Preparing Your Young Adult for the Transition to Postsecondary Education | Organization for Autism Research

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This blog post has been adapted from “Chapter 5: Postsecondary Education” of OAR’s resource “A Guide for Transition to Adulthood”.

Although times are still uncertain, many students are making the decision this month to start college next year. Whether classes will be held online, delayed for a later start date, or resume as usual on college campuses around the country, many young adults with autism will be faced with the unique challenges and opportunities that come with the transition to college. The more you can prepare your young adult for the college environment and experience, the more effective their transition will be. With preparation and transition planning, the process can be customized for your young adult, increasing their potential for success.

Preparing for Postsecondary Education―Where to Go and What to Study

If postsecondary education is a goal for your young adult, help them identify their academic strengths during transition planning to better determine a match between their interests and a school. Begin exploring as early as possible. Help your young adult look into potential summer courses at a community college or explore technical or trade schools in your area. Meet and network with current students and attend any available informational meetings at local colleges. You may want to work with a guidance counselor during this process; it is also a good idea to visit particular schools and meet with admissions counselors there, as they will be able to provide you and your young adult with more detailed information about their specific school and the supports and opportunities available. Additionally, orientation programs at schools or online resources provide a lot of detailed information to help determine the most appropriate choice for your young adult.

Deciding on a college is an important milestone for many teens, and finding the right match for your young adult with ASD will be key to their success. There are many types of programs are available that may accommodate your young adult’s academic interests and career goals as well as their specific needs:

  • Vocational school, community college, technical institute, state school, or a smaller liberal arts school may all be good options, depending on your young adult’s area of interest.
  • Certificate programs may provide training in an area of interest.
  • Starting out at a 2-year college appeals to some individuals with ASD because they can live at home yet begin the postsecondary process. At the end of these 2 years, they may want to transfer to a 4-year college, which may require some degree of transition planning to identify and address the potential challenges and stressors associated with the new educational environment.

Consider all the options, set your requirements, and then narrow the field of candidates. You can use the checklist in Appendix H for evaluating colleges as you begin your search.

Self-Advocacy: A Key Skill in the College Environment

Once you and your young adult have determined a specific program or university, it is important to determine what services they may offer to help your young adult with ASD. Most, if not all, colleges and universities have a department that specializes in ensuring compliance with both ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Find out what types of disability-related resources they offer their students, and the process to access these accommodations. By becoming familiar with the system and the services provided, your young adult will be more adequately prepared to advocate for themself, increasing the chances for success.

Once your young adult is accepted into college, the role of advocate needs to fall less on you and far more, if not fully, on them. In fact, self-advocacy skills are considered so critical to your young adult’s success in college that many such institutions do not even have a mechanism by which you, as the parent, may advocate on their behalf. As such, it is of critical importance that you prepare your young adult with self-advocacy skills to help them communicate their needs to the appropriate person in the appropriate manner. You can begin the process of promoting effective self-advocacy by reviewing the types and intensities of services and supports that were useful in high school and explaining how they might be beneficial in college.

Aside from knowing what supports your young adult needs, they must now effectively communicate these needs. Certain skills or, more accurately, skill sets are critical to the process:

  • Knowing how and when to disclose
    In order to have access to certain supports in college, your young adult may need or want to explain their autism to officials at the college, professors, and classmates. Whether and how your young adult discloses this information is up to them. They will need to learn both how and when to disclose, in addition to how much information they need to disclose, in what format, and to what end. Disclosure is a much more complex and personal process than simply saying, “I have autism spectrum disorder.”
    Even young adults with more complex learning or behavioral challenges can effectively and appropriately disclose by (as one example) using preprinted information cards that they may hand out.
  • Understanding their rights
    Discuss with your young adult what rights and protections are afforded to them under IDEA, ADA, and Section 504. Work with them to better define what, in their particular case, may constitute a “reasonable accommodation” in the college classroom.
    Discuss the rights of others in their classes, dorms, and related social activities. How might your young adult best be able to balance out these agendas, especially when they conflict? Learning to be a self-advocate requires practice. Role-plays, social scripts, and video modeling may be useful here.
  • Asking questions
    The social world of college is sometimes confusing, even for your young adult’s neurotypical peers. A good advocacy strategy, therefore, is to ask a trusted person if you do not understand why something is happening or has happened. Finding out as much as possible about “new” situations (e.g., attending a first concert) by asking questions beforehand can effectively reduce later problems.
Setting Up—and Using—Support Services

It is important to keep in mind that the protections once offered by the IEP and transition plan will no longer be available as an entitlement in a postsecondary setting. Universities do not have a responsibility to identify students with disabilities or determine what supports are needed. This responsibility falls on you and, primarily, your young adult. However, the ADA and Section 504 protect your young adult from discrimination based on their disability, and they can request accommodations to help them in the college setting to fully participate in classes and other activities. (Note: While some colleges or universities may allow the student to complete a form designating a parent as an advocate for their child, this is not the norm and, in some cases, may not even be appropriate.)

Here are some suggestions for getting the support your young adult needs from their college:

  • Provide the college (professors, counselors, resident assistants, etc.) with information about ASD and how it affects your young adult specifically, including challenges they face and strategies that can be used to assist them. Developing a one-page “fact sheet” about ASD and your young adult may be helpful.
  • Locate an understanding guidance counselor or student services staff member who can advocate for your young adult throughout their college career. This support may come by providing information about services on campus, introductions to groups on campus with shared interests, recommendations of professors who may be more willing to provide accommodations, and others.
  • Suggest that your young adult use the same strategies from high school for help in college, such as written schedules, visual aids, tape recording lectures, and other accommodations.
  • Be sure your young adult discusses the possible options for taking exams with their professor and/or disability services office at the start of the semester. Exams may be modified based on your young adult’s particular needs, specifically, by making them untimed or with an extended time.
  • Investigate organizations on campus with which your young adult may have a shared interest (a theater club, for example). This may be a place where they can meet a core group of friends to help them thrive socially as well as academically.

Further education—whether college or technical school—will open up a whole new realm of possibilities for your young adult’s future. While it will be tough for you to let them go—probably tougher than for the parent of a neurotypical child—it will be important for you to avoid being a hovering parent and to let your young adult have some freedom to explore their new environment.

If postsecondary education is a realistic goal for your young adult with ASD, preparation and planning can make this process go smoothly and successfully, and will help to relieve some of your worries. OAR’s A Guide for Transition to Adulthood is a comprehensive handbook for parents helping their child prepare for this and other transitions. Available in both English and Spanish, you can order or download a copy today for more information!


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