Students on the Autism Spectrum Can Soar in College With Proper Supports

The transition from high school to college is tricky for most students, and for those on the Autism Spectrum, there are added and unique challenges.

But the college environment in many ways is also ideal for those on the spectrum, because of factors like scheduling flexibility, more choices and a diverse student population that may be more accepting of quirks.

It’s all about the right supports and preparation, said Ginny Hodge, Director of Chapel Haven’s  Asperger Syndrome Adult Transition (ASAT) Program.  “Students on the spectrum can soar,” she said.

Hodge recently addressed parents and educators at a Chapel Haven workshop focused on how a student on the spectrum can meet with success in the college or other post-secondary education setting. The room was packed with families nervously considering the transition to college.

Hodge, a certified speech-language pathologist who also is Chapel Haven’s Vice President of Autism Spectrum Programs, explored the differences between high school and college, presented a “Big Six” checklist of skills students face in a more challenging college environment and concluded on an up note: college can be just right for many adults.

“She nailed everything,” educational consultant Daria M. Rockholz said of Hodge’s presentation. “People who read of the triumphs don’t see all the blood, sweat and tears.”

First, Explore Expectations

Hodge said the first important step is for parents to talk to the student about expectations, asking them directly, “Do you want to go to college?” and “Why do you want to go to college?”

Hodge said don’t be shocked by answers like, “That’s what I’m supposed to do,” or even “I’ve heard there are a lot of parties.”

Everyone needs to be on the same page, Hodge said.

While academic ability is important in college and post-secondary school, it is not enough to carry a student on the spectrum, Hodge said.

It’s higher order thinking and abstract language skills that present the biggest challenge, Hodge said.

So to put the right supports in place, there are many questions you have to ask yourself about your child:

  • Does he get himself up in the morning?
  • Does she reliably handle her own medications?
  • Does he use the telephone effectively, in case he has to call the professor?
  • Does he know when and how to ask for help?
  • Has he established coping skills?
  • Is she able to recognize and address social challenges?
  • Does he recognize danger?

Lack of even one of those skills may spiral into other issues, according to Hodge.

 

Second, Know the Differences Between College and High School

As young adults and their families explore college, it’s important to appreciate the differences between high school and college.

Students moving from high school to college will no longer have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and the school doesn’t have to provide modifications. Colleges are only required to provide accommodations that allow equal access to educational and extra-curricular activities.

In high school there is progressive discipline and teachers will tell you if your behavior is unacceptable. In college they don’t give feedback.

While some colleges provide tutoring and other academic supports to students, there is no requirement to provide those supports.

In high school, teachers and staff communicate with parents, but in college, professors are often prohibited from speaking with parents without the express permission of student.

In college, only the student is able to disclose his/her disability and need for accommodation. The upside is that if a student gets the point across, there are many professors willing to work with students on the spectrum.

Third, Think about the “Big Six”

Hodge’s “Big Six,” skills checklist for students on the spectrum considering college are:

  1. self-awareness and self-advocacy
  2. initiation and follow-through
  3. time and space management
  4. independent living skills
  5. emotional and behavioral regulation
  6. problem-solving.

All of these skills come into play in a college setting. Getting it all done can be challenging. “That video game will be just as tempting here as it is at home,” Hodge said.

Fourth: College Can Be Ideal

Despite the many considerations, Hodge had an upbeat message: the college setting also brings many perks to those on the spectrum. Consider:

  • Classes can be taken at a preferred time of day and there is room for building in breaks.
  • College students have many more choices in terms of classes and professors
  • The more diverse student population may mean easier peer acceptance of quirks and easier route to finding groups of peers focused on similar issues.
  • With supports many hurdles can be overcome, even in the independent living arena – doing laundry, obtaining and preparing food, transportation, hygiene. For example, laundry can be dropped off, groceries delivered.
  • Today’s technology provides, “a whole other pool of supports,” Hodge said. Some examples she gave: Getting instructions through a Blue tooth when communicating with a store clerk, practicing a meeting subject to be had with a professor on an IPOD first, using a pen that records as the student takes notes.

There is lot of problem solving to be done in college or other post-secondary settings, Hodge said, so one of the keys for success is to teach students on the spectrum how to problem solve.

When they come to you with a problem, ask, “What do you think?” Hodge said.

As for behaviors, “There is not as much tolerance as there is in high school.”

 “Knowing how and how not to react,” are important, Hodge said.  She recalls a young woman who was upset when people laughed in class because she thought they were laughing at her. Once she realized that was not the case, she calmed down.

Catherine Sharafonowich, whose son Devon, 14, is an honors student and wants to go to Wesleyan University, attended the workshop. She said Hodge’s talk was, “encouraging that I’m on the right track.” She really loved the idea of teaching them how to problem solve.

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