College Planning for Grads with Autism Spectrum Disorders

College Planning for Grads with Autism Spectrum Disorders

"I'm worried about living alone."
"What if there's an emergency?"
"She only excels in her favorite subjects -- how will she possibly succeed?"
"Do you think the other students will know something is wrong?"
"Can my son or daughter successfully attend college despite having Asperger's Syndrome?"

As a current college student with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), these are questions I've asked and have heard. Over the last three years, I have come up with solutions and advice that have helped me manage issues like living alone, time management, social interaction, and securing disability accommodations, as well as creating guidelines for future snags and anticipated events. In this series, starting with the college-planning process, I hope to shed a little more light on what it's like to navigate college and provide some critical planning tools for families and students with ASD.

Is college the right thing to do? It's a pretty loaded question. If a parent has instilled the belief in their child or children that education leads to further opportunities and a lifetime of prosperity, love, and conversation at dinner parties, no parent wants to consider the idea that independent university living may not be the most appropriate option. However, I believe that regardless of the living situation, whether your child is at home, completing an online degree, at a local community college, or at a university, ASD should not deter you from helping your child achieve the degree of his or her choosing.


Photo by Chuck Taylor. (Flickr)

It has been a difficult situation for me, but overall, an incredibly rewarding one. However, there are a few things I would have done differently. These tips are meant to be used in conjunction with your current college plan, as things to consider for the future.

College Planning and Applications

Disability Facilities

When you pick colleges to apply or when you're researching which college to attend, it's important to make sure that you will have a support system you can rely on to ensure that you receive the same opportunities as other students. I achieved this with the help of a combination of mental health professionals, friendly professors and chairs of the department, and my school's disability services.

Services like these can play an immense role in the college you and your child pick, as the school's funding may go hand in hand with the services they are legally required to offer. If you have already decided that a public school is the right decision, your child is legally covered by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Title II serves to "prohibit discrimination on the basis of handicap in all services, programs, and activities provided or made available by local or state governments and their affiliate agencies" which would entitle your child to accommodations deemed reasonable in order for that child to perform a task in a fashion that provides equal learning opportunity for all. For students with ASD, this can be as simple as allowing all assignments to be typed if a student does not like to hand-write their papers, or in some cases, offer a student note-taking service.

In the interest of fostering independence, I used the disability services at my school to get advice on classes and social interactions with professors and students, and received accommodations under the stipulation (my own) that they be asked instead of being automatically placed on my assignments. I did this knowing that in graduate school or a job, these accommodations may not necessarily be available to me, and I wanted to have some control over the situations where I used them rather than relying on them entirely.

These accommodations can really enhance the academic experience and make a student with ASD feel more acclimated and adjusted in a new situation like university living. However, in choosing a school to attend, the difference between private and public post-secondary institutions can mean the difference between receiving or not receiving these accommodations that, in my case, have definitely made classes and assignments easier to handle.

As per Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (as amended in 2008) private post-secondary institutions are required by law to provide accommodations similar to those described in Title II; that is, make reasonable accommodations in their practices and policies that would normally exclude individuals with disabilities.

However, some private institutions are not covered by Title III. Religious institutions are not legally mandated to provide these services; namely, schools directly operated by religious groups. This does not necessarily mean that religiously-affiliated schools (Notre Dame, Catholic University, etc.) are not mandated to provide these services, but some private and religious institutions may not be able to offer the maximized amount of coverage that a public institution is legally required to provide.

Support System

When I left my home for school, I knew that I would be leaving behind all the friends, familiar faces, therapists, kind mothers, and teachers that I'd grown to love and who had supported me and worked with me when I needed them. The college I chose would need to have a similar set of people on whom I could rely in unsteady situations. I called them my off-shore support team, and would rely on them for help with everything from social issues to negotiating accommodation contracts for classes.

Here are some of the people you'll want to have on your side when you leave for school:

A licensed mental health professional (MSW, Ph.D, LCSW) While not everyone has had or will feel that a therapist or psychiatrist is necessary, I found that having an arbitrary, confidential source to talk to during times of stress in college was essential to my functioning. That way, I wouldn't complain to other students and risk alienating myself from my peers.

Disability services contact at school
It's important to have one case manager who can take care of your needs, and finding one who is familiar with ASD will maximize the quality of your college experience. Regardless of whether or not you use the accommodations to their full extent, knowing they are there can enhance a student's confidence and performance.

A trusted faculty, RD, or peer
In my case, I relied mainly on my disability case manager to talk to and feel out issues with, but your child may benefit from talking to a peer or faculty member to whom they can relate on a more personal level.

College Tours

You've picked out a bunch of schools, you've checked out their websites, and now it's time to take a tour. For a family and student with ASD, college tours can be either happy or hellish given the planning and way you approach it. After taking ten tours of ten schools in a week-long period over the summer with my family during which I had three public meltdowns, I was ready to throw in the towel and not go to college at all. This is what you can do to make it easier:

Plan Ahead
Know which schools you're going to tour on any given day and know what your plan of attack is in touring them. There's no need to see schools you know your child won't be interested in attending. Why waste the time cramming five hour-long guided tours in a day when you can spend two hours leisurely walking around a campus?

Know What You Want
Guided tours can be informative for the parents, but for a student with ASD, they may come off as boring, not focused on the areas of interest they have, and could even give a potential student the wrong perspective of the school. My father's alma mater was one of my top schools, but when I toured and was told that intramural sports were mandatory, even if athletics weren't your favorite thing to do, I was immediately soured to the experience, regardless of alternative activities.

Be Flexible
If you know your son is really into physics, but the tour group is heading over to the theatre and music building, break off from the group and ask if you can check out some of the facilities yourself. By isolating the factors that you know will be most intriguing to your child and getting the information you need as a parent, the schools will seem more palatable if you can see it from both points of view.

Don't Try to Do Everything
With virtual tours and professional campus videos, there's no longer a need to fly across the country to see if a college is right for your child. If your child isn't enthused about touring or if touring simply isn't in your schedule or budget, look for videos or high-resolution photos of your chosen campuses and set some time aside to see if it looks like a good fit. Kids with ASD are great at expressing their opinions and judgments. You'll know right off the bat if they like what they're seeing or if they're not enthused.

Budget and Debt

When I first started planning for college, I was drowned in a sea of letters, brochures, and e-mails from distant schools promising fee waivers and insta-scholarships. I would respond with glee to each of them, knowing each was my key to leaving home, vaguely remembering that my parents had mentioned something about a budget and funding for schools. Nevertheless, I applied to schools I thought I could reasonably expect to get accepted to and schools with programs that I thought would fit my lifestyle and interests. At the time, I was very invested in going into curatorial and archival studies.

Every family should have a college budget or rough idea of how they will be financing college. These numbers should be transparent and available to call upon in situations where the tuition information will be fuzzy. Colleges are enticing more and more students to consider taking on debt as a "normal" part of the college process. For a student with ASD, managing debt may seem like a foreign and intangible situation that they may minimize if it seems to get in the way of their goals.

If my parents hadn't insisted I stick to their budget, despite my arguments that the college of my dreams was a mere $15,000 extra a year, I would be finishing up a master's degree in an area I now realize I dislike with an anticipated $200,000 in debt under my belt and a very slim chance of employment in a field where the median annual salary is $42,000.

By creating set rules and sticking to them and by having all the information and costs readily available, you'll reduce stress down the road. A university education used to be a gateway to steady employment and further opportunities and advancements. While it's still preferable to no education at all, over-saturation and debt ensure that this is no longer a guarantee. However, debt is a choice, and a choice that can easily be made before you accept or deny an offer to a college.

College Choices

So you've been accepted to a few schools -- now what? In my next article, I'll go through the process in the six months before attending college, including how to anticipate issues on an emotional front, as well as logistics for how to prepare your child for this exciting time.

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