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Preparing teens with special needs and learning issues for college

High-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, who attend college, do not struggle with the academic demands of post-secondary education, particularly if the subject matter is in an area of interest. Rather, their main source of difficulty lies within navigating the independent living and social aspects of going away to college. Parents often ask, “When should I begin transition planning for my son or daughter?” The answer is that parents need to start transition planning for higher functioning students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) at age six.

Living away from home and attending college requires a highly complex set of behaviors, known as independent living skills. These are made up of smaller building blocks of behavior that can be learned over time. For example, doing one’s laundry at college for the first time can be overwhelming, even for a neurotypical student. A six-year-old child can first learn to put dirty clothing in a laundry hamper. Later, the child can help sort the laundry into light and dark colors, as well as learn why one separates laundry. Next, kids can assist doing the laundry by adding laundry soap and fabric softener, all under a parent’s supervision. They also can help transfer wet laundry into the dryer and learn what types of materials should not be put into a dryer.

As children age and become more sophisticated, they can learn the various settings on the machines and when to use them. Learning to fold and hang clothing helps with organizational skills, as well as fine motor skills. By the time kids are in later middle school or early high school, being responsible for their own laundry is great practice for college. Parents will be tempted to do the laundry themselves because it is more expedient, but teaching the skill sequentially will pay off in the long run.

Parents must “work backwards, but look forward.” In other words, they need to envision the independent living skills that their sons or daughters need to be successful at college--and work backwards from there. The key is breaking down highly complex behaviors into simple, building block steps.


Do start early

It is never too early to start working on independent living skills. Have your children help with chores around the house, such as cleaning their rooms. One of the most common roommate conflicts in college is when one roommate is neat and tidy, and the other is messy. Instill good habits early. Another predictor of success is whether or not students can set their own alarm clock or smart phone and get themselves up in the morning without mom or dad nagging. Remember that you won’t be there to make sure they get to class on time in college.

Do learn the laws and your child’s rights when it comes to his/her disability

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a child will have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which will outline the goals, services and accommodations the child will receive, as well as who is responsible for the provision of those plans. Make sure independent living and executive functioning goals are a part of the IEPs throughout your child’s education. Know when the IEP should contain transition goals and plans. Also, know what a good transition plan looks like.

Under IDEA, education is a right. However, as the child ages, the laws change as well. Once a child graduates from high school or reaches the age of 21 years old, the IDEA is no longer in effect. If a child decides to go to college, a Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) program or a Vocational Training Center, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 takes precedence. Under this Act, education is no longer a right. It is a privilege. A student must be “otherwise qualified” to attend the institution. In other words, they must have the requisite academic, executive functioning and social skills needed to enroll in the school.

The ADA is designed so that the students are not discriminated against and are not denied the benefits of attending an institution solely based upon their disability. Students will be given reasonable accommodations to “level the playing field.” A final law parents should be aware of is the Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974. Under FERPA, parents are entitled to the student’s educational information and record until the child reaches 18 years of age, at which time, parents become a “third party entity.” FERPA is designed to prevent educational institutions from disclosing student information to third party entities. What this means to parents is that once a child goes to college, the colleges are very reluctant to share information about the student with parents, apart from the tuition bill.

Do encourage your child to engage in activities that foster independence and separation

This will make the transition to college easier and will help deal with homesickness. Begin with sleep overs at relatives’ or friends’ houses. As they get older, sleepaway camps help immensely. As they reach older teen years and the novelty of camp begins to wane, consider travel camps or international travel training programs. Some colleges offer summer bridge programs for high school students where they have the opportunity to live on campus and take some classes for credit. This can aid greatly in the transition to post-secondary life.

Do consider alternatives to attending a 4-year college

Not everyone is meant to go to college. There are millions of people in this world who have wonderfully fulfilling lives without a 4-year college degree. Community colleges offer 2-year associate degrees that are more career oriented and are generally more directly linked to a particular job. Community colleges also offer vocational certificates that are shorter in duration and are applied knowledge-based, rather than theoretical in their approach.

Many students on the autism spectrum cannot handle the social aspects of living in a residence hall. It is too overwhelming for them, and they may not be ready for these social demands. Community colleges can offer the educational benefits while the student lives at home. Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) programs are a relatively new phenomenon. These programs were created to help students with intellectual disabilities transition either into the world of work or into a college degree program. This can be a great alternative for a student not yet ready for college.

Do search the Internet for college/vocational programs supportive of students with disabilities

Visit, which is a clearinghouse for postsecondary education that specializes in students with special needs. The Heath Center at George Washington University is another excellent resource for programs for students with a wide range of learning differences. Additionally, The Federal Student Aid web site houses a listing of all of the U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) programs in the country. Currently, there are 26 colleges with approved CTPs. To find this list, visit and type “intellectual-disabilities” into the web site search engine for the most up-to-date listing of approved CTPs.


Do not succumb to expediency

While it might be easier to clean your children’s rooms, do their laundry or cook all their meals, don’t. Be sure to invest the time in teaching them these skills and more importantly, these habits, while they are young. It will make them independent confident young adults.

Do not use euphemisms when speaking to your child about the nature of his/her disability

Tell your kids the exact name of their educational label or medical diagnosis, as is developmentally appropriate. This is important because the labels mean access to services. Once they reach college, they must be able to articulate to the coordinator at the disability services office the nature of their disability and what types of reasonable accommodations they might need in the classroom. Mom and dad will not be able to do this for them when they go away to school. An excellent way for your child to practice is to have your son or daughter attend his or her IEP meetings while in high school.

Do not allow kids to believe they don’t need accommodations in college

Many students reject their special education label and experience. They don’t want anyone to know about their disability. But only they can self-identify with the office of disability services and open a case. Unfortunately, only about half of college students with disabilities who qualify for reasonable accommodations actually choose to self-identify. Consequently, many become overwhelmed during midterm or final exams during their first semester, which creates a crisis that causes many students with disabilities to drop out of college.

Do not force students to attend college

Forcing kids to attend college invariably leads to disaster, leaving everyone frustrated. Consider a vocational training program instead of a 4-year college degree program. Don’t overlook a local community college for either a 2-year associate degree or a vocational certificate program. Community colleges also are a great value for the money.

Do not procrastinate

It is a bad idea to procrastinate seeking out programs for students with ASD or other learning differences because this search may take longer than looking for a college for a neurotypical student. Search for these programs together as a family. Visit the programs as a potential family vacation. Include your son or daughter in every decision along the way.

Jumping cartoon

Transitioning a high-functioning child with ASD or other neurologically-based learning disabilities is a long process that does not occur overnight. Working on independent living skills pays off in the long run. The earlier that parents start, the easier it is for students to develop excellent habits that will help them succeed in post-secondary education. The transition from high school is an exciting time for families full of hope and promise. By starting the process early, parents can maximize their children’s success while at college or vocational training.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: © Jaren Wicklund -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Ernst O. VanBergeijk, Ph.D., M.S.W.Associate Dean & Executive Director

Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director, at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition an...

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