Many students with Aspergers Syndrome and Autism have the interest and aptitude to engage in, and complete a college education. However, many of these students find that their academic ability is only one aspect to consider when planning for post secondary education. Ann Palmer is the parent of a young man with autism, and the author of “Realizing the College Dream with Autism or Aspergers Syndrome”.
For the student considering college, what are the important differences between high school and college?
Well first of all the students are going to have a lot more responsibility for taking care of things themselves. Whereas in high school, teachers and parents are very involved in helping the student through the organizational skills that they need. In college they make their own schedules, they have to take care of the responsibilities of doing their course work, without a lot of input from their professors. And also the high schools are required to serve students with disabilities if they’re failing, whereas in college they are not required to serve these students. So the student has to qualify academically to get in college, and they have to keep up their grades and perform at a level to remain in school. The schools do not have to serve them, and those are big differences I think between high school and college.
Parents will find that their participation may also be different. Describe the differences in the parental rights at the college level and high school.
Well at the college level the students are eighteen or over and they’re treated as adults because they are adults. They are having to initiate everything themselves; parents are not involved at the college level because of that. The disability services people working with students on the autism spectrum in college are not getting input from parents. Parents are not involved with the professors, their students may have everything that is decided for the student happens from the student’s initiation and parents are not involved in that process. They may be involved if the student decides they want the parent to be involved and then there’s a waiver the student can sign that will send information to that parent. Again it has to be the student’s choice to involve their parents involved in this process.
What are some of the areas in college that students with ASD often find to be difficult?
I think the organizational skills of college is one of the things that most students struggle with, keeping track of their assignments, keeping track of their books, getting to class on time, making their schedules. They also struggle at times with sensory issues related to being on a large college campus, in classrooms with large amount of students, living in a dormitory or close proximity to a lot of people with smells and sounds and things going on, that many students on the autism spectrum would have difficulty with. And then the social area of college is also very difficult for students who have difficulty, initiating social activity and participating at a social level appropriately.
What are some strategies that can help a student withy ASD in college?
I think having things in place to help with the organizational skills like day planners, calendars, having regular meetings with disability services to have updates about how the student is doing in classes, having regular meetings with the professors, all of those things I think will help students have regular contact with people who can help them so that they don’t get way behind, so they don’t get in trouble, and they have someone sort of monitoring their attempts at passing and being successful in college.
What accommodations are typically available for students with ASD at college?
Well many of the same accommodations that are available at the high school level, extended time for testing, separate setting for testing, are very popular accommodations for any student with a disability in college. But especially helpful I think for students on the autism spectrum. They also have accommodations such as hard copies of notes, such as videotaping lectures, tape recording lectures for students who have trouble taking notes, these were also accommodations that my son used in college that were very helpful. Another accommodation is priority seating, and this is important for students who may need to sit close to the professor so they cannot have any difficulty loosing their attention and can focus better. Students who may need to sit in the back of the room because they get anxious during a class and may need to leave suddenly, this priority seating is helpful. And the other accommodation that my son used was a single dorm room, so he was in a private room without a roommate, and for many students on the autism spectrum having a space that is their own where they can have some quiet time and down time when they get back to their dorm room after a stressful day, is very helpful.
Are curricular modifications typically allowed in college?
No, they will not change the curriculum of a particular class for any student with a disability in that class. They see that as an unfair advantage for one student over another. So they can give you accommodations to access materials, to access classrooms if needed because of a disability, but they will not change the curriculum of a course in order to make one student be successful in that course if they have learning needs. So they’re very sensitive to that issue, and parents are often not aware of that when they are preparing their son or daughter for college, that the professors will not modify their curriculum that they offer to their students, that every student has the same curriculum, disability or not.
Students must disclose their disability in college in order to receive accommodations. What are some of the considerations of disclosure that face the student with ASD?
I think first of all the student needs to understand that disclosure is not an all or nothing decision. They don’t have to tell the whole definition of aspergers syndrome or autism, they can tell the information that that individual needs to know. And not everyone needs to know necessarily that the student is on the autism spectrum. So I think it’s important to encourage students to understand that they can chose who to tell, and they can give them information that’s appropriate for what that person needs to know. And I think sometimes verbally disclosing is hard for students on the autism spectrum. So giving them an opportunity to write down their disclosure and present it to people may be another way they can successful disclose, to professors or to other people that they meet at the college level. That sometimes is easier then initiating a verbal conversation about their disability.
When disclosing, should students consider disclosing their strengths as well as their challenges?
Definitely, I think what students need to disclose is their learning style, which will include, it may say the name of their disability, but what it mainly is giving information about is what their strengths are, what’s difficult for them in a classroom, and strategies for how to help them be successful. So my son’s disclosure form said he had high functioning autism, but it also said how he learns best and what he might need extra help with from that professor. So it definitely should cover the student’s strengths and abilities as well as their challenges.
Academic success is essential, but should one also be concerned about social and functional skills at college?
Yes, I think unfortunately when we have students who have very high academic skills, we tend to neglect the functional skills. But in reality these students as adults are going to have to be as independent as possible, they’re going to have to take care of themselves, stay safe in the community where they live, and it is definitely necessary before they go to college to work on some of those functional skills that will keep them as independent as possible. Things such as preparing food, grocery shopping, paying bills, writing checks, all of those things these students are going to need to know as adults, and we can’t ignore those functional skills because they happen to be excellent at academic skills. They’re going to be lost if they get out of college and they don’t’ have those skills already under their belt.
What about the social issues in college?
The social life at college can be very difficult for students on the autism spectrum, and they do need experience working on those skills before they come to college. Some students will have more difficulty with their social abilities then others, I think the more experience they can have in the high school, and even younger in being involved with other peers is very helpful. I think there are not a whole lot of social supports available at the college level, and that’s where parents and coaches or people outside in the community may need to step in and help that student with those social skills.
What specific supports and interventions should the high school team consider to help make the transition to college successful for the individual with ASD?
I believe that the high school students need to have as many opportunities as possible to advocate for themselves. They need to be involved in every IEP meeting, transition plan meeting, and to be activity involved in that to practice those self advocacy skills. They need to be involved in the community of their high school, like volunteering or working in a office on the campus, anywhere where they can practice initiating social conversations, practice asking for help, reporting information, all of those are paramount for a student to understand when they go to college. I also think the other important issue that needs to be addressed at the high school level is helping parents prepare for the change in their role from being the main advocate for their child for so many years to being an advisor to their child. Many parents are not prepared for that transition and end up struggling when their child goes to college.
What can families do to support the successful transition to college?
Probably the most important thing that can be done is to prepare the student as much as possible. Children on the autism spectrum have difficulty with change typically, so the more preparation the better. I also think it’s very important to have frequent communication with the student when they do make that transition. Parents need to stay involved in their lives, ask the right questions, find out what’s going on in their lives at college that may be difficult for them, they may not offer that information on their own. So parents need to stay involved and ask a lot of the right questions.
Can you give me examples of strategies that parents might consider?
I think they need to talk in depth about the differences between high school and college. I think they need to take the student physically to college campuses, walk them around, let them see classroom buildings, cafeterias, dormitories, so the student has an idea of what going to college actually means. I also think that the parents need to sit down with the student and talk about those functional skills, talk about how to stay safe, talk about what to do when you’re not feeling well and you’re away at college and how to take care of yourself, your hygiene, all of those functional skills the parents can work on at home and in the community before they transition to college. And as much preparation as possible for the fact that they will need to ask for help, and to help them understand that it’s O.K. to need help now and then, and that lots of students at the college level have to reach out for help.
What do you think would be the ideal outcome of a student’s transition to the adult world?
I believe that all parents want the same thing for their children, whether they have a disability or not, we want our children in their futures, we want them to be happy, we want them to be safe, we want them to have a full life and we want them to be surrounded by people who care about them. And if that’s our definition of success, I believe that all of these students can be successful whether they go to college, employment, or whatever their next steps are after high school, they can all be successful if that’s our definition of success.