The Transition to College: Changes in Disability Supports | Organization for Autism Research

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This blog post has been adapted from “Self-Advocacy: Changes in Disability Supports” from OAR’s resource “Finding Your Way: A College Guide for Students on the Spectrum”.

College may still seem far away for many students, even those who are starting this coming fall, but it’s never too early to learn about the opportunities and challenges that arise from this transition. You’ll be encountering a lot of changes as you adjust to your new life as a college student, especially in the realm of disability supports. Let’s think back to high school for a minute. Every high school schedule, every day of class, and every assignment was governed by rules. These rules change once you enter college. While students with disabilities are ensured certain rights and services in high school, universities are not required by law to afford students all of the same services that high schools provide.

The structure and support of high school is replaced by more freedom, but also more schoolwork and responsibilities, so the transition isn’t always easy. The graphic below provides an overview of general differences between legislation, services, and supports in high school compared to those in college. Reviewing these differences can help you prepare for the college academic environment and know what to expect.

The bottom line is that college is a depersonalized setting compared to high school. There is a greater expectation for you to communicate your needs and interests for yourself. Self-advocacy can be defined as a person’s ability to understand, communicate, and negotiate his or her own interests, desires, needs, and rights. In other words, it means having the ability to understand and communicate who you are, knowing what you want and need, and knowing how to get them for yourself. This is a vital skill to develop in order to succeed in college.

As an autistic person, you have the right to make day-to-day decisions that impact your own quality of life, and you will be asked to do this frequently in the college setting. While practicing self-advocacy, it can be helpful to keep your rights in mind. Although you may not be entitled to the same supports as in high school, your rights as a student and their proper enforcement are important to your success. The graphic below outlines some of these rights.

Whether it’s deciding on your schedule, deciding where you’ll be living, or reaching out if you feel you’re falling behind, you’ll need to practice self-advocacy to communicate your needs and make sure that those needs are met. However, you won’t have to go through this process alone. Most colleges have an Office of Disability Services (ODS) to ensure that their campuses are inclusive for all students. Other names for this office might be Disability Support Services (DSS), Resource Office on Disabilities (ROD), Office of Accessibility Services (OAS), or something similar. The ODS helps students identify campus support services and accommodations that they are eligible for based on the documentation and information they provide. The disability coordinators that work there can help ensure that you have equal access to the academic environment by providing accommodations and support. Unlike in high school, academic accommodations are not guaranteed or always available in college. If you are interested in taking advantage of your campus services, this office is the first place you should visit!

Each college varies in its range of supports, so the ODS will inform you of all the available programs, services, and accommodations your school offers. For example, you may be eligible for adjustments such as on-campus housing modifications. Other examples of services that colleges may provide include:

  • Testing accommodations
  • Audio recordings of lectures
  • Note-taking services
  • Seating accommodations
  • Speech-to-text software
  • Accessible testing locations
  • Priority class registration
  • Course substitution

To ensure that everything goes smoothly during your transition to college, it’s important to connect with disability services early. You are responsible for disclosing your disability and requesting the services you need. If you don’t formally register with ODS, you won’t be eligible to receive accommodations. The best time to do this is over the summer, since the office can be very busy helping other students at the beginning of the academic year. It also gives you plenty of time to gather the necessary documents and collect everything you need before the first day of class. If you’re well into the academic year and haven’t visited the ODS yet, don’t worry – it’s not too late to talk to them. However, it is a good idea to register with disability services even if you think you won’t need any accommodations. If you do, you’ll already be known to the office and have everything in place if something comes up and you change your mind.

Although the transition to college can seem intimidating, there are a number of resources out there to help you succeed. A full list of college resources from OAR can be viewed here, and Finding Your Way: A College Guide for Students on the Spectrum can be downloaded here or ordered here.


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