How Students with Autism Now Thrive in College
More than 80 schools offer programs of specialized learning and support
These days, students on the autism spectrum enroll in college in droves. And graduate. And smile.
And so this is not a feel-good story about students beating the odds and attending college, because college enrollment is the norm for capable students, thanks to the over 80 U.S. schools offering specialized support programs for learners on the autism spectrum.
“More than ever, every type of college is an option,” says Brad Cox, founder of the College Autism Network, and an associate professor of higher education at Florida State University. He says most autistic students are able to thrive with appropriate supports. “An academic institution is made up of a really complex social fabric, with all kinds of nuance and subtlety that might not be perceived by autistic students. Giving them campus orientations and social skills really matters.”
The specialized programs vary widely, with core services that typically address interpersonal skills, day-to-day tasks, academic management, self-knowledge, resourcefulness and employment skills. The latter is pivotal, as a college degree quickly loses its value if its degree holder can’t enter the job market.
Learn more on how to match your student to the right college program here.
The programs all aim to provide full access to college to students who dependably struggle. “A student who’s very bright and academically accomplished does not naturally translate into a success at college,” says Jane Brown, who has worked in disability services for 40 years and consults with families through College Autism Spectrum. “College success is about an awful lot more than academics and classroom.”
Some programs match students with peer mentors, while others are staffed by professionals or graduate students; most include a steady clip of activities such as exercise clubs and lunch meetups, along with one-on-ones with a mentor or counselor. Quality varies.
As a parent, it is utterly confusing to parse which schools offer what. A crash course: Colleges that accept federal funding (nearly all of them) are required to offer a raft of academic disability accommodations, such as extended test-taking time. These are typically administered through a disability services department, and require that students self-advocate, filling out forms to request accommodations. Theoretically every college offers the same slate, though in practice, the size and staffing of the disabilities office vary widely.
Autism support programs are separate (though, confusingly, often run out of disabilities services departments), and focus on the soft skills of thriving at college, like socializing, laundry, sleep, organization and timeliness. Fees range from free to over $5,000 per semester, on top of tuition.
The ACTS program at the University of Alabama is a 30-student, $3,600 per semester program, which has nearly doubled in size in recent years. “Our program provides a little bit of extra support in academic organization, social skills, daily living and employment skills,” says program director Megan Davis.
Each student is paired with a neurotypical peer mentor (usually a psychology major), and the duo works together two to three times per week on topics like how to break down assignments into smaller pieces. There are also regular study halls and social activity requirements. “We also have a therapy component that addresses psychological well-being,” Davis says. This is pivotal because spectrum disorders often come with dual diagnoses of depression or anxiety.
The increased number of autism programs is a wild change in landscape from 20 years ago, when most autistic students did not attend college. “We had less than five programs in the country, and everyone was saying to me, ‘Jane, students with autism can’t go to college,’” Brown says. At the time, general awareness and understanding of autism was not mainstream, and those formally diagnosed tended to have more severe symptoms.
This swiftly changed in the aughts, when capable autistic kids started showing up on campuses in consistent numbers. “Around 2008, I would get these calls saying ‘We’ve got these students, and they’re bright, and we want to have them stay at college, but we need some help.” At the time, Brown provided virtual support to college students, which she eventually discontinued. “We found that without knowing the culture of the campus and the people, we really weren’t being as helpful as we needed to be.”
By 2014, there were roughly 30 programs nationwide, a number that has nearly tripled since. Brown helps families narrow down which services a student might need. No, she won’t name the good programs, because that’s like naming the best family car — it really depends. But she’ll tell you to definitely avoid programs run by outside agencies, which can be overpriced and lack on-campus expertise.
When things go south for students, executive function is often to blame, as students on the spectrum commonly struggle to schedule, organize and juggle tasks. This is exacerbated by parents who unwittingly serve as frontal lobes for their children throughout high school. Brown suggests that parents gently back off in high school, so that students have the experience of remembering to eat, pack their cleats and show up for a dentist appointment.