • Possible symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Issues with self-regulation and executive function (i.e. the ability to plan and remain organized)
  • In some cases, delays in specific life skills (i.e. cooking)

Although these challenges can make college difficult, with the right level of support, young adults with autism can not only succeed at college but if placed in the right program, thrive. In many cases, it’s best for students to stay close to home and opt for a smaller institution. That is why community college programs are often so beneficial.

So, when it comes to the question of whether or not someone with autism can go to college?

The short answer is absolutely!

When seeking a post-secondary education as an adult with autism, some of the most important considerations to make include:

  • Each individual’s readiness, focusing on life skills, social skills, etc.
  • How you can make the transition as easy as possible (i.e. attending a local college, starting with a reduced course load, taking advantage of pre-college summer programs, or staying in high school an extra year to grow and gain key skills)
  • The level of support and assistance available, especially in terms of social inclusion
  • If a student is staying away from home, their own dorm can reduce stress

Planning will be key

As students with autism “age out” of the services provided under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), transition planning will be of the utmost importance. This will begin during a student’s annual meeting in relation to the individual education program (IEP). During this period, the focus shifts to training and the experience required for post-high school education.

Whether a student needs assistance with college admissions, hygiene, driver’s education, banking support, or sex education, although this planning begins as early as 14 and no later than 16, many advocates believe that this planning should begin earlier — which is something you may consider as part of your at-home treatment and therapy plan.

Check Out Financial Resources for Adults with Autism

As discussed, self-advocacy is vital, especially when negotiating reasonable accommodations. For example, if something is particularly distracting within a school’s standard testing environment, a student with autism should be able to request an alternative space for testing, as they know such a request will increase their chances of success.

Autism Accommodations in College

While colleges are required to provide accommodations to students with disabilities, many of the accommodations that a student receives in high school are no longer available at the post-secondary level. In addition, individuals with autism do not typically understand how to advocate for their needs, which can hinder their ability to obtain the help they require. That is why all arrangements should be made prior to admission.

It is important to note that each college is unique in terms of the level of support provided. Some offer the bare minimum in terms of legal requirements, while others go above and beyond. When it comes to your college of choice, it is best to schedule an appointment with the Disability Support Services (DSS) Office.

During your appointment, discuss the services and level of support surrounding accommodations, including reduced course loads, priority registration, the possibility of substituting one course for another, extended testing time, and accessing note-takers (or receiving audio recordings of class).

When requesting specific accommodations, be sure to document your requests. Documentation should include:

  • The identification of a clear diagnosis (i.e. autistic disorder, Asperger’s)
  • The most current information, as disabilities change over time (i.e. academic testing should not be more than five years old)
  • History relating to the student’s medical, educational, and development limitations and support
  • Diagnosis supported in terms of current treatment, cognitive testing, clinical evaluations, etc.

The Best Colleges for Students with Autism

If you’re currently exploring your options, here are some of the best colleges for students with autism.

  • Bellevue College offers specialized courses for adults with autism that run alongside regular college classes. These courses are part of their Neurodiversity Navigators program, formerly Autism Spectrum Navigators, (offered at no additional charge). Through this program, students benefit from career prep, skill development, and much more.
  • Utah Valley University offers programs for individuals with ASD that provides a smooth transition and independence into adulthood by progressive laylors of support.
  • Defiance College offers its ASD Affinity Program, helping students with autism in three key areas — academic success, residential support, and social/personal growth. Students with autism are also provided with dedicated apartment-style housing, and the resident assistants have been specially trained to offer behavior modeling, support, and interventions.
  • Loras College — Loras College is known to have one of the best autism programs based on their comprehensive approach. Their Autism Specific Program (ARCH) was developed to help students thrive emotionally, academically, and socially.

Learn more about the top colleges and universities for students with autism here.

Additional Resources

How We Can Help

The Adult Autism Center is located in Murray, Utah. We are the first center of its kind in the Western region specializing in the development and lifelong teaching of skills for adults with autism. Whether college is an applicable option or you’re seeking a Center, we are here to provide resources for adults with autism who are in need of socialization, recreation, development, and involvement.

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smiling headshot photo of Heather Davis, clinical director editor of the adult autism center

Heather Davis graduated from Texas A&M University with her Ph.D. in Special Education and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Heather has spent 18 years of her professional career working with children diagnosed with autism and their families. In her previous role as the Clinical Director of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, her focus was to provide on-going staff training to ensure the delivery of high-quality, evidence-based services to meet the individualized needs of each child diagnosed with autism. She is inspired to continue to work in this field by the progress clients demonstrate which helps to improve their quality of life. Hearing individuals speak their first words, gain independent living skills, and demonstrate skills families never thought possible are what drive her to become a better clinician and continue to work with these important members of our community. In her free time, Heather enjoys running, reading, and spending time with her twin girls and husband exploring all the wonderful landscapes of Utah.

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