Nine Ways to Enhance College Success for the Student with Autism or Related Disabilities

Going off to college can be frightening or at least uneasy for a young adult as well as parents. This event is more pronounced when the student has autism or a related disability. The fact is people with disabilities experience great difficulty entering and succeeding in the workforce and in higher education. Why is this? I believe it is because of others’ limited understanding of the capability of this group as well as inadequate supports.

This real life example does not have to be a reality. It is one that could have been avoided with a mentor or a people support to meet Paul’s individual needs. Paul has high functioning autism and most importantly, a strong interest and giftedness in chemistry. He received a full scholarship from Florida State University, 1100 miles away from his home in Wisconsin. Within the first three months, his parents believed all was going well. Then a call came from an administrator from the disability department that Paul had been not been attending class. His parents talked with Paul and believed that all would soon be well. Days later, students in his dorm noticed Paul was not leaving his room at all, and made a report to the dorm manager. Several college administrators arranged to enter Paul’s room and found him curled up in a corner. He had a complete melt down. Immediately his parents flew to Florida to bring him home to Wisconsin.

Although I have not experienced having a son with autism in college, I can relate through my clients as well as my own qualitative research studies. This is what I found that has led to successful college experiences.

Parents know their son or daughter has differences that accompany their giftedness. And in preparation with the college disability support services, parents have helped connect supports that enabled their young adult’s adaptation facing the challenges of college life. For example, arranging for a single dorm room and a dorm manager who agreed to be a mentor.

Many colleges with disability support services are now improving in their educational assistance to students with ASD. However, there may be less attention toward the individualized supports that have a powerful effect on college success. In many cases mentors or go-to support persons are valuable to the student with autism. A mentor falls into the category of ‘people supports’ which is one of the categories of four broad creative supports (BCS): 1) people supports, 2) environments, 3) physiology, and 4) structural.

‘People supports’ are the most important factors in empowering a person’s adaptability. Here is a brief list of how a mentor can be helpful to a new student with a disability entering college for the first time. Meeting the student’s challenges with assistance in:

1. Introducing a setting and navigating a new campus.
2. Creating a daily and weekly structure that may include attending classes, study time, downtime, etc.
3. Understanding the purpose in communicating with staff and other college officials to resolve an issue, such as, taking responsibility for financial aid, a parking pass, etc.
4. Interpreting assignments (a tudor).
5. Time management and organization to complete of assignments and projects (tudor).
6. Advocating in one’s behalf to instructors or professors about one’s own disability challenges and the necessary supports that successfully enable capability.
7. Entering new social settings and study groups that match student’s interests or course of study.
8. Establishing peer supports and new friendships or relationships.
9. Managing one’s self care (health, medications, vitamins, well being, eating, sleeping) and knowing when to ask for help.

Helpful Possible Options
In some college/university communities there are local independent living centers to provide valuable assistance. Supports can help students learn most effectively how to access prospective mentors or support persons. You may want to inquire about these centers. Some individuals with disabilities have potential resources available. Depending upon their state of residence, they may receive financial underwriting via Medicaid or vocational rehabilitation for supports.

Increased Understanding by College Administrators
Students with ASD or any other disability are in college first because they have a desire to learn new things. When administrators in colleges and universities understand this group is enrolled because they have this desire, it can have a powerful effect on student success. Moreover, when administrators understand the impact of a mentor or any of the four broad creative supports on student assimilation to new patterns that become part of college life, success is likely. When administrators understand the impact of a mentor on a student’s increased capability to interact on one’s own behalf with staff and peers, success in college is likely.

I hope you find these tips helpful if you have a young adult with a disability seeking college. Please share your experiences or tips that have made the college experience helpful for your son or daughter. I would love to hear them.

Jackie Marquette Ph.D.

Copyrighted© Jackie M. Marquette Ph.D., January 5, 2011