College Programs For Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Melissa Brock

Published on August 12, 2021

College Programs For Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a complex developmental condition that often involves social interaction challenges. These students may experience problems with communication and restricted or repetitive behaviors. Symptoms and severity can vary widely.

College can present difficulties for students with autism. Learners' limited interpersonal communication skills and courses' complex demands can lead to frustration. Only a few dozen colleges offer programs specifically for students with autism. Many of these programs cost an additional fee on top of tuition.

Students with autism spectrum disorder can use this page to explore college options. This guide covers college transition planning and how to find the right college.

College Options for Students With Autism

Students with ASD can successfully attend colleges and universities. Prospective students and their parents must properly research schools. Look for programs that support students and help them acclimate to campus life. The right school may also need to offer routine check-ins and advisors attuned to learners' particular needs.

Four-Year Colleges

Academically gifted, high-functioning students with ASD may thrive at a four-year college. Large state universities may not offer as much support. Undergraduates may also experience challenges getting one-on-one attention.

However, some students with autism require little (if any) support. They may find success in highly ordered professions such as engineering, computer programming, and mathematics. In general, students with autism can benefit from programs that cater to their specific needs.

Prospective students and their families should ask colleges and universities about additional academic support programs, such as additional advising and student support. They should also speak with the professionals who help with academic tutoring and advising.

Cooperative Education

Cooperative education allows students to obtain professional work experience while still in college. High-functioning ASD students may benefit by applying academic knowledge to real work and social settings. This may enable them to more fully develop their interpersonal and communication skills as they move between these two environments.

Prospective students should determine whether they like this type of unpredictable work and school schedule. Keep in mind that not all colleges offer cooperative education programs.

Community College

Community colleges can help students ease into the college experience. Learners may choose to live at home and take classes in a potentially smaller, one-on-one environment. Some learners may feel more comfortable attending a local school.

Prospective students and their families should ask about support for students with autism. They should also ask whether professors are trained and certified to teach students on the spectrum. Prospective enrollees may also want to ask about ASD-based social organizations or peer mentoring programs.

Vocational, Trade, and Technical Schools

ASD students who aspire to work in a trade may want to choose a vocational or technical school. Enrollees can learn specific vocational skills from trained professionals. This may help them gain employment that aligns with their skills. Students may also learn how to regulate emotions and build social and communication skills.

Parents and students should identify career and life goals to ensure they align with this type of job skills training. Learners should investigate how the school can help with career exploration and transitioning to a job. They may also want to consider how the school can help them manage independent living and career advising.

Online Colleges

Online colleges offer a viable alternative to the traditional college experience for students on the autism spectrum. Students who struggle with excess sensory stimuli or social anxiety may not thrive in a traditional on-campus experience.

Prospective students and their parents may want to consider how an online college can help students transition to a job after college. For example, they may want to ask how they might get job skills training and interview preparation. Students can ask about training for organization, prioritizing, and time management.


College Transition Planning

Federal law requires schools to create a transition plan for every special education student in high school. Transition planning helps determine student strengths and interests. This also helps the student set goals.

Transition planning begins when a student turns 16. However, the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) team or state education agency may recommend transition planning earlier. Transition planning involves parents, students, and possibly vocational rehabilitation counselors. Those involved in transition planning may consider many different angles, depending on the depth of the student's needs.

The transition plan will include college options if the student wants to attend college. Transition planning may also involve setting goals for independent living as an adult.

Colleges are not required to adhere to IEPs or 504 plans. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that provides students with IEPs, does not apply to students once they graduate high school. However, college support service departments may want to see a student's IEP. This can help them coordinate services and address environmental, sensory, and behavioral concerns.

Autism Speaks recommends that students consider the distance from home, transportation needs, school size, and academic programs. The organization also suggests that students and their parents consider the support needed beyond academics. For example, learners may need help with social support, organization, and managing money. They may also need help taking care of their health.

Finding the Right College

Finding the right college depends on multiple factors for those with autism. Students with ASD should consider federal funding, living arrangements, and professional advice. Learners should also consider their needs and whether a particular campus offers the right fit.

List the Pros and Cons
It helps to consider the advantages and disadvantages of various schools. Learners should evaluate each school objectively and choose the right school based on their specific needs.
Look For Schools That Accept Federal Funding
Some schools in the U.S. do not accept grants from the federal government or participate in a federal financial aid or student loan program. This can reduce the amount of aid that students receive, including low-interest student loans and grants that do not require repayment.
Think About Living Arrangements
Students and their parents may want to tour residential areas prior to choosing a college. They can explore the availability of single rooms, accommodations, and sensory considerations.
Get Different Perspectives
Students and their parents can contact families who have sent their child with autism to a particular college. Prospective learners can also talk to therapists or other professionals with experience sending ASD students to college.

Five Expert Tips for College Success

Dr. Crystal I. Lee, licensed psychologist
Dr. Darren Sush, clinical psychologist

Students with autism spectrum disorder can use proven strategies to succeed in college. See these five expert tips for success:

1. Start Learning Executive Functioning Skills While Still in High School

Executive functioning skills include time management, organization, self-starting, and problem-solving. According to Dr. Lee, students with ASD who focus on developing these skills during high school can set themselves up for success in college.

"You need strong executive functioning skills in all aspects of college academic life," says Dr. Lee. "Practice managing your own schedule. Initiate your work and monitor your progress."

2. Understand That the Transition to College Will Be Full Of Ups and Downs

Even with the best-laid plans, setbacks happen. When students with ASD have a plan of action to handle setbacks, they can rebound quicker. Students may want to find a mentor who can help. "When students struggle, reaching out to a trusted person is the most important thing they can do," says Dr. Lee. "They should never feel ashamed. The real shame would be struggling so much that they need to withdraw from college."

3. Ask About Your College's Special Education Services

Pathfinders for Autism is an organization that offers free programs and services to individuals with autism and their loved ones. According to this organization, students fare best when they understand the special education services they can access.

Services 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.

4. Prepare for the Transition to College as Early as Possible

It's never too early to prepare for college. However, while an early start helps, it's also never too late to prepare. College-bound students with autism may need years to master certain skills.

Dr. Sush says, "Some individuals diagnosed with autism require frequent repetition and practice before consistently and accurately performing a task without assistance."

5. Remember That Social Skills Matter

Academics are usually at the forefront of college. However, social relationships are among the most challenging aspects of college life. Making new friends can feel especially daunting to students with ASD. Some peers may say or do hurtful things. As a result, students with autism may close themselves off and avoid social activities.

Dr. Sush recommends that students identify the qualities of a good friend. "Parents, teachers, and students can discuss the importance of making new connections," says Dr. Sush. "They can also discuss strategies for making friends and accessing support."

Internships for Students With Autism

Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks bases its internships on the needs of its individual departments. Students must work in an Autism Speaks main office or field office.

College Internship Program

CIP helps young adults on the autism spectrum find success in college, secure employment, and live independently. Students can choose between CIP's various locations in Massachusetts, Florida, Indiana, and California.

Organization for Autism Research

College and graduate students who want to learn and gain experience in a small, nonprofit environment can pursue an internship at the Organization for Autism Research. While the organization has temporarily suspended internships due to the pandemic, students can check back for upcoming opportunities.

Project SEARCH

This transition-to-work program is a business-led, one-year employment-preparation program that involves total workplace immersion. Students receive classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training. Learners can find a local program.

SAS Autism Spectrum Internship Program

This internship program offers a unique interview process and training program to bridge the gap between academic and on-the-job learning. Interns work full time in software development, software testing, advanced analytics, or a similar role.

Resources for Students With Autism

Students with autism can take advantage of multiple resources, including advocacy networks, societies, and educational foundations. The following resources provide additional guidance.

Autism Society

This organization strives to improve the lives of those affected by autism. The group helps students with autism improve their quality of life and develop their talents and skills.

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

ASAN advances the principles of the disability rights movement. The group believes that autistic people should experience equal access, rights, and opportunities. Students who want to advocate, work to develop autistic cultural activities, and emphasize autism in policy debates may want to get involved.

College Autism Network

This national nonprofit works to improve access, experiences, and outcomes for college students with autism. College students can learn more about college responsiveness on this site.

College Steps

This national nonprofit works to improve access, experiences, and outcomes for college students with autism. College students can learn more about college responsiveness on this site.

The Autism Higher Education Foundation

This organization recognizes a lack of opportunities in music and the arts in colleges for individuals on the autism spectrum. Students can learn about educational and vocational opportunities in the arts.

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