College & Autism: Insight and Resources for Students with ASD

Find resources and programs that offer the support you need to succeed as a college student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

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Janet Ferone

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After more than 30 years as a Boston Public Schools administrator responsible for programs for adolescents with special needs, Janet Ferone, MEd, is president of Ferone Educational Consulting, which provides training, program design and evaluation, and technical support to transform schools into places where all students thrive. She is also Associate Lecturer at Lesley University and Curry College Graduate Schools of Education. Ferone is a frequent speaker on mental health issues at national and international educational conferences.

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Last Updated: 10/06/2021
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The lead-up to college can be a stressful time for any student. With so many changes on the horizon, your anxiety may kick up a notch or two. For some, this pre-college anxiety is manageable but for others, it may be harder to handle. If you have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may be especially impacted by the thought of incoming change and loss of your routine. However, taking the time to create a preparation game plan for your college transition can make a big difference when it comes to your overall success. So, where do you start?

Before enrolling and heading to campus, learning exactly what you’re getting into can help eliminate surprises along the way. Whether it’s getting familiar with some of the common challenges, finding the right college to meet your needs and wants, or getting acquainted with your on-campus resources, it’s never too early to map out your move to college. Learn about the obstacles on the road ahead and get expert advice on thriving as a student with ASD before you take the leap into higher education.

Common Challenges for College Students with Autism

While every student experiences the world differently, many who have ASD face a unique set of challenges when communicating with others, navigating social situations, handling unpredictable schedules, and responding to stimuli in new environments. Here’s a shortlist of some of the most common challenges that can come along with college.

Difficulty reading social situations

Individuals with ASD can have difficulty reading verbal and nonverbal cues and facial expressions in social interactions. They may also be unsure about how to engage friends or strangers, causing them to feel overwhelmed by the new social challenges in college settings. Students with ASD may need the help of a professional, such as an occupational, speech, or behavioral therapist, to practice communication and social skills such as timing, attention, and navigating group conversations.

Changes to routine

Many individuals with ASD prefer predictable routines. College-level learners with ASD may experience disruptions in their routines, especially with less predictable day-to-day schedules, variable classroom settings, and new social situations. Changes in routine for ASD learners can lead to anxiety and depression.

Self-regulation of emotions

Students with ASD may have trouble adapting their behaviors to stressful or challenging situations, finding themselves overreacting or experiencing long-lasting negative emotions. According to the Applied Behavior Center for Autism, students with ASD may also be prone to emotional outbursts, have short tempers, or be less likely to consider the consequences of their responses to stressful scenarios.

Executive function issues

Planning ahead, setting goals, scheduling activities, and staying organized fall under the category of executive functions. For many learners with ASD, these goal-oriented, priority-setting traits can be daunting. Other issues related to executive function include remembering details, multitasking, and time management. Even with assistance from on-campus resources and accommodations services, managing complex schedules can be quite difficult.

Distractions in education settings

Learners with ASD can also have difficulty paying attention in class for long periods of time, especially if they find the topic uninteresting. The challenge becomes even more difficult in large classes or in classes with a distracting physical environment such as large windows, multiple entrances and exits, or flickering lights.

Finding Your College Match

While every student experiences the world differently, many who have ASD face a unique set of challenges when communicating with others, navigating social situations, handling unpredictable schedules, and responding to stimuli in new environments. Here’s a shortlist of some of the most common challenges that can come along with college.

Types of Colleges

Let’s take a closer look at the types of programs that may fit ASD learners the best, from four-year universities and community colleges to trade schools, cooperative education, and online learning.

Four-year universities

Four-year schools often have the staff and resources to offer excellent support for ASD students. Some schools may even offer supportive services beyond those required by federal law. When looking into services at larger schools, however, it’s important to find out how much one-on-one advising or personalized attention ASD learners receive.

Community college

Community colleges offer affordable certificates and two-year programs that ease ASD learners into college life. In many cases, students can find community college options that are close to home, allowing for a more comfortable experience overall. Community colleges may not have the same extensive resources as four-year institutions, though, so it’s best to find out what support services are available for ASD students and if faculty is certified in teaching students with autism.

Trade, technical, and vocational schools

Vocational schools help ASD students learn practical skills and trades from trained professionals. While developing these career-oriented skills, students also work on their communication and social skills. Trade, technical, and vocational schools are often excellent, affordable choices for ASD learners who want to train in a specific area and enter the workforce sooner rather than later.

Cooperative education

Cooperative education programs offer learners hands-on, practical work experience to complement their classroom studies. These programs are increasingly popular and help students with the school-to-work transition. In many cases, cooperative education is more intensive and demanding than a traditional internship. Typically students are paid for this work.

Online college

Many colleges and universities offer degrees online. With their increasing popularity and use of the latest learning technologies, online degrees offer many of the same educational experiences as traditional in-classroom learning. They can be a good choice for ASD students who are more comfortable learning from home. Remote programs usually offer great scheduling flexibility and are good for students who manage a complex life or work schedule outside of school.

College Models for Students with Autism

As you research your options, you’ll discover that there are three main learning models for accessible degrees in the U.S.: hybrid, separate, and inclusive individual support. These models serve to get students with disabilities in the flow of college life while catering to their unique learning needs.

Hybrid

In hybrid learning models, ASD learners take some courses with students with disabilities. These are sometimes referred to as “transition” or “life skills” classes. The remainder of their coursework is academically focused and takes place in standard classrooms with neurotypical peers. While life skills classes help students develop valuable tools for college and work life, ASD learners in traditional classrooms may not receive the necessary attention or specialized instruction to help them thrive.

Separate

In separate models, ASD learners take classes alongside other students with disabilities. Students can benefit greatly from a specially tailored curricula and smaller class sizes. These programs typically incorporate both academic and life skills classes. One downside of this model is that some learners may struggle with their classmates’ attitudes or behaviors, making this a difficult environment for sensitive or easily distracted students.

Inclusive individual support

Individual support models provide learners with individualized services to help them tackle college life and coursework. This support comes from off-campus resources and third-party organizations and relies on the student’s active participation, vision, and decision-making (along with help from their parents or guardians). While these support services can be highly beneficial for many college students, some learners may not be ready to make decisions, define their career goals, or participate in a directed path of study.

What to Look for in a College

While looking into colleges, you can identify a handful of services and characteristics that might better serve you or your child as an ASD learner. From garnering institutional support through accommodations and disability services to finding programs that offer more individualized attention, there are options out there to meet your needs.

Disability services

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, academic institutions must provide accommodations for their enrolled students whether they’re taking classes online or in person.

Many schools also have a dedicated disability services office to provide targeted support for learners with documented disabilities, including ASD. Contact your student support services office or disability services office directly to submit a formal request for accommodations.

Smaller class sizes

Whether you’re looking into smaller schools in general or programs for learners with disabilities that feature smaller class sizes, fewer students in a classroom could mean more individualized attention. Moreover, smaller classes usually mean that you’ll experience fewer distractions from other students and be able to focus more on your schoolwork.

Interest-based clubs

Social engagement through clubs is a great way for any college student to make connections. While some ASD learners may benefit greatly from meeting with their peers in person, others may benefit from meeting virtually. ASD students who are less comfortable with entirely in-person meetings may want to seek out clubs with a hybrid format.

Support networks

All students—neurotypical and learners with disabilities—need support networks. Whether you choose a school near home so you can be closer to family and friends or you pick a college with a supportive community for learners with disabilities, support networks are invaluable for navigating college life.

Student demographics

If you’re a learner with ASD, find out if your prospective school has experience supporting students with autism. Ask if recently or currently enrolled students are on the autism spectrum; if so, there’s a good chance that professionals at the school have the experience and resources to provide the support you need for success. Moreover, if there’s already a population of students with autism at the school, this could serve as a great starting point for making contacts and building a support network.

Creating Your College Transition Plan

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that public schools offer the necessary support and services for students ages 3-21. For high school learners, it’s important to develop a personalized, goal-driven plan so you can better prepare for your future. High school staff including school counselors, school administrators, and school psychologists, to name a few, can help parents, guardians, and students make helpful plans for transitioning to life after high school.

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) plays an essential role in preparing students with autism for life after graduation, whether that’s independent living and a job or pursuing a degree at a college or university. The IEP consists of a goal-oriented plan, formulated by students and their parents or guardians with the help of experienced teachers, administrators, and other professionals, that plays to the students’ strengths.

The IEP includes a timeline for achieving a student’s goals and which teachers and other professionals are involved in helping the student meet those objectives. According to educational consultant Janet Ferone, “IEP teams must consider transition planning no later than age 16—or younger in some states—and make referrals to the appropriate agencies, such as the state vocational rehabilitation office.” Ferone also points out that state vocational rehabilitation offices offer support for college transition, including funding for technology and textbooks and case-management support.

With an increasingly digital and technological world, ASD learners must also include in their IEP a plan for transferring all assistive technologies they use for success in school. Some students need specialized software, hardware, or low-tech adaptations to thrive. The IEP should include detailed information regarding who owns these tools or devices (the school or the student), and how ASD learners will obtain the necessary assistive technologies once they complete high school.

For more information on transition plans, check out the list of resources from WrightsLaw.com. AutismSpeaks.org also offers a great online toolkit for parents and students planning for college.

Getting to Know Disability Accommodations

In educational settings, all students have the same rights. Public and private schools that aren’t affiliated with religious organizations must follow the laws put in place by the ADA. Any school that receives $2,500 or more in federal funding per year must also follow ADA laws. To sum it all up, as a learner with ASD, the ADA prevents schools from denying you admission, excluding you from classes or activities, and persuading you to pursue a particular career or major because of your documented disability.

If you feel that your rights are not being met, contact your academic advisor and your school’s disability services office. You can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice.

Attending College Away from HomeFair Housing Rights

Moving away from home can be a challenging and stressful life change for any student. For learners with ASD, moving to a new location can cause a serious disruption in their routines and familiar surroundings. In the beginning, attending a new school can also negate your usual avenues support. Educational consultant Janet Ferone suggests that students take advantage of telehealth counseling in addition to any on-campus resources to help ease the transition.

There are other steps you can take to feel more comfortable away from home. Ferone stresses the benefits of ASD learners immediately setting a predictable and detailed schedule to help reestablish a sense of normalcy. Secondly, Ferone suggests making multiple visits to campus after you receive your acceptance letter and before classes start to get more familiar with your new surroundings.

Expert Q&A: Graduating from Nursing School Debt-Free

After more than 30 years as a Boston Public Schools administrator responsible for programs for adolescents with special needs, Janet Ferone, MEd, is president of Ferone Educational Consulting, which provides training, program design and evaluation, and technical support to transform schools into places where all students thrive. She is also Associate Lecturer at Lesley University and Curry College Graduate Schools of Education. Ferone is a frequent speaker on mental health issues at national and international educational conferences.

Q: Based on your personal experience or fellow nursing students in the past, what’s one of the best ways to get funding for a nursing program? Where should students look first?

A: Look at your work, especially if you work for a teaching hospital. Some teaching hospitals that have nursing programs have special loan programs where they will pay for your classes if you promise to work as a nurse at their facility for X many years. An example of this would be a Nurse Corps Scholarship Program (Nurse Corps SP), which provides scholarships to nursing students in exchange for a minimum two-year, full-time service commitment (or part-time equivalent), at an eligible health care facility with a critical shortage of nurses.

Q: Aside from trying to get scholarships or grants, what are some methods or tips on reducing the cost of nursing school?

A: Purchasing used textbooks was a must for me; however, I took it one step further and would go to the library and try to borrow the books. If you have a student badge, flash that thing everywhere! You never know who is catering to students, from food to reduced transportation fares to a discount on your car insurance or your next computer.

Q: Applying for nursing scholarships is often competitive. Any tips on how to compile a strong application? Any tips on where or how many scholarships a nursing student should apply for?

A: Apply for as many scholarships as you can. There is something for everyone, but many of them are hit and miss. If you can, get an in-person interview with the nursing school of your choice, but be sure you have perfected your elevator pitch on what makes you unique as a prospective nursing student compared to others who might be applying.

Q: Do you have any experience working with education tax credits or deductions? What about work-study programs? Any tips or advice in this area?

A: IRS Form 8863 should be able to help. This information on Work-Related Education Expenses also might help when it comes to those working and going to school.

Resources & Support for College Students with Autism

Marci Wheeler, MSW, offers a great overview of the communication and social challenges that ASD students face in college today.

This article contains tips for parents or guardians and students with ASD on how to manage their reactions and behaviors.

CeDaR offers a search engine to help you locate information on higher education institutions’ disability services and offerings.

Beth Arky addresses the critical needs of students with autism as they age out of IEPs and attend college.

Founded in 1979, DREDF strives to educate students about their rights under state and federal laws. The organization also offers legal advocacy in disability rights litigation.

This organization helps learners with disabilities prepare for college and careers with online mentoring and academic coaching.

IHECP offers certificate programs, inclusive support services, and college preparation coaching for students of all backgrounds and abilities.

Here you can find a great overview of co-op programs, related financial aid information, and a list of schools that offer hands-on co-op programs.

Karen Burner, PhD, offers advice on helping learners with ASD cope with changes in their environments.

SPARK offers a great overview of tools you can use to find the right college program. The article also includes answers to many FAQs for ASD learners applying to colleges.