One might assume that college wouldn’t be on the radar for someone on the autism spectrum. However, I believe that my autism helped me to be successful in college. Without it, I would not have received the social skills therapy that helped me hone my coping skills and enhanced my self-discovery and self-advocacy. By high school graduation, I embraced my core identity and learned to utilize my strengths to overcome challenges. The continued growth that stemmed from my autism allowed me to have a successful transition and fruitful college experience.
My autism also helped me in other ways. My efficient memory helped me absorb facts in subject areas I was passionate about. In addition, by presenting my perspectives on living with autism and how I viewed things, I was unwittingly able to enlighten my fellow education majors in their quests to understand individuals with special needs (including autism). Here are a few pieces of advice based on my experience.
My advice to professors is this: When a student discloses a need for accommodations based on learning differences, acknowledge and respect these adjustments. When it came to tests, I understood the information, but my interpretation of the questions would cause me to go astray in my answer selection process. What helped me thrive was to take the test in a private room where I could validate with a proctor what the question or essay was asking. It should also be noted that students may be affected by the sensory stimulation in your classroom: flickering and/or bright lights, smells, and noises. Students have different ways that they accommodate for these burdens, and communicating with them helps.
My advice to students centers around one common theme: accept help. It is the smartest and bravest thing you can do to maximize your potential. By explaining your needs and working together with professors, tutors, and counselors, you will become a better student and communicator. That said, I believe that people should never use their learning differences as an excuse. The purpose behind sharing your learning differences with your professors and others is not to receive a “get-out-of-jail free pass.” It is to tailor a plan that matches up with how you learn best so that material can be presented in a way that you understand.
I learned this lesson the hard way: when I started high school, I was in denial of my needs. I refused accommodations and assistance because of my desire to be “normal.” But, as one would expect, that did not work out well. Eventually, I accepted that autism was part of my life, and I strived to better understand how it affected my schoolwork and every other aspect of living. Once I accepted tutoring, accommodations, and, most importantly, myself, I could reach a new level of success!
Preparing for and transitioning to all facets of college is stressful, but imperative. For example, I went to community college for a year to become accustomed to the academics, such as taking finals, writing papers, and making time for constant studying. I started with a lighter load and took summer classes to make up for lost time. When I felt ready, I advanced to dorm life at a baccalaureate college. Writing my assignments into a planner alleviated stress and put things in perspective: I really did have time to get it all done. But it was important for me to stick to the plan and never go on autopilot. Finally, I had to learn to recognize when I “hit a wall” and needed a break. I recharged by doing something I enjoyed.
I was surprised to learn how much I would grow in my personal philosophies and insights through college—it wasn’t just about career preparation. I was also surprised to discover that it is possible to achieve a balance of “work and play” when it comes to course work, commitments, and having fun. Not only that, but the “play” was much more gratifying when I was not plagued with unnecessary stress over a delayed or subpar assignment.
I also realized that I did not have to achieve independence independently. Students should stay in contact with their parents, counselors, and support systems; take advantage of their insights and advice. Going off to college doesn’t mean cutting off old ties, especially the ones that keep you grounded. In addition, taking on independence can be divided into various stages, not overwhelmingly all at once. As an example, I had a monthly cash limit at school before I worked my way up to managing my account.
For additional suggestions, download my “Tips to Conquer College.” My book, “Expect a Miracle: A Mother/Son Asperger Journey of Determination and Triumph,” also discusses academic transitioning at every age and stage, including college.
Practice advocating for your needs now so that you are comfortable doing so in college. The results are worth the effort. I encourage you to follow my formula for success and adopt it as your own: Motivation + Hard work + Help = Success!
David Petrovic is a junior high teacher who has autism and Tourette’s. Having conquered many struggles, including being bullied, he aspires to help others understand autism and differences. To that end, he has co-authored “Expect a Miracle: A Mother/Son Asperger Journey of Determination and Triumph.” He has presented to various audiences as a national speaker, a TEDx talk among them. To learn more about him, his book, and his presentations, see his website: https://aspergermiracles.com/