Transitioning to college is an exciting but stressful time for students and families. It is an adventure in self-advocacy, independent living, and balancing social life with the rigor of academics. The suggestions below offer ways you and your college-bound student can make this new adventure a successful one.
When choosing a college, plan a visit if possible and ask questions. Here are some good ones:
- What supports does this school provide generally and specifically for individuals with disabilities? All campuses should have an Americans with Disabilities Act office that provides accommodations. Some universities have specific programs for autism that offer varying levels of support.
- What sensory issues does the campus present? There could be nearby train tracks, lights from stadiums, too many people, etc. I really encourage families to do a campus tour while classes are in session so students can see the flow of campus life during the day and in the evenings after class.
- What types of safety services does the school provide? Ask specifically about late night campus activities and people entering the dorms.
- Are there enough food options to satisfy the student’s needs and dietary restrictions?
- What opportunities come with the major you are considering? Try to speak to someone in the department of your intended major to get a better feel for what is offered.
- What programs and activities does the college have to help get students engaged in campus life?
- What types of counseling services are available on campus? How often can a student see a counselor?
Skills Needed Inside the Classroom
- Your young adult needs to be prepared to discuss their autism and any related academic needs they have as a result with their professors. This should be done during each professor’s office hours. Professors are often unaware of a student’s needs unless the student discloses this information. I encourage students to build a relationship at the beginning of the semester rather than waiting until something goes wrong.
- Your young adult will need a system to keep assignments organized and completed on time. College professors typically don’t remind students about homework, which is sometimes required to be submitted online. Before the semester begins, encourage your young adult to read over each syllabus and highlight important information. They should understand what is expected of them for each class, what materials are needed, and what assignments are due. Advise your young adult to keep a physical planner and not just record items on their phone/laptop. Technology does fail sometimes.
- It’s important to be able to take good notes. Many colleges offer the accommodation of a note taker, but it is imperative that the student also take notes. This will help them stay on track and more engaged in the course material.
- A student needs to understand that they should not dominate classroom discussions. Sometimes students are so passionate about certain subjects, they constantly share information in class. This can create a frustrating atmosphere for the professor and other students. Suggest to your young adult that, if they have multiple questions or comments, they should write them down and speak to the professor during office hours.
- It’s important that a student be able to remain seated and focused during class. Work with your young adult when they are selecting classes so that they think about how long they are able to remain focused. If possible, they should select class times that meet those needs.
Skills Needed Outside the Classroom
- Make sure your young adult has the ability to wake up independently and get ready on time, using multiple alarms if necessary.
- If your young adult doesn’t know how, teach them to do laundry, including sheets and towels, and make sure they understand how often they should do it. Learning how to use the machines at a laundromat will accustom them to what they will likely be using at college.
- Your young adult should know how to independently take and order their medicine before they run out.
- Make sure your young adult can manage a debit/credit card, which includes knowing their pin number and how to balance their card.
- They should understand the need and know how to keep their dorm room clean. It is their bedroom, living room, and dining room. If they don’t keep it clean, others won’t want to spend time with them and their clothes will smell.
- Your young adult needs to be able to balance work and leisure. This is important for all students. If your young adult practices work-life balance before entering college, they will be far ahead of their peers. There are so many activities that they can become involved with, but they must make time for academics.
- Your student should be able to manage a sleep schedule. They should be aware of when they need to go to bed and not get sucked into video games, internet, etc. Getting stuck in a cycle of staying up late then sleeping through classes will negatively affect their academic performance. It is also imperative to practice sleeping with noise or adapt by using earplugs and sleeping masks. With many students living in them, dorms are not necessarily quiet places.
I hope that you and your soon-to-be college student find these suggestions valuable. With preparation and support, your young adult is set to have many exciting and rewarding adventures.
Sarah McMaine-Render, MAE, is the assistant director for the Kelly Autism Program at Western Kentucky University (WKU). She has worked with students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder who are part of KAP’s Circle of Support programming for 13 years. She has presented about autism spectrum disorder at both the state and national levels. She holds two degrees from WKU, a Bachelor of Science in exceptional education and a Master of Arts in interdisciplinary early childhood education.