A Guide for College Students Disclosing — or Not Disclosing — Autism
A wide array of services and peer groups can help
On big college campuses, there are hundreds of students with autism — and the colleges don’t know of half of them because the students are staying mum.
“There are all kinds of reasons for that,” says Bradford Cox, founder of the College Autism Network and associate professor of higher education at Florida State University. “Many have been living out this identity that was imposed upon them in the K-12 system, rather than choosing their own identity. Others come to college happy and eager to identify as autistic.”
Is it a good idea to disclose? To make that decision, you first need to understand the vagaries of disclosure. A quick crash course: The admissions office, the disability services department and peer groups are the three main groups to consider telling.
Families often don’t realize that college officials are required by law to keep this information confidential, which means that a student can openly discuss their autism in a college application, and yet arrive on campus to a resident advisor who is unaware, and a disability services department that has never heard of them. Each will know only when the student tells them directly — which is to say that disclosure is a repetitive process.
Thinking through the autism-disclosure decision is important to achieving your best college experience.
Here’s how to decide what to disclose:
Should you tell admissions? Jane Brown has worked in disability services for 40 years and now consults with families through College Autism Spectrum. She suggests that you ask yourself the reason that admissions staff need to know. One common reason to disclose is to explain something that might catch an admission officer’s eye, such as an awkward alumni interview, or low test scores or a sudden switch to a smaller high school. In those cases, disclosing both autism and the underlying issue, such as difficulties with test taking or distraction in populated settings, is helpful in showing that these are not reflective of academic abilities.
Should you tell disability services? “If you need an accommodation, like extra time or note takers or a single dorm room, those are all reasons to disclose to disability services,” Brown says. The big benefit of announcing yourself is that it swings open the doors to specialized support programs the school might run. Most colleges offer useful services and courses that address soft skills like socializing, organization, timeliness, employment skills and day-to-day life management, while connecting students with others like them. It’s OK to not be interested.
“Typically the biggest barrier that we face when working with students is if they don’t want our help — then we’re pretty limited in what we can offer them,” says Megan Davis, program director of the ACTS program at the University of Alabama, which students apply for separately. But be aware that helpful services exist that might not be listed on a college website. For example, Davis will do things like help with housing arrangements, but she can’t do that until a student self-identifies. More than 80 schools have collegiate autism services programs.
Should you tell fellow students? Brown says that the cons to coming clean decrease every year. “There are so many places on campuses where people are autistic and proud. It’s a very different landscape now than it was 10-12 years ago,” she says. An out-and-proud ethos has bloomed in recent years due to organizations like the Autism Self Advocacy Network, which encourages inclusion and controlling one’s life via self-advocacy — which requires telling people.
Do not expect that disclosure will result in the same sorts of academic modifications that appeared in high school. “The laws change drastically from high school to college,” Brown says. “In college, everyone does the same work. There is no special education, no modified grades and no adapted curriculum in college.” Higher education institutions that accept federal funding (which is nearly all of them) offer accommodations to facilitate all students doing the same work. For example, a high school student might be allowed to write half-length essays during tests; in college, that same student might receive extra time to write the same test essays as everyone else.
If you’re still on the fence about telling a college, that’s a red flag. “If you feel really strongly that the college should not know or wouldn’t accept you if they knew, why would you want to attend that school?” she asks. “You want to go somewhere where you’re welcome.” You want to find the best college for you.
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