Advice for the Transition to College
July 31, 2023
By: Sherri Alms
When Ryan Neale went to UCLA, his dream school, he struggled in the first months of his freshman year, hiding his autism and trying to blend in, as he wrote in an essay for Business Insider. In those first months of his freshman year, he “exchanged sleep and self-care for going out and partying — mostly because I felt like I should. It wasn’t even that fun because I had to spend half of my energy reading everyone’s nonverbal cues at 2 in the morning.” He didn’t use the accommodations he qualified for, afraid that special treatment meant he was a failure.
After a few weeks, Neale got mono and returned home. When he came back to school, he was ready to put into place the support and accommodations he needed to succeed.
While circumstance will vary for every autistic first-year college student, many are likely to identify with Neale’s experience. It’s hard to figure out how to handle this transition from living at home to the independence of college life.
Self-advocacy is critical. Connor McClure, a young autistic adult who has a blog called My Autism Mind, noted that the most important skills to successfully transition to college life are “to advocate for what you need, develop independent living skills, like being organized and taking care of daily tasks, familiarize yourself with the college environment ahead of time, and learn to navigate academic challenges, like asking for assistance when you need it.”
Dr. Stephen Shore, a member of OAR’s board of directors and an autistic professor of special education at Adelphi University, offered his advice to college students in an article on the Autism Speaks website, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from professors, other students, a learning center or a disabilities office…The more effort you put into your studies, the more you will gain…Try to be adaptable and engage with how the instructor is teaching by ‘converting’ concepts into your preferred learning style. For example, you can use lecture notes or recordings to create visual cues or graphics.”
In a handout from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Transition Innovations, a student said she disclosed her accommodations early in the semester and advocated for her needs. Her professors were willing to work with her, she reported. The handout explained the importance of self-advocacy, explaining that it is a student’s responsibility to discuss their accommodations with their professors. Talking to them early allows them the time to understand the learning supports a student needs and how they can best incorporate them into class. If a student waits too long, it may affect their academic performance.
McClure advised incoming freshmen to find and use all of the supports offered, such as disability resource centers, peer mentor programs and support groups, and counseling and psychological services.
For some students like Cat Rogers, who graduated this past May with a master’s degree in education from Rowan University, finding a college with a program that supports neurodivergent students was a key to his college success. In an article on the New Jersey Monitor website, he said that he credits his success to Rowan’s PATH Program, designed to help neurodivergent students stay on track, keep up with their classes, and experience all that college has to offer, including friendships. Josh Garfinkel attends Rutgers, which he chose because it had a support program. In the Monitor article, he explained that transitioning from high school to college can be hard. “The counselors in [the College Support Program] keep me focused and on top of it all.”
Amy Gravino, who works as a relationship coach for the College Support Program at Rutger’s and has written for OAR and presented on webinars, was diagnosed with autism at age 11 and wishes she had had the support of an autism support program when she was in college. Now, she helps students in the College Support Program with relationships and being comfortable in social situations as well as being a responsible adult. In this program, she said in the Monitor article, students “learn to advocate for themselves, to be themselves, and to form friendships.”
In the Autism Speaks article, Emme Goldhardt, who graduated from Colorado State University Pueblo, emphasized the need to take care of yourself if you are struggling, noting that self-care may include “dropping a class, asking for more support, taking fewer classes or even taking a semester off. Talk to people you trust to help you figure out what’s going on and what you can do about it.”
Neale also emphasized the importance of self-care in successfully managing his college life, writing in his essay that his mission was to take better care of himself. He made a good night’s sleep a priority and went out less, he said. Making health a priority allowed him to engage “with the world more authentically — and more autistically.”
McClure encouraged students to find what works for them to embrace this new phase of life and let their uniqueness shine.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.