Like their peers, many autistic students attend college. Of the 50,000 teens on the spectrum graduating from high school annually in the United States, at least a third of them pursue higher education (Shattuck, et al., 2012; Wei, et al., 2015). However, their graduation and subsequent employment rates are substantially lower than those of neurotypical students (Newman, et al., 2011). Therefore, attaining college readiness and arranging any needed support services can be critical to earning a degree.
Students who excel in challenging high school courses are likely to be capable of handling the rigor of college-level academics, but they aren’t always ready to live away from their families and manage their time independently. That is to say, they may be college-capable but not college-ready. It’s crucial for students to develop their:
- Self-awareness (of how they learn, manage conflict, and more).
- Self-advocacy (ability to request help from faculty, counselors, and advisors).
- Self-management (of their time, money, emotional reactions, etc.).
There are several ways they can enhance their skills and readiness before going to college through, for example, executive function coaching, summer college-readiness programs, or taking a gap year program prior to college.
Levels of Support in College
In addition, when it comes to selecting colleges, autistic students should consider the level of support available. As described below, all colleges provide some basic services and accommodations, but only a small fraction offer robust, comprehensive support programs.
- The standard level available at any college consists of reasonable accommodation for documented disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students generally access these accommodations by reaching out to the student disability services office (sometimes called the accessibility office), working with office staff to develop a list of approved accommodations, and then providing this list to instructors as needed. Note that in college, unlike high school, it is usually the student’s responsibility to speak with each instructor to arrange for their accommodations to be implemented.
Other commonly available services in college include free peer tutoring, mental health counseling, career counseling, academic advising, and a writing and/or math center.
- A number of colleges also provide academic coaching for students who could use help with planning, organization, and time management. Sometimes there is an additional cost for this service. For students whose main challenge is executive functioning, this level of support may be sufficient.
- A few colleges have multi-component, comprehensive learning support programs, often for an additional fee. Learning support programs may be available to any student with any diagnosed learning difference (including dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia).
- Autism support programs, however, are typically designed for students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Autism support programs tend to include many of the same benefits of learning support programs—such as academic coaching, study skills workshops, and priority course registration—plus some type of social support (sometimes via peer mentors), social events, and/or social skills programming. Outcome research on these programs is limited (Nachman, 2020), but there are some promising early results (Hillier, et al., 2017; Rowe, Charles & Dubose, 2020). Top College Consultants provides an extensive list of college autism support programs.
Disclosing Autism in College
To access services, of course, students first need to disclose their autism. However, the vast majority of students with learning differences who receive special education services in high school do not register with disability services in college and so are unable to access special accommodations or services at all (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2017). Disclosure is a key step so that students can proceed to obtain accommodations or services (Endlich, 2022).
There are thousands of colleges for students to choose from, and an increasing number of them offer specialized support for neurodivergent students. Of course, not all students on the autism spectrum require support programs—but for those who do, finding the right university or program can mean the difference between dropping out of college or graduating and moving on to a fulfilling career.
Eric Endlich, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and founder of Top College Consultants®, helps autistic students worldwide transition to college. Dr. Endlich serves on the Learning Differences/ Neurodiversity and Diversity/Equity/Inclusion Committees of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), and was honored by IECA with the “Making a Difference” award for his extensive list of autism-friendly colleges. He co-wrote Older Autistic Adults, In Their Own Words (AAPC Publishing), based on a global survey of 150 participants, and helped found the Neurodiverse Couples Institute for the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE). He is also an autism parent and autistic adult.