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Sending Your Child with Autism to College

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Six essential tips for preparing young adults on the spectrum for college.

Claire LaZebnik: I cried every day during freshman orientation week when I went to college. Not for any specific reason, mind you -- I just felt overwhelmed. I was 15 minutes away from my hometown but a world away from being home. I didn't know very many people, and it felt like everyone else was making new friends more easily than I was. I couldn't find my way around this strange new place and I didn't think I'd ever feel comfortable there. In the end, of course, I had a perfectly happy college experience, but I remember those early feelings of terror and wonder how much harder the transition will be for my son, who has autism, and who's planning to go to college the year after next.

autistic son studying in college

Up until fairly recently, the assumption was that teenagers with autism simply wouldn't be able to go to college, so there hasn't been a lot of information out there on how to make it work for them. But with improved behavioral interventions for young kids on the spectrum, many of them are doing so well in high school that college is a real possibility. The important thing is not to simply send them off, hoping things will work out -- they still need extra support and preparation, and many colleges are offering special programs for these amazing kids.

Dr. Lynn Koegel of the Koegel Autism Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara has many suggestions for preparing young adults on the spectrum for college. Here's a sample:

  • Do what you can to make the standardized tests more manageable. Most students with autism are eligible for accommodations on the SATs, the ACTs, and so on, such as getting extended time or having the questions read out loud, but you do need to apply for these way ahead of time, and you might need to have your child formally tested by experts beforehand. The PSATs will give you some sense of whether your child needs these accommodations or not.
  • Consider a precollege program. These programs help teach kids the skills they'll need at college. Some of them offer a real taste of college life: the kids live in a dorm for a few weeks during the summer. This may be a good way to sniff out any potential pitfalls for your child so you can deal with them before he heads off to the real thing.
  • Research, research, research. Many schools now offer support, from entire programs specifically for kids on the spectrum, to academic and social resources that any student can tap into as needed, to peer buddy/mentoring systems. A simple online search will lead you to lists of these varied services. Schools (like UCSB) which have their own autism centers can offer a myriad of services and support, including helping students improve crucial social skills. There might be state services available as well, depending on where your child goes to school.
  • Start increasing his independent living skills before he leaves home. Some simple ways to do this: get your teenager used to being woken up by an alarm clock instead of by a parent; get her a day planner (or a phone app that works like one) and make sure she learns to enter every commitment, including things like "study for English test"; start working on academic survival skills like reviewing materials right after class -- not just when there's a test -- and asking classmates if they'll share notes.
  • Get your child acquainted with his future home. Once you know where your child will be going, take him there as often as you can so he can learn his way around. If it's too far to visit, take advantage of the Internet: he can study the school's website and learn where everything is.
  • Have a support system already in place before he leaves home. The extent of this system will depend on each individual student's needs, but at the very least your child should know where to go if he feels overwhelmed, isolated, or at risk of academic failure. And most young adults on the spectrum will need a lot more than emergency help; they'll need frequent checks to make sure things are going smoothly, classroom support, help with social integration and engagement, and possibly even some basic daily hygiene reminders. You're going to need to check in frequently yourself to make sure nothing is being neglected, either in person or with someone you trust who can be your eyes and ears on campus.

This is just a cursory list. You'll find more extensive advice on this subject in Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger's.

Connect with other moms in the Autism group in our Community.

next: Biggest Loser Finale: And the Winner Is...
186 comments so far | Post a comment now
Kristen May 13, 2009, 6:53 AM

Thank you so much for the FANTASTIC article. I would love to see this in book form or website form with the lists already provided and added suggestions. This was a great start though.
We have a daughter who has high functioning autism and although we are years away from college it’s great to read about this stuff It gives me hope.

James Zack May 13, 2009, 1:27 PM

My work has something that might also be helpful called “Pathway”, a two year certificate program for students with developmental disabilities. The intructors are all very engaging and the kids in the program all seem very engaged and involved in the program (they take some classes just down the hall from me). Anyhow, here’s the link to the program if you wanted more information.

EquiisAutisticSavant May 13, 2009, 4:25 PM

A fairly good article, obviously by a neurotypical, however, that misses and miseducates on some very significant points about people with autism. I feel I am qualified to speak since I was one of the earliest intensive intervention children whose mother obtained a special education teaching credential in the 1960s to beat back Bettleheim’s accusations against “Refrigerator Mothers,” gave me very intensive autism interventions, and this led to my earning three college degrees including a Juris Doctorate law degree.

First, neurotypicals need to stop giving the wrong advice about making telephone appointments and navigating systems via telephone — many people with autism such as myself have hearing impairments of a hyperacusia oversensitivity to noise levels exceeding 10-15 decibels and cannot generally use telephones effectively.

In addition, most people with autism do not use paper print as their mode of effectively communicating, since many PET scans reveal not only the hearing but also the reading, speech, and written language centers of the brain in autism are hypoperfused, meaning most peopel with autism only communicate effectively by electornic formats on computer and the Internet.

Finally, neurotpyicals need to stop suggesting people with autism working memory impairments and social cognition deficits continue to be forced to take the standardized neurotypical-design of A-B-C-D multiple choice and memory-based closed-book essay tests by holding out the carrot of accommodations on the discrimonatory test design — people with autism require open-book performance and computerized Internet hyperlink-style clinical tests to eliminate the unlawil discrimination prohibited by the Americans With Disabilities Act of continuing to use the wrong test designs to test autism impaired deficits instead of education, skills, and abilities to perform the exact “essential functions” of the job for which the test is being used.

If the test is to qualify a person to become a lawyer, it must measure only the actual work tasks a lawyer does, not a particular preferred neurotypical brain wiring style of brain wiring thinkin; if it is to qualify a person to be a doctor, it likewise must measure the actual work tasks a doctor does, not a preferred neurotypical cognitive style of brain wiring congition.

Anyone who has researched some of the case successes of Disability Rights Advocates, an Americans With Disabilities Act enforcemen law firm advocating on behalf of test takers, would know the above advice misses the mark — several standardized exams such as the Alaska High School Exit Exam and medical licensing exams generally, have been required to reform to eliminate discrimination of only offering accommomdations on a standardized exam, rather than changing the exam design itself to an alternative assessment method such as a performance test.

When I passed my bar exam in California as a person with autism, I took an open-book test known as a Performance Test.

Monica May 13, 2009, 4:56 PM

EquiisAutisticSavant, you make some very interesting points. Many of us only want to help our students with Autism be successful; being non-NT, what would you recommend on this same topic?


ame i. May 13, 2009, 5:56 PM

One of my favorite younger cousins is autistic. I hesitate to name the name,but a wonderful university in TN that has the letter U and the words “of TN” in the title has been his “college home” for 2 years.
He is thriving there and has achieved so much more than his advisors in high school thought he would. His univ. advisor goes out of her way to put him into special study groups with a professor who has an autistic child. Unlike elementary & secondary school(funds are limited, I understand that)my cousin isn’t told to do it this way or that he is doing something the wrong way. Each student in his group is allowed and encouraged to work the way they need to and are comfortable with. I have no doubt that he will continue to do a great job and be valuable in his chosen field.
Great post!

Uly May 13, 2009, 7:48 PM

Equiis, as an autistic individual I agree with *some* of what you are saying, but not all of it. It is important to remember that every person is different, and two autistic people may need entirely different types of accommodations. By mentioning only the ones you need, NTs may get the impression that those are the only ones any autistic needs.

Your point about the phone, for example, is incomplete. You forget that many autistics, regardless of hearing impairments, have auditory processing disorders which make talking over the phone especially difficult - even if the hearing is technically better than average. And also, because phone conversations happen in real time they can be very stressful for many autistics who prefer to work with a bit of a space between thought and word.

As far as multiple choice tests go, well, that depends on the individual. I have no problem with them, but I know plenty of other spectrummy people who spend time worrying about how the answers or questions are incomplete.

If you need or want a variety of autistic opinions, you can try asking at (We’re not affiliated with the OTHER ask an aspie group, which appears to be defunct).

Claire May 13, 2009, 8:36 PM

Thanks to everyone who’s written in. Kristen, our book has a whole chapter about colleges—we go into much greater depth on all this and also have a couple of essays written by young adults on the spectrum who are at college right now. You should be able to find a copy at your local library (I hope).

kim May 14, 2009, 3:52 PM

Hi I have a son swho is high functioning autistic and this information was very helpfull,he is only a freshman now but is good to know for future.

SherrieAllison23 May 14, 2010, 12:06 AM

All people deserve good life time and personal loans or just college loan would make it much better. Just because freedom is based on money state.

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I would love to see this in book or on website with the lists already provided and added suggestions. This was a great start though.

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