How to Find a College for a Child With Autism
Students with autism can get admitted and succeed in college, especially since more schools have support programs to help them.
When Jane M.’s son, Ben, was 13 months old he was diagnosed with autism and his parents became sleep deprived and emotional wrecks.
As they tried to grasp the enormity of their “new normal” the Philadelphia parents asked themselves daunting questions: “Is Ben ever going to talk?” “Will he go to school?” “Over the years, how much progress will he make?”
Now age 17 and a high school senior, Ben, along with his parents, meets with school guidance counselors as they embark on campus tours like other families that navigate the path to college.
This is an overwhelming task for parents of neuro-typical teens, but when a high school student also has an autism diagnosis, the complicated college admissions process can feel like learning to run a marathon.
“We have raised a very independent young man, who knows he has autism, but he doesn’t use it as a crutch,” Jane says. “We have always tried to push him to reach his potential, but at the end of the day I can’t believe my baby may be going to college three hours away from us.”
With 1 in 59 children diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and as this population grows older, their parents need to figure out the often bumpy road to college, internships and employment.
Don’t write college off
Should parents even consider college for a teen who has an autism diagnosis? “Absolutely. Everyone has a different strength and brings something new to the table,” says Amy Edwards, EdD, director of the Drexel University Autism Support program. “It is important that each of us embrace people’s differences.”
Kathy Miller, director of community services for the Institute on Disabilities for Temple University, advises parents of high school students who have autism or another disability to pursue the college path the same way as their neuro-typical peers.
“The problem is that sometimes educators don’t even ask high school students who have differences if they want to go to college, so parents and students need to know that there are many opportunities out there,” Miller said. “The student, the family and those at the high school level all need to provide support.”
Most college applications do not ask if the student has autism, so the students must decide if or when to identify themselves. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2008 and broadened the definition of disabilities, more students are identifying themselves to educators and programs, says Erin Leuthold, director of Disability Services at Rutgers-Camden.
Drexel University is “test flexible, but not test-optional.” This means that depending on the major, the student may need Advanced Placement courses, SAT scores, entrance exams, or another gauge of the students’ abilities.
However, even if their academics are good enough to get them admitted, that doesn’t guarantee success. Many 18-year-olds, with or without autism, simply aren’t ready for college.
Pam Lubbers, of the University of Delaware’s new Spectrum Scholars support program, says her advice is the same for any prospective student who may not be ready to leave home and attend a four-year college program.
“You don’t have to take the whole plunge,” she said, “If it is more comfortable for you, there is a way to do it step-by-step.”
One plan is for the student to start at a community college to see what it feels like to be a college student.
“Work on life skills, social skills and group projects,” Lubbers advises. “When nobody is prompting them at home will they brush their teeth, take a shower and do their homework?
“If the student doesn’t have this figured out before heading to college, it could be a major challenge.”
Montgomery County Community College will hold a Bridging to the Future Conference on April 18, 2020 at its Blue Bell, PA campus for parents of students with autism or other special needs who are ready to graduate from high school.
Representatives from MCCC, Temple University, Gwynedd Mercy University and Ursinus College will participate in sessions, which will also include financial planning, legal rights and workforce preparation.
The keynote speaker will be Jane Thierfeld Brown, author and authority on autism in higher education from Yale Medical School. There will also be more than two dozen support organizations in attendance.
Autism support programs
At Drexel, once accepted, the student can apply for the Drexel Autism Support program that begins the summer before the student’s freshman year.
“Initially, I meet with the students on a weekly basis, help them write task lists, help them become organized so they will schedule enough study time,” Edwards explained.
At the University of Delaware, Lubbers says the students meet with an academic coach at least twice a week in order to work on academic skills, executive function, self-care and wellbeing, socialization and more.
Parents, meanwhile, should be prepared to step back.
“The most successful students have parents who aren’t afraid to let them stumble a little bit,” she says. “So, all of this newfound independence is a learning curve for the parents as well.”
However, the student must be willing to ask for help.
Taryn Cooper, accommodations assistant for Disability Services at Rutgers-Camden, says students who had an Individualized Education Plan or 504 (medical plan) in high school, often see college as a chance to do it on their own, without putting support services in place.
“But they should never be afraid to ask for help or to find resources such as tutors or learning specialists. It all starts with self-advocacy.”
Debra Wallace is a freelance writer based in Hutingdon Valley, PA.