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Helping teens with autism spectrum disorder prepare for college

College does not have to be out of reach for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Thanks to early intervention services, more and more children diagnosed with ASD are growing into motivated young adults, preparing to attend college and becoming independent in every aspect of their lives.

However, college can be a difficult experience for anyone, especially for someone with ASD. Characteristics associated with ASD that make college particularly challenging include difficulty with social skills, language disabilities and deficits in executive functioning, which affect organization and planning. This article offers advice for parents who are looking to help pave the way for their kids with ASD to attend college.


Do start planning early

It is not uncommon for students with ASD or other disabilities to need more time to learn crucial life skills. And the skills needed to succeed in college are no exception. While it is not always helpful to project too far into the future, it is important to always know what your goals are and to ensure that others are also aware of these goals.

When individuals with ASD, their parents and teachers focus on college as a goal, they can set several small, intermediate goals that will make college more attainable. For example, maintaining academic performance may be more important for students planning to attend college compared to students who have different plans for the future. Other important areas of focus for college-bound students include developing organizational skills, preparing for alternative living arrangements and learning self-advocacy skills.

These issues should be addressed throughout a student’s high school career, and even earlier. Allowing five years to master these skills is probably safe and reasonable for most individuals with ASD who are considering attending college. However, if you only begin considering college as an option towards the end of high school or after completing secondary education, this does not mean you can’t catch up. Be aware that you may need to give yourself a little extra time to get the basics down before attending college. In this case, seeking out a more supportive college program may be necessary. Or consider starting slowly by taking only one or two classes until you feel caught up and ready for more.

Do take advantage of technology

College means becoming independent and competent in many areas. With today’s rapid advancements in technology, the support that many individuals with ASD rely on others for can become more automated and allow for greater independence. For example, students can make use of smartphone alerts to stay on schedule. Email is a great way to keep in contact with others and can be less socially demanding than phone calls. And with instructor permission, college students with ASD can record lectures and listen to them at a later time with less distraction. Keep in mind that the best time to learn how to use technology for these purposes is in advance of beginning college, and not when you need to use them in your first semester.

Do focus on strengths

Spend some time leading up to college reflecting on your child’s strengths. For people with disabilities, it is common to focus on deficits, so you probably already know what your child needs to do better. Now is the time to think about strengths and seek out college opportunities that will allow your child to take advantage of these strengths. For example, a student with ASD who is a strong reader and writer may find an online college program to be a perfect fit, while another student with ASD who is artistically inclined may do best in a program that includes a great deal of hands-on creative opportunities.

Do find your motivation

Similar to identifying strengths, it is important to identify what your child wants to be learning about and what engages him or her. It is fine to aim for fields of study that will lead to solid and lucrative careers, but ensure this is also something your child likes doing and thinking about. Remember that they are making decisions they will be living with for a long time. Spend some time leading up to college helping them explore what makes them happy. Figure out how they can fit these interests into their studies, and ultimately, into their career path.

Do seek a supportive program

There are many great opportunities for individuals with ASD who want to attend college, but who may want or need some additional support. Explore different college programs to find the one that suits your child best, in terms of needs, as well as strengths and interests.


Do not concentrate only on academics

One of the biggest mistakes made by a parent or teacher of a student with ASD is to assume that the primary area of focus for college preparation should be academics. While it is important to be academically ready for college, all of the book learning in the world won’t overcome certain social, emotional and behavioral limitations. Learning to be flexible, cope with change, make personal decisions and to be appropriately assertive are crucial for success and safety in college.

Do not avoid overwhelming choices

Every decision does not need to be made at once and most choices can be changed if necessary. While students should think ahead about where they want to go to college, what they want to study and what career they want to pursue, do not become overwhelmed or stop working at it if they are not finding clear answers to these questions. The more they actively engage with these ideas, the more likely they will find the right situation.

Do not maintain reliance on outside support

It can be easy to let others do things for you, or to think that you can’t do certain things for yourself. On a daily basis, the parents of a student with ASD who hopes to attend college should identify any skill areas that are weak and work on these areas. Some of the obvious skill areas will be getting the right food to eat at the right times, doing laundry, traveling independently and making direct contact with others as needed. Also consider the importance of being able to make a doctor’s appointment, asking for help as needed, and maintaining a personal calendar, to-do list and schedule.

Do not be discouraged

It may feel like there is a lot that needs to be accomplished to get ready for college, but that does not mean that it can’t be done. Take the long view. If your child needs an extra year or more to be prepared to succeed in college, it may be well worth their time now to ultimately achieve this goal. When it seems like there is too much to do, make a list and start checking accomplishments off as you meet them.

Do not withhold information or be afraid to speak up

When students with ASD get to the point of applying for and starting college, it is a good idea to be as open as possible with the college staff who can provide support. Letting them know what your child needs and how they learn best will only help them to help your child--and that is all anyone wants. Colleges that support students with ASD are usually very willing to work with students to give them what they need. However, that job can be difficult if students are not clear and open about their needs.

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Planning for college is an exciting time. While it can be stressful for any student, it is particularly challenging for students with disabilities. There are many things that can be done well in advance of pursuing a college education to increase a student’s chances of having a successful, meaningful and fulfilling experience--during college and beyond.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

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Dana Reinecke, PhD, BCBA-DDepartment Chair and Assistant Professor

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D). She is an Assistant Professor and the Department Chair for the Center for Applied Behavior Analysis (CABA) at The Sage Colleges. Dana teaches and develops coursework ...

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