College can be challenging for any student, but especially for first-time students with autism.
Right now, there is a new wave of students with autism who are preparing to enter college. Soon they will have to adjust to a new environment and, possibly, learn how to live independently in the dorms.
More students with autism spectrum disorders are attending college than they have in the past.
According to the CDC, 1 out of 54 school-aged students has autism.
These young people are aging out of school and preparing for post-secondary options, including college, and many professors and campus staff do not know how to support them.
My Experience at College
I have autism, and I went to college, earning both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. I was very fortunate to have a generally good college experience. Almost all of my instructors understood that I was different and that I had special needs.
Most of my professors and the disability services office worked with me to provide the right accommodations. I did not live in a dorm because I was able to drive to college from home.
The only negative experiences I had at college were primarily with other students. I am not good at socializing, but I tried. Sometimes, I found myself getting shunned and frowned-upon. I also discovered that many students did not know what autism was. Some even believed that autistic people were monsters waiting to snap, which is not true at all. In spite of these difficulties, I did make some wonderful friends who did understand me.
ASD students need special accommodations to thrive. One of our challenges is socializing. On-campus, we often have a hard time making friends and getting plugged into college groups.
So, the question is, what can parents and college staff do to support us?
Here are some helpful tips and information that I can share based on my own experience attending college.
Services and Accommodations
The first thing parents need to do is get documentation that their child has ASD. Providing documentation allows students with ASD to register with the college’s disability services office. Registering with disability services provides a way for receiving accommodations.
Families should also familiarize themselves with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates accommodations for people with disabilities in settings such as universities and colleges. Accommodations will vary among ASD students. Some common examples include allowing for more time to get to class, note-takers in the class, and alternative testing locations.
Additional accommodations might include having a special room in the dormitory or having a special place to go during sensory overloads. I would like to see more colleges adopt accommodations like these.
Support from Professors
Professors often don’t know how to support students with autism. Some professors might be scared or intimidated by students with ASD; others may be influenced by stereotypes in the media
The most important thing professors can do is to accept that ASD students are different and that we require special accommodations. This means honoring our accommodations and taking the time to work with us and the disability services office.
Autism is not a behavioral problem.
People with autism are wired differently. For example, some students may ask a question in class, then ask the same question again a few minutes later. Professors may get annoyed with this, but sometimes we need to hear the same thing twice before we get it.
When an ASD person has a meltdown, it is not intentional. Usually, it is a response to something unpleasant, such as lighting or loud sounds in the environment. Having a plan with a professor to leave the room for a calmer space can be very helpful. Compassionate and caring professors can go a long way in making college a pleasant experience.
Living on campus can be problematic for people with autism. Some students with ASD may struggle with sharing a room with a stranger. Dorms can also be very loud.
Resident directors also need to understand that they may have a student with ASD who does not socialize and needs special living accommodations. For example, we may need to have a single dorm room without a roommate to avoid constant dysregulation.
Lighting in a dorm room may need to be changed, too, such as the removal of CFL bulbs. CFL bulbs flicker and can cause headaches for some of us on the spectrum.