1. Home
  2. »
  3. College Resource Center
  4. »
  5. Going to College with Asperger’s & Autism

Going to College with Asperger’s & Autism

Resources to Prepare Parents & Students with ASD

Transitioning to college can be stressful for any young adult, but those with Asperger’s syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often face additional challenges during this time. There are people and programs in place to help, though. This guide offers information, expert advice and resources to help make the transition to college smooth and successful for students with ASD and their families.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Darren Sush Clinical Psychologist and Behavior Analyst
Dr. Crystal I. Lee Psychologist

High School vs. College for Students with ASD

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, describes a group of developmental disorders that affect a person’s cognition, communication and behaviors. Symptoms vary widely, from very mild to severe. Asperger’s syndrome, once considered a separate disorder, is now categorized as part of the autism spectrum.

As children, students with ASD often rely on their parents or caregivers for support and encouragement in elementary, middle and high school. Public and private schools at the primary and secondary levels also have specific programs and resources to help students with various learning disabilities. At the college level, however, these resources may not be as prevalent or easy to access. College also brings an entirely new set of circumstances – new people, new expectations and a new structure. Without adequate preparation and a plan of action, students with ASD may become overwhelmed and flounder in this new environment.

Although every student has individual needs, there are some common challenges for students with ASD. Here are the major ones to consider when transitioning from high school to college:

In elementary through high school, students with ASD may qualify for an Individual Education Program (IEP), guaranteeing they receive the specialized services they need to be successful students. In college, the responsibility shifts from the schools and teachers to the students themselves. Students with ASD are responsible for staying on track and advocating for themselves when assistance is needed. (Because most college students have reached the age of 18, parents are no longer legally allowed to intervene on their children’s behalf.)

In high school, students are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In college, however, IDEA no longer applies, but students with ASD are still protected under Section 504 and the ADA.

Because they sometimes have challenges with communication and behavior, students with ASD can struggle to navigate the college social scene, leading to loneliness, anxiety and added stress. Students who are away from home for the first time also have less opportunity to turn to their families for help.

College generally comes with higher expectations and less structure than high school – a combination that can be especially tough for students who have ASD and who may already struggle to plan their schedules and effectively manage their time.

College Options for Students with ASD

Students with ASD face unique challenges in college, and the first step in tackling them is choosing the right school itself, experts say. According to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization that sponsors autism research and helps promote public awareness, there are three types of education models for college students with ASD. However, it’s up to institutions themselves to offer any of these models to their students:

In terms of institutions themselves, here are some options for students with ASD:

More and more four-year colleges provide support services for students with disabilities, which makes these schools a viable option. A four-year college can be a particularly good option for those with milder symptoms and who can thrive in an environment that is less regimented than high school.

What to keep in mind

Four-year colleges aren’t ideal for every student with autism. Many schools require students to live on-campus, which may be difficult for those who rely on others to maintain a schedule, or who need more intensive help in other areas. Four-year colleges and universities can also come with a host of unfamiliar social situations that are difficult for students with severe ASD symptoms to navigate.

Cooperative education allows students to alternate between taking college courses and working in their field of interest. Since cooperative education requires self-advocacy and motivation to get to school and work, this option may work best for high-functioning students with ASD. Cooperative education students also have the opportunity to start developing workplace skills in tandem with their academic work, giving them a boost when it comes time to entering the job market.

What to keep in mind

Students on the spectrum who need routine and a predictable schedule may struggle to balance the organizational demands of both work and school. Also, this type of education isn’t as widespread so may not be available at certain colleges.

Many community colleges have departments or resources aimed at assisting students with various development disabilities, and a 2013 study funded in part by Autism Speaks showed this option produces higher graduation rates for students with ASD, and can be ideal for helping them transition into the working world. Community colleges also offer more flexibility, allowing students to ease into college gradually, with the option to transfer to a four-year university later. Another big plus is that students can continue to live at home and receive support and encouragement from parents or guardians.

What to keep in mind

Two-year colleges typically offer fewer majors than a four-year university, so some areas of interest may not be offered. Also, although community college can be an excellent stepping stone for some, higher-functioning students may not find the level of academic rigor or immersion they want.

These schools teach students job skills that translate directly into the workforce, and their emphasis on hands-on training can be particularly useful to students on the spectrum who benefit from active learning. Technical courses may offer an emotional or creative outlet in addition to educational value, and can be well-suited to students who like to focus on a few selected interests.

What to keep in mind

Technical schools are more limited and narrow in their course offerings and overall fields of study, so some students with ASD may not be able to find a field that keeps them interested and engaged.

Students with ASD who get overwhelmed in classroom or social settings may benefit from an online program. By learning in a more private environment, they may find it easier to stay focused on their work, and can avoid the stress of unfamiliar social situations.

What to keep in mind

The remote nature of online college can be a double-edged sword. While it offers some protections, students who crave social interaction can end up feeling isolated.

Teaching Your Child to be a Self-Advocate

Dr. Crystal I. Lee, a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles who works regularly with students on the autism spectrum, notes the importance of self-advocacy for students with ASD: “Self-advocacy is the ability to understand your needs and to effectively communicate them to others,” she explains. “Without this skill, students with ASD may not get the accommodations they need to be successful.” Like anything else, though, it must be learned. Here are some expert tips on helping children with ASD become effective self-advocates:

  • Start early

    Becoming a self-advocate takes practice and it doesn’t happen overnight so it’s never too early to start. “Examples of self-advocacy can range from selecting college courses that are of particular interest to the student, to independently identifying a lack of available food options within the school’s cafeteria and bringing their concern to an appropriate school staff member,” says Dr. Darren Sush, a clinical psychologist with expertise in autism. Confronting issues head-on regularly – and making mistakes – is all part of the process.

  • Let your child take the reins

    As a parent, it’s easy to want to protect and help your child at all times, but Dr. Lee points out that teaching your child to be a self-advocate early on is a much better approach. “Children with ASD need practice self-advocating,” says Lee. “If a parent takes over the advocacy efforts, they’re depriving their child a chance to practice, and inadvertently communicating that they don’t believe their child is capable of self-advocating.”

  • Practice self-advocacy in a variety of situations

    An obvious place for self-advocacy is in the classroom, but it also extends to the simple tasks of daily life, like when to get out of bed and when to study. If a student with ASD can get a handle on making small, everyday choices, they’re more likely to feel comfortable and confident in making bigger decisions.

  • Look Forward

    Thinking about the future is another component of self-advocacy because it helps individuals with ASD see how their choices can impact their lives. If you’re a parent of a child with ASD, ask your child where they want to be in one, five or even ten years – and get them thinking about how their decisions will help them get there.

Transition Planning

Transition planning for college is the process of identifying what resources and support systems will likely be needed – before they’re needed – in a higher education setting, and then making sure they’re in place. Ideally, the plan should include concrete steps and structures – from course selection to living arrangements – but not be so rigid that changes can’t be made.

According to Dr. Lee, a good transition plan is a team effort. “I would strongly encourage families to work with a transition team to honestly look at the individual’s strengths and areas of growth,” advises Dr. Lee. Because students with ASD typically have had their parents and other professionals involved in their lives, each of these individuals can bring a valuable perspective in creating a transition plan.

“This team should discuss the individual’s strengths and areas of growth, how those strengths and areas of growth may affect the individual’s success in college, and what specific support needs to be put in place to address the struggles the individual might have,” says Lee.

It’s important not to wait until the last minute. Transition planning should start two to three years before the student graduates from high school, and it’s advisable for the student’s IEP to include a component that addresses the transition to college. This will likely involve a series of assessments and meetings, usually involving the student, parents, teachers, counselors and other relevant professionals. It’s understandable for students and their parents or guardians to feel overwhelmed as everyone weighs in, but remember that nothing is set in stone – it’s simply a way to get the ideas flowing.

Finding the Right College

The key to helping anyone with ASD succeed in college is choosing the right school. Dr. Sush advises exploring the available options, taking into consideration the size of the student population, the look and feel of the campus and classroom structure. “[Choices] about academic interests, student life and extracurricular activities will all depend on the personal interests of the individual student,” says Dr. Sush.

Here are some tips that can help students with ASD and their parents or guardians find the ideal college experience:

List the pros and cons

This old-school approach can force you to think through the benefits and potential drawbacks of each prospective college. Writing down your thoughts is an excellent way to clarify the options and aids in the comparison process so you can thoughtfully narrow down your choices.

Look for schools that accept federal funding

Section 504 and the ADA are civil rights laws that protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination at work or in school. All schools that accept federal funding must conform to these laws, which means they cannot deny appropriate services or support to students with ASD.

Take home life into account

“The proximity to home and family, and available living arrangements may also play an important role in decision-making,” says Dr. Sush. Some students may do better living at home, especially during the initial transition, while others may be ready for a step toward independent living. Whichever decision is made, allow for flexibility. If the student lives on campus, for example, make sure there’s an adequate support system in place, such as being able to come home periodically. If the student stays home, build independence into their daily routine to encourage a more autonomous lifestyle.

Get professional advice

According to Autism Speaks, high school guidance counselors are among the best resources when it comes to finding alternative learning opportunities for students with ASD. They often have years of experience working with students with various challenges, including ASD and Asperger’s, and may be able to offer specific insight into a student’s learning habits or personality. Working with a full transition team can also be beneficial since third party professionals are often better at understanding things that parents and students with ASD have trouble seeing objectively. For example, the student might have their heart set on going to a large public school, but the team recognizes that the individual thrives in smaller classroom settings.

5 Expert Tips for College Success

No matter what type of school a student with ASD chooses, there are plenty of proven strategies to help yield the best results. Here are five expert tips for success:

According to Dr. Lee, students with ASD who focus on developing executive functioning skills (e.g., time management, organization, self-starting and problem-solving) during high school may be better equipped to tackle the college experience. “Strong executive functioning skills are needed in all aspects of college academic life so start practicing managing your own schedule, being in charge of initiating your work, and monitoring your progress,” recommends Dr. Lee.

Even with the best-laid plans, setbacks are a normal part of life. Students with ASD are no exception, but those who have a plan of action to deal with them are more likely to rebound quickly. But that doesn’t mean going it alone – when necessary, seek out a mentor who can help. “The most important thing the student can do when struggle happens is to reach out to his or her team or another trusted person. Don’t feel ashamed.” says Dr. Lee. “The real shame would be if that student continued to struggle on his or her own and ended up needing to withdraw from college.”

Pathfinders for Autism, an organization that offers free programs and services to individuals with autism and their loved ones, notes that students fare best when they have a clear understanding of what special education services are available. Examples could include a dedicated special education department, peer groups for autistic students or staff trained to work with autistic students. Attendance may be mandatory for some programs. Others may offer services on an as-needed basis. Fees also vary – some schools charge for special services while others do not.

It’s never too early to prepare for the college transition. Dr. Sush says, “Some individuals diagnosed with autism require frequent repetition and practice before consistently and accurately performing a task without assistance.” College-bound students with autism may need years to master certain skills, and it’s more effective to allow students to learn at their own pace. However, while an early start is always good, it’s also never too late to prepare.

When it comes to college, academics are usually at the forefront, but Dr. Sush notes that developing new social relationships is one of the most important yet challenging aspects of college life. It can be difficult for anyone to make new friends, but it can feel especially daunting to students with ASD to establish genuine, quality friendships.

Some peers may say or do hurtful things. It’s not always on purpose, but the result is still that students with autism may close themselves off and avoid social activities.

Prior to college, students can practice identifying the qualities that make someone a good friend, suggests Dr. Sush. “Parents, teachers and students can discuss the importance of making new connections, as well as strategies for making friends and accessing support.”

Internships for Students with Autism

Resources

  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network

    Learn why self-advocacy is so important for college students with ASD. This site offers resources created specifically for ASD students and their families, as well as information about basic civil and educational rights for students with autism.

  • Autism Society

    With a goal of “improving the lives of all affected by autism,” the society’s website serves as a resource for those seeking autism facts and statistics, current research, advocacy information, and events.

  • Autism Speaks

    Autism Speaks is the premier resource for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families. Learn more about the condition itself while connecting with resources at the state and local levels.

  • College Autism Network

    The College Autism Network is a nonprofit aimed at improving educational outcomes among students with ASD. Learn about self-advocacy, new research on ASD, and CAN-sponsored training events in your area.

  • College Autism Spectrum

    This website provides college-level support and training for students, parents, and professionals within the autism spectrum community. Find up-to-date resources that can help you transition into college while learning about the newest tools and advocacy groups in your area.

  • College Express

    This website offers a comprehensive list of institutions with specific programs geared to students with Asperger’s syndrome. Learn about schools and programs in your area, along with their offerings and how to apply.

  • National Autism Center

    The National Autism Center connects individuals with autism and their families to new research and resources that might benefit them. Check out the website to find information on new autism studies and autism-related legal news.

  • Navigating College

    This multi-author blog, a project of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, serves as a resource for autistic students preparing for college. Read about the challenges others have faced, and learn coping strategies that can ease the transition into college.

  • The Autism Higher Education Foundation

    This nonprofit aims to improve educational outcomes and protect the civil rights of students with ASD. Learn about art, music and vocational programs created specifically for students on the autism spectrum.