Academic settings can be turbulent environments for autistic learners, especially in collegiate settings. For many, it’s their first time living away from home and being solely responsible for many small but important things, like eating in the cafeteria, using a calendar, getting from one place to the next, and setting and maintaining deadlines. There’s a lot to learn. Before you know it, graduation comes around, and graduates must figure out what comes next. Will they look for a job, go into a graduate program, or see the world?
Whether you’re a student or are in a position to support autistic students, these components aren’t as intimidating as they seem. I graduated from Cornell University, which boasts more than 15,000 students moving about campus during the academic year. If you’re autistic and going to college, or work with someone who is, I offer these recommendations based on my experience.
Stability and structure unlock independence.
My freshman year at Cornell was a lot like anyone else’s. I had a lot of questions and not enough time to answer them all before new ones appeared. I quickly learned that I wasn’t alone in these struggles. The freshmen around me were all brand new, all studying similar things, and all with similar schedules. As it was for many first-year students in my class, orchestrating a schedule that balanced academics with clubs and personal tasks was challenging.
If you are off to college this fall, consider doing the following things that helped me:
- I met consistently with staff in Student Disability Services (SDS) to tackle my spider web of priorities.
- The more people I found in my major, the easier it became to get routines going. If a test or project was coming up, most of my peers were likely studying for the same thing.
- I networked with other students with similar interests and hobbies as me through Cornell’s SDS. These mixers and get-togethers made it easy for me to make new friends, including people within my major.
If you are on the staff of a college disabilities services office, consider having staff available to aid students with finding stability, as it is paramount to their success. By being present for people who need aid organizing their calendar, and providing opportunities for them to socialize and meet, disability services and transition programs can unlock independence and peace of mind for autistic students. These things were significant to me in my first few months at Cornell.
Engage in your special interests to discover friends during and after college.
After getting my schedule in order, I spoke with SDS staff about learning what kinds of clubs were out there. Cornell is notorious for having numerous clubs and organizations. I expressed my passions and dislikes, hoping to find a group with enough overlap. Fortunately for me, Science Olympiad at Cornell was among the groups listed at Cornell’s annual Clubfest (an expo featuring many student organizations and groups). My SDS advisor suggested I check them out. Because of how busy Cornell was, I might not have known that Clubfest was happening until it was too late.
I volunteered for the club’s first-ever tournament during my freshman year and stayed involved until I graduated. To this day, I still keep in touch with many alumni and play Dungeons and Dragons with some of them.
Science Olympiad at Cornell was a fun organization to be a part of since there were so many things going on that all required different skill sets. I got to wear different hats as webmaster, volunteer director, and advisor. Learning how to act in different roles with different responsibilities was great preparation for the workplace. Multiple people will look to you to accomplish tasks of varying shapes and sizes. You must be comfortable arranging your objectives to tackle what’s most important first while not ignoring other priorities.
If you are off to college this fall, consider finding hobbies and interests that enable you to be your authentic self. In college and after, you need to find ways to keep yourself busy. Clubs and social groups enable you to immerse yourself in your special interests. They can also introduce you to new hobbies that you’ve never heard of. They can help you get comfortable with taking on a variety of responsibilities and prioritizing them in order to get them done, along with your academic work.
If you are on the staff of a college disabilities services office, consider matching students to their interests and make recommendations for campus groups and activities. If these details aren’t immediately available, empowering students to find them (or connecting them with academic staff who do) is a great start.
Practice, practice, practice!!!
Interviews, while I was at Cornell, were super nerve-wracking for me. There’s so much social etiquette and decorum that goes into a job interview, and very rarely does it get discussed. SDS and the student-run club, Cornell Union for Disability Awareness, ran mock interviews for different job settings, including internships, full-time roles, and research opportunities. I found these mock interviews to be essential in my preparations to go on real interviews with potential employers. Other clubs at Cornell also hosted program-specific interviews (technical interviews, portfolio reviews, design challenges, etc.) that helped me take my interview game to the next level.
Safe spaces that permitted me to be genuine were crucial to my ability to ace interviews later. I felt so well prepared because of both practice interviews and real interviews throughout my time in college. It was important to me that I behave authentically, but still identify areas of improvement that would be necessary for interviews and the workplace.
If you are on the staff of a college disabilities services office, consider:
- How best to prepare students and soon-to-be graduates with experience. The more frequently students can emulate preparing for and being the “interviewee” in interviews, juggling duties, or meeting new people, the more comfortable they’ll be in those environments after college. The more opportunities that students have to experiment and try something new, the more comfortable they’ll feel when it happens for real.
- Setting up opportunities for students to practice different kinds of interviews, such those that may involve hard skills (software engineering), or a portfolio review (art/design/media), or a case study (business/finance/product management.) For autistic students, finding student organizations or academic staff who can help prepare for these specific interviews plays a critical role in practicing the right things for the right job.
Autistic college students, and their support staff, can unlock success as students and as graduates by being in tune with what’s going on at their college. Whether it’s something as large as Clubfest or more intimate like a movie night for neurodiverse students, knowing what’s going on (or recognizing what events need to be organized) can make all the difference.
Shea Belsky is a graduate of Cornell University, where he studied information science and minored in education. He also received a Master of Professional Studies in information science from Cornell University. He is the chief technology officer at Mentra, a neurodivergent-friendly talent platform that intelligently matches neurodiverse job seekers with employers who value their strengths. His focus on neurodiversity comes from his own experiences as an autistic self-advocate. His work focuses on improving digital accessibility through software engineering and equity and inclusion in the workplace.