Matching Students With Autism to the Best Colleges
It starts with knowing your child’s needs and dreams
College autism support programs have proliferated in recent years, particularly on the East Coast. The bad news: These programs are not cheap. You can expect to part with $1,500 to $4,000 per semester, on top of tuition, fees and room and board.
The good news: These costs can typically be wrapped into financial aid packages.
Which program is best for your kid? “It’s totally dependent on your student,” says autism support consultant Jane Brown, who works with families and colleges at College Autism Spectrum, and is a 40-year veteran of university disability services. “And I use the word ‘student’ rather than ‘child,’ because part of my work with families is to get them to think of kids as 18-year-old adults.”
Here's an overview of how autistic students thrive in college.
Brown suggests that before even clicking on a program website, you list your student’s needs. Scratch that. Your student should do the listing: Are they shy and isolated? Do they plan to enroll in an art program, or science, or engineering? Do they need to be within an hour of home? Will they melt down in a lecture hall with 400 students, or thrive on a campus with 15,000 students? Do they need to avoid curricula with group work?
“I always tell families, don’t even open up the best programs lists, because they’re gonna make you think that a program is going to work for your student, and it might not,” Brown says.
Armed with your list, it’s time to play matchmaker. Students who need academic support might look for structured study hours and executive function coaching. Students who need social assistance might seek programs with built-in social events and peer mentors. When in doubt, assume your student will need oodles of help, and be pleasantly surprised when they do, in fact, know how to turn on a washing machine. “I always tell parents to err on the side of too much support, because it’s a lot easier to scale back services than try to add support once the student is already on campus,” says Megan Davis, director of the ACTS program at the University of Alabama.
Take note of what she describes as her biggest barrier: unengaged students, who were typically enrolled by their parents. “If they don’t want our help, we’re pretty limited in what we can offer them,” she says. When in doubt, let your intrepid offspring “find” the program.
Two-year colleges are a common first step. “The vast majority of students with autism get a degree or credit from a two-year community college,” says Brad Cox, founder of the College Autism Network, and an associate professor of higher education at Florida State University. “Yet most of the programs are at four-year institutions, so there’s a little bit of a mismatch there.”
You want to inquire how the program is funded and how many students participate, with the understanding that grant funding often expires, and that as colleges struggle with budget shortfalls, smaller and newer programs could easily disappear. Use your judgment. Here are programs to know about:
Rochester Institute of Technology’s Spectrum Support Program is smartly structured with well-trained staff and a focus on post-collegiate employment. The 86-student program is tiered, with a $2,200 per term option that includes a one-on-one coach to help students navigate their first year, usually stepping down to a $1,150 per term option in junior year. It’s a good choice for students interested in STEM or computers who can handle the pressures of a 19,000-student campus and co-op work programs.
Western Kentucky University. One of the largest and most-established programs, the Kelly Autism Program includes mentoring, study halls, socials, mental health counseling, private dorm rooms and weekly advisor meetings and costs $5,000 per semester. Their model is widely copied by other schools.
Texas Tech University offers comprehensive “wraparound” style services through its well-regarded CASE program. It is run out of an autism education and research center, and includes ongoing assessments and regular meetings with a learning specialist who creates a customized plan.
Free. Yep, free.
Bellevue College, a former community college in Washington state, offers the well-regarded Neurodiversity Navigators, which provides peer mentorship and a series of mostly for-credit classes on succeeding in college and beyond. Students pay only the cost of the classes.
Michigan State University is home to BOND (Building Opportunities for Networking and Discovery), a 10-year-old gratis option at a four-year public school with 40,000 undergraduates. The program includes peer mentoring, a weekly freshman seminar, employment support and events.
Daemen College in Amherst, New York, is a small school of 1,700 undergraduates with a sizable art department and a College Autism Transition Support (CATS) program that includes weekly life skills coaching, vocational support and free mental health counseling. The program began five years ago to support art students, though now is open to all majors. It’ll set you back $2,000 per semester.
Savannah College of Art and Design exemplifies a school with minimal formal support for autistic students (there’s Jump Start, an orientation and resourcefulness program for students with all disabilities, and an autistic therapy group in the counseling center), but due to strong counseling and academic resource centers, can work well for some students with autism.
Harper College. Midwestern parents, rejoice. The 35,000-student public community college near Chicago is mostly a two-year school with transfer options. Its free two-year Transition Autism Program goes above and beyond, including ample focus on transitioning high schoolers into successful college careers, and back out into four-year programs or employment.
Seattle Central College’s SAILS program is sizable for a former community college. It has two tiers with the pricier option at $2,300 per semester with ongoing support from both a counselor and a tutor. Students can access a sister job placement program, or transfer to a four-year college.