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Finding the Right College For A Student With ASD

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ASD College Students

For students on the autism spectrum, college can be a time of social anxiety and overwhelming choices. All colleges and universities are required by law to follow established 504 plans — a plan of accommodations that support a person with a disability — but sometimes that is where the school stops. Extended testing time and flexible assignment schedules might not be enough support for a teen who is living or learning independently for the first time.

Luckily, more and more schools are offering programs specifically tailored to people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. These specialized offerings go above and beyond the typical disability services provided by most universities. They also usually have an extra cost, beyond standard tuition fees, for the personalized support. Many students find these programs allow them a combination of independence and assistance, individualized to their needs. And many parents breathe easier knowing their teens won’t be thrown into a chaotic sensory environment without an anchor.

Ask the right questions

Elizabeth Hamblet, author of From High School to College: Steps to Success for Students with Disabilties, suggests some questions that students and their families should ask when beginning their college search:

  • Where is the college located, and will students commute or live on campus?
  • Who provides supports for students?
  • How big a caseload do they carry?
  • What level of services does the school offer?

Colleges and universities with ASD-specific programs are Level 3 schools; they offer the most support, but also cost more. But what types of supports do these programs include?

Peer support programs

Some schools, such as Towson University, offer peer support programs, where more experienced students work closely with incoming first-year students. These might be residential advisors or peer coaches. They may offer structured, scheduled support visits or a more casual experience. Prospective students should think about what would work best for them, and ask program representatives how peer support is offered on campus.

Group programs

Most schools with ASD programs offer scheduled group social activities, such as dinners, book clubs, or game nights. Western Kentucky University, for example, offers multiple social activities per month to the students in its Kelly Autism Program. Transportation is provided in university vehicles, and students are encouraged (but not required) to participate. Other schools may offer dorm-based or campus-based group programs, which are a great way for students with ASD to make new friends and avoid the social isolation that might worry them as first-years.

Trained Coaches

Some schools, like Rochester Institute of Technology, have trained coaches that work one-on-one with new students. They meet one or two times per week the first year, and then continue on as needed in the following years. They offer academic counseling, guidance on the basics of dorm life and getting a schedule in place, and more. This level of support eases anxiety and allows for continued development of executive function skills.

Other Accommodations and Supports

Schools may offer private dorm rooms, special study tables, informal mentoring, mental health counseling, weekly advisor meetings, early move-in times, specialized (and early) freshman orientation, and more.

“Honestly? I just don’t want to eat alone in a big cafeteria or have a roommate. I’m looking at schools where I can have my own room so I can have privacy, but will also have friends to eat with. I don’t think I’ll need help with my work that much.”

-Bryan, 17

Every student has his or her own level of need, and students with ASD are no exception. Some might need regular check-ins for assignment completion and others might need weekly mental health counseling. Students and families should visit programs and ask detailed questions. The right school is out there!