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Autism and the Transition to College

Students with learning differences face additional challenges in the college search and readiness process. Here's how they can ensure a smooth transition.

Making the transition to college is a big step for most students. For individuals on the autism spectrum, it can be even more daunting since college campuses and many traditions weren’t designed with these particular students in mind. The challenges for autistic students vary from person to person. Let’s discuss the common challenges they face, skills they can develop to overcome these challenges, and how to go about the college search and admission process as a student on the spectrum.

Challenges for students on the spectrum

Here are four of the most common challenges that students on the autism spectrum face on a regular basis:

  • Sensory sensitivity: Students who are hypersensitive to bright lights, loud sounds, or other stimuli can be overwhelmed by situations such as freshman orientations, large lecture classes, or crowded dining halls. These factors can be important to consider when creating a college list (e.g., some students may do better in schools with smaller class sizes).
  • Executive function: Skills such as time management and organization are critical in college, but many students don’t receive instruction or coaching in these areas during high school. Autistic students often focus on details and have difficulty with the “big-picture” approach needed to plan out long-term assignments or deal with the reduced amount of structure in college.
  • Restricted interests: Students may have an intense interest in a specialized subject, which can be an asset in graduate school where the focus is narrow, but less so as an undergraduate where there may be courses required in a broader array of areas that they may find less appealing.
  • Communicating/socializing: In college, there are numerous social situations to navigate, including living with a roommate, attending events, and working on group projects for classes. If students tend to hyper-focus and talk at great length on a specific topic, it can impact their social interactions. In addition, understanding or “reading” social cues and nonverbal signals (e.g., boredom during a conversation) is often difficult for those on the spectrum. 

On the other hand, autistic students often have advantages in areas such as attention to detail, visual thinking, integrity, ability to establish a routine, creative perspectives, memory of facts, and perseverance—valuable skills they’ll benefit greatly from in college.

Related: How to Start the College Search for Students With Disabilities

College readiness skills

Regardless of how academically capable high school students may be, it’s critical to assess whether they’re ready for college. To thrive in college, they’ll need to master a wide range of skills in several areas, including the following:

  • Time management: Being able to keep track of assignments, show up on time to class, and meet deadlines
  • Mental health: Knowing what conditions they’re vulnerable to (e.g., anxiety, depression, addictive behaviors, eating disorders) and having strategies or resources to manage them
  • Independent living: Getting enough sleep, doing laundry, getting along with roommates, and maintaining personal hygiene

Students who struggle with these skills can work on them while still in high school, attend a college readiness program during a gap year, or seek out colleges that offer autism support programs.

Seeking accommodations in college

High school is the best time to consider whether students will need special accommodations or supports in college. If a student is currently on an education plan such as an IEP or 504, students and families should discuss with school staff what the student’s needs are likely to be in college. Students and families should keep in mind that high school accommodations don’t transfer automatically to college. Here are the key steps in seeking accommodations in college:

  • Confirm that the students’ college(s) of interest can make the needed accommodations.  A school’s student disability or accessibility center should be able to provide this information.
  • Collect any documentation the college may require. In some cases, this means a neuropsychological evaluation that’s been completed within the past three years.
  • Students should be prepared to self-advocate for accommodations with the accessibility services office and faculty, potentially needing to speak with each course instructor separately to arrange classroom accommodations.
  • Consider what additional accommodations in college might be beneficial, such as a single room in the residence hall. 

Related: List: Colleges Where Students With Learning Differences Succeed

Levels of support available in college

Here are some different levels of support that students may have based on their needs:

  •  Basic accommodations may include extra time on tests or a reduced-distraction setting for testing. Such accommodations are generally available at all colleges in the US.
  • Learning or academic support programs typically involve regular meetings with professional academic coaches and often entail an additional cost of several thousand dollars a year. Students whose main challenge is executive function (e.g., time management and organizational skills) may benefit greatly from these programs.
  • Autism support programs are dedicated, comprehensive programs designed to serve the needs of students on the spectrum. In addition to the academic coaching provided in learning support programs, autism programs also tend to include a social support component such as social skills workshops. They may also include services in other areas such as independent living skills and career planning. An increasing number of colleges are offering these programs for their students.
  • A college for students with learning differences would be the best option for an autistic student who needs the utmost specialized education. There are currently two colleges in the US exclusively designed for neurodivergent students, such as those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other learning differences. These colleges are dedicated to meeting the needs of these students and are extremely welcoming and inclusive. They’re also small, which allows for personalized attention, but be aware that it does limit the number of available majors, clubs, and activities.
  • What if no special accommodations or supports are needed? Students without extra support needs can choose from a wide array of colleges and still access the resources offered to all students on campus.

Sizing up disability services

The college search and selection process is an excellent opportunity to explore available support services for students. When touring colleges—whether in person or virtually—families should make an appointment to speak with someone in the disability or accessibility services office. Here are some questions to ask:

  • How many staff members do you have, and what are their qualifications?
  • What documentation do you require for obtaining accommodations?
  • What are some of the accommodations available to students on the spectrum?
  • Is a single room in the residence hall a possible accommodation?
  • What is the procedure for informing faculty of a student’s accommodations in the classroom?
  • What additional supports and services does the college offer, such as academic skills coaching or workshops? (Note: These are sometimes provided through a separate office such as an academic or learning support center.)
  • How many autistic students do you serve?

Related: Understanding Learning Differences and What Services Colleges Offer

Disclosing your diagnosis

Students sometimes ask, “Is it a good idea to disclose my diagnosis to a college—and if so, should I do so when applying or after I’m accepted?” Disclosing your diagnosis to the disability office during your college search shouldn’t impact your chances of admission, which is handled by a separate department. (However, a small number of learning support programs require that you indicate whether you intend to apply to the specific program on your college application.) If you haven’t connected with the disability office prior to admission, you should do so once you’ve committed to a college so you can begin arranging for any accommodations or supports you might need.

Sometimes students may want to stop receiving accommodations and services after high school or “wait and see” if they need them. This approach isn’t advised, since it will be hard to arrange support services in a hurry if it turns out you do need them. It’s better to have everything in place just in case. There’s no harm in having accommodations available that you may not end up using.

Related: Should I Disclose My Learning Disability on College Apps?

While students on the autism spectrum face unique challenges, they also bring strengths that can boost their academic performance. By carefully considering the areas of readiness, accommodations, and supports needed while still in high school, students can ensure a smoother transition and a more successful adjustment to college life.

For more college search and readiness advice, check out our College Admission section.

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