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.
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.
- 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.
|Claire LaZebnik is the co-author, with Dr. Lynn Koegel, of Overcoming Autism: Finding the Answers, Strategies, and Hope That Can Transform a Child's Life and Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger's. She lives in Pacific Palisades with her husband and four kids.|