Advocating for College Students on the Spectrum

To be independent, autistic individuals must develop adult living skills, like managing a bank account, doing laundry, and maintaining an orderly living space. While attending college, they must also learn specific job skills, meet new academic demands, all while managing their emotions and developing a healthy new routine. Parents can help their autistic children learn how to cope with the different social, emotional, and academic situations they will encounter in college.

Lynne Soraya, author of the “Asperger’s Diary” for Psychology Today spoke of her struggles adjusting to college in an article for the Child Mind Institute. “Life skills like learning how to effectively manage sensory inputs so that you can safely cross a street are still applicable for those of us deemed ‘high functioning,’” Soraya explained. When she was in college, Soraya was hit by a car. On the day Soraya was hit, she had gotten into an argument that emotionally overwhelmed her, creating tunnel vision that, when accompanied by the outside noise and crowds, blinded her from the car until it was too late. Soraya’s story illustrates the real physical dangers autistic individuals can potentially face on a daily basis.

Tips for Helping Autistic Students Survive and Thrive in College

The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) acknowledges the need for support during the transition to college in an eBook Navigating College, which offers advice from several current and former college students on the spectrum. ASAN recommends a variety of ways people on the spectrum can prepare for the various demands of their new lives before launch time. The ability to self-advocate will help your child continue to thrive. Some recommendations from ASAN are:

  • Request a single dorm room–A single dorm room relieves an autistic student from dealing with the complex social negotiations required between people living in close quarters. Lydia Brown wrote about this issue in Navigating College. Lydia said sharing a dorm is a social situation not discussed in most social skills classes. Lydia explained that these situations:

…are more complex and intricate than determining whether a relationship with another person is friendly or trustworthy, or potentially harmful or disadvantageous. You are forced to interact with this person on many levels, and for the Autistic person, that can be overwhelming, daunting, and exceedingly difficult, especially if the roommate happens to be a neurotypical. (2013, p. 60)

  • Teach a respect for social boundaries–Your child will be entering into a new social realm without constant adult supervision. Remind your child of appropriate social behaviors (both how to respect the boundaries of others and how to protect our own). Teach your child about how to identify sexual harassment and establish safe social behaviors (Sinclair, 2013).
  • Help your child practice self-advocacy–There is a lot you can do to help set your child up for college success, but you can’t control everything. Parents can teach their children to advocate for their special needs and not quietly suffer. Having a documented diagnosis will help autistic students acquire specific services, but also help them with the obstacles they might encounter on a daily basis. For example, parents can have their children practice what they might say to a peer or professor about their disabilities and their particular learning needs (Davis, 2013).
  • Help your child establish a daily organization plan–Assist your child in creating visual calendars to help maintain organization. If waking up to an alarm is an issue, then encourage your child to have multiple alarms set each night. You can also help your child establish a study schedule during free time and use timers to signal when to switch subjects if necessary. Some students find it helpful to switch study locations after a certain period of time to help them transition their focus. Encourage your child to find a place to study that doesn’t trigger any sensory sensitivity. You can assist with some of this planning before school begins, but it will be impossible to know every issue until your child begins executing a daily schedule. You can also encourage your child to maintain a healthy, organized schedule the same way Alex Eveleth does in his essay “Campus Living” from Navigating College. He tells individuals on the spectrum, “Remember that maintenance of the essentials will help you keep going on academics–you won’t be as effective in the library if you’re missing sleep, meals, or showers” (2013, p. 63).
  • Encourage relationships with professors–Most students already know that establishing a relationship with a teacher can go a long way in determining their academic success. The same is true for college. Students may approach their teachers or professors with questions they have regarding content covered in class, additional help they might need preparing for a long-term assignment, or to share interesting news related to their coursework. In addition, special needs students may need to communicate any academic difficulties related to their disabilities. This is important so professors know how to alter their teaching to benefit more students (Davis, 2013).
  • Encourage them to join a club or activity–Colleges are likely to have many more activities and organizations than were available in high school. This is a great opportunity for autistic students to find a social niche within their interest area. Participating in too many activities early on may overwhelm your child, but one club, organization, or extracurricular activity could be a way to have fun, relax, and meet new people (Davis, 2013).
  • Know your child’s rights–After high school, students are no longer covered by the mandates of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires a free and appropriate education be made available to all students regardless of disability, and supports the formation of IEPs. But the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 still offer protections for college students from discrimination based on disability (Sinclair, 2013). Colleges and universities must provide reasonable academic accommodations and modifications for disabled students in order to make the education system more equitable. Obtaining an accommodations letter from the college will help professors learn how to modify their class instruction to meet their students’ needs. Most schools have disability support staff that will draft these accommodations letters for you (Sinclair, 2013). Jim Sinclair’s introduction to the eBook Navigating College offers many additional legal tools for setting a solid foundation for academic success (2013, pp. 7-28).

Resources for Advocating for College Students on the Spectrum

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  1. Reply

    Self-advocacy skills are so important for students with disabilities, and sometimes for those on the spectrum this can be difficult. I was so glad to see that mentioned here. With the rise of available online college courses and programs, some students find that working on their degree from their own home very comfortable.

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