College provides you an opportunity to study subjects that you are genuinely interested in with like-minded peers. It is an opportunity to become more independent and have freedom in the choices you make on a daily basis. Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have shared their positive experiences in college settings. For example, Stephen Shore described his college experience as a pleasurable experience where he found his peers to be accepting. He shared, “College was an exciting time. I could be myself. There was none of the teasing and ostracizing by fellow classmates that had followed me throughout my school years. Students and staff were friendly and helpful” (Shore, 2001, p. 89-90). Others found they met peers who enjoyed the same interests. For example, one college student shared, “During the first lecture on mathematics that I attended, I sat there my mouth agape. I was surrounded by people just like me, who were eager to learn about the things taught in the class. That was absolutely beautiful.” (Van Hees, Moyson, & Roeyers, 2015).
While college can be an exciting time, it can also be stressful at times. The college setting is less structured than the high school setting. You will have the freedom to decide what classes you take, when and what you eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, when you study, and what social events you want to attend.
While college may present some potentially stressful situations, such as working in small groups or not knowing when to ask questions in class, there are strategies you can use to help work through them. This article will provide tips on how to navigate the social scene in college, both within and outside of the classroom. You may find that not all of the strategies listed below will apply to you. That is okay. Select the strategies that fit your needs.
Register with the College’s Office of Students with Disabilities
It is important that you meet with the Office of Students with Disabilities at your college or university before courses begin. You will only be eligible for classroom accommodations if you register with the Office of Students with Disabilities (VanBergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008). You may qualify for accommodations, such as having class notes prepared in advance or assistance with note-taking. Prince-Hughes (2004) found it helpful to be prepared with course material ahead of class so she could focus on the social aspects of class that were more challenging (Prince-Hughes, 2004). Before you meet with the Office of Students with Disabilities, gather all your documentation from the services you used in high school and make sure your diagnostic evaluation is up to date. Ask your high school special education teacher or counselor for help accessing this information. Having this information prepared to bring to the meeting will be beneficial. Before your meeting, prepare a list of questions to ask. Below are some sample questions:
- Is there a person I can contact when I am feeling anxious about a social or academic situation? (This may be an advisor, student mentor, or a counselor. It has been suggested that having a point person to contact whenever you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed can be helpful; Jekel & Loo, 2002).
- Where can I find a list of social events that take place during the first few weeks of school?
- Where can I find a list of clubs offered at the college? How can I find out when and where the clubs meet?
Contact Your Instructors
It is important that you contact your instructors to share information about your strengths and challenges before the semester begins. Advocating for yourself is one of the most important things you can do to be successful in the college setting. You can choose to meet with your instructors in person or write them an email introducing yourself. When you meet or email the instructor, it is important to share information about ASD if you are comfortable disclosing that information (Fatscher & Naughton, 2012). The Organization for Autism Research has a video you can share with your instructors about the college experience of students with ASD: https://researchautism.org/resources/understanding-asperger-syndrome-a-professors-guide/. This is also an appropriate time to share any concerns you have, the supports you receive through the Office of Student’s with Disabilities, and ask any questions you may have. While it is important to contact your instructor before the start of classes, it may also be helpful to email your instructor before each class to remind them of the accommodations you receive through the Office of Students with Disabilities. Below is an example of an introductory email to a professor.
Engage in Social Activities
College provides many opportunities to meet new people. Joining a club that interests you is a great way to meet people who have something in common with you. Typically there is an event on campus during the first couple weeks of school where all the clubs advertise trying to recruit new members. Walk around the event and find a club that is a good fit for you. Introduce yourself to the student members of the club and ask when and where the club meets.
The first week of the semester also typically includes many informal gatherings in the dorm. Attend some of the gatherings and introduce yourself to people who live in your dorm. The first time you meet someone you may want to ask where they are from and what their major is. These are great ways to get the conversation started.
Another way to connect with classmates and students in your dorm is through social media. College students have found social media to be an easier and worthwhile way to connect with peers (Van Hees et al., 2015). Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are social media avenues in which you can connect with your peers. Remember, the information you share on all three platforms are public, so be mindful of what you post online.
Volunteer or Work a Few Hours a Week
Both volunteering and working are great ways to meet people and practice important social skills. Offering to be a tutor in your area of expertise (Browning & Miron, 2007) is a great way to use your strength to meet new people. It also showcases your special talents to your peers. Volunteering in an area that you are passionate about can provide a great opportunity to meet like-minded individuals. You may consider volunteering at the Humane Society, Habitat for Humanity, or a number of other opportunities provided through your college. Working a job for approximately five hours a week at the library or bookstore is another way to meet people. It is important not to overcommit yourself, though. Look at your weekly schedule and decide how many hours a week is feasible to work/volunteer that will still give you enough time to attend class, study, rest, have down time, and participate in social events. Volunteering or working for just a few hours a week will give you a valuable opportunity to meet people.
College is an exciting time filled with new opportunities and endless possibilities. While it can be exciting, some aspects of college, such as navigating the social scene, can feel stressful. Attending social events, joining a club, connecting with peers on social media, and volunteering or getting a job are all great ways to meet new people and make friends. The college classroom is also a social scene that you will need to navigate. Registering with the Office for Students with Disabilities, emailing or meeting with your instructors to share your strengths, challenges and supports you need to be successful, and creating a weekly/daily schedule will help set you up for social success in the classroom. Being prepared and advocating for yourself and the supports you need are two important strategies that will help you be successful. You worked hard to get into college and you deserve to be there. You are your best advocate.
Barnhill, G. (2016). Supporting students with Asperger syndrome on college campuses: Current practices. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 31(1), 3-15.
Browning, S., & Miron, P. (2007). Counseling students with autism and Asperger’s syndrome: A primer for success as a social being and a student. In J. A. Lippincott & R. B. Lippincott (Eds.), Special populations in college counseling: A handbook for mental health professionals (pp. 273–285). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Fatscher, M., & Naughton, J. (2012). Students with Asperger syndrome. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 28, 40–44.
Gobbo, K., & Shmulsky, S. (2012). Classroom needs of community college students with Asperger’s disorder and autism spectrum disorders. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 36, 40–46.
Jekel, D., & Loo, S. (2002). So you want to go to college: Recommendations, helpful tips, and suggestions for success in college. Watertown, MA: Asperger’s Association of New England.
Prince-Hughes, D. (2004). Songs of the gorilla nation: My journey through autism. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Shore, S. (2001). Beyond the wall: Personal experiences with autism and Asperger syndrom. Shawnee Misson, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing.
VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: College and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1359-70.
Van Hees, V., Moyson, T., & Roeyers, H. (2015). Higher education experiences of students with autism spectrum disorder: Challenges, benefits and support needs. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(6), 1673-1688.
Dr. Melissa Sreckovic is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Michigan – Flint. Her research focuses on evidence-based social interventions for individuals with ASD, best practices for inclusive classroom instruction, and school-based bullying prevention and intervention.