5 Ways to Help Kids on the Autism Spectrum Adjust to College or University

5 Ways to Help Kids on the Autism Spectrum Adjust to College or University

The good news is that colleges and universities are more supportive than they’ve ever been of students on the autism spectrum. However, university students with autism spectrum disorder are also at a higher risk of dropping out. Here’s what parents need to know to help ensure their kids on the autism spectrum adjust well to college and university.


Starting post-secondary is one of the biggest milestones in a young adult’s life. College or university life ushers students into the fraternity of adulthood. College and university students are, many for the very first time, treated like adults—given freedom, independence, and autonomy like never before. Campuses offer a safe stage to explore and experiment, and provide young men and women with a gentle transition space to grow from being teenager in high school to a young adult ready to face the expectations of the grown-up world.

The shift from high school to post-secondary can feel like a sea change for many students, and often even the most successful high school students struggle to find their footing in the post-secondary world. The first semester of post-secondary requires a huge adjustment, and the first year is when students are at the greatest risk of dropping out. The majority of students who drop out do not return to complete their post-secondary education, so the first year is critical to a student’s post-secondary success. A good beginning predicts a good ending!

More students with autism are pursuing opportunities in higher education than ever before. This is exciting and encouraging news. However, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario notes that campus disabilities and support services may be under-prepared for this increase. In fact, students with disabilities are at higher risk of dropping out than their peers. And attrition rates for students with autism are particularly high, possibly because students on the spectrum may face both academic and social challenges in the post-secondary world. So if your child with autism is planning on pursuing post-secondary this Fall, what can you do to help him or her have a great beginning?

1. Do a Walk-Through
Priming is a strategy to prepare yourself for what lies ahead. When you run through your schedule the night before a busy day, you are priming yourself for what you’ll have to do the next morning. This is very important for individuals on the autism spectrum who may experience anxiety at the thought of managing in a new environment.

Almost all campuses offer open houses and campus tours. Visiting the campus prepares your child for what to expect when she starts as a student. The more visits you can do the better. This gets your child prepared for what the commute to school is like, and makes the campus environment more familiar and easier to navigate. I strongly recommend coming to an open house or booking a campus tour, and then coming back for a second visit once she has received her schedule so she can find her classrooms and be ready to go on the first day of the term. Seneca College is doing an open house at all campuses on April 2, which just happens to be World Autism Awareness Day!

2. Plan, Plan, Plan
Students—with or without accommodations—often struggle more with the pace of post-secondary learning than with the content itself. In their first year, students have to learn college success skills in addition to all the content in their courses. Invest in a big dry-erase calendar, put it on the wall, and encourage your student to record all his deadlines, tests and due dates on it. Print out all course syllabi and schedules, and put them in separate binders. High school students are used to their teachers reminding them about big deadlines, and giving them time to work on projects in class. In college and university, students are typically given all their assignments for the term on day one, and have to figure out on their own when and where they should be focusing their time and attention. Having visual reminders of all the important dates will make it easier to stay on track.

3. The Social Side
A social life is a big part of the post-secondary experience, and this stuff doesn’t come as easily to students on the spectrum. Many campuses offer additional programs and supports to help with life outside the classroom. Seneca College offers a social and relational skills program, which follows the acclaimed UCLA PEERS model, and helps build relational effectiveness skills. Clubs and activities are also good ways for students to feel connected with campus life outside of the classroom. See what is available at your school, and consider getting involved right from the start.

Accommodations
4. Get Your Accommodations and Supports In Place
Colleges and universities are more autism-friendly than ever before. Many learning accommodations and supports – from private test rooms to notetakers to learning technology – are available to students on the autism spectrum. But campus Accommodations offices are busy. Deciding you want supports halfway through the semester may mean a delay that compromises the student’s success in that critical first semester. Best to get those supports in place before the semester even starts.

Many colleges and universities have student-success workshops offered through the Library or the Learning Centre. Students who have an accommodation plan can also often access one-on-one support from a learning strategist to help them stay on track.

5. Get to Know Your Helpers
Getting to know your Accommodations Counsellor before the semester starts is a great strategy. Your child can make an appointment with an Accommodations Counsellor as soon as she has accepted her offer of admission. Not only does this ensure accommodations are in place before the semester starts, it allows your child to build a relationship with someone who will be an excellent resource throughout the semester. Having a good comfort level with your Accommodations Counsellor means your child is more likely to use them at times of stress throughout the semester. Disclosing a diagnosis to your department head or program coordinator is a personal choice, one that only your child can make. However, as a program coordinator, I appreciate when students explain the nature of their exceptionalities to me, so I can make suggestions that will support their success right from the start.

Keep in mind that the college or university wants your child to be successful. Universities and colleges are committed to making their campuses more inclusive and more supportive of individuals on the spectrum. The more you can tell your Accommodations Counsellor, professors, department head, program coordinator or Chair about what will help you to be successful, the better-prepared the college or university can be to meet your needs. I want all my students to be successful, and I want to do everything I can to support my students with exceptionalities. I am happy to say that I have seen many students with disabilities – including students on the autism spectrum – excel in their studies. And that’s great news – not just for students on the autism spectrum but for all of us. We all win when the unique gifts of individuals with autism are appreciated, valued, and put to work in our society. College success prepares the student on the spectrum to share their strengths, talents and gifts with the community. And that’s good – for all of us.

Photo Credit: Francisco Osorio

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Laura Cavanagh

About

Laura Cavanagh is a mother, clinician, and Professor of Psychology at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. Prof. Cavanagh is the lead faculty in the Behavioural Sciences diploma program, which was launched at Seneca College in 2013. She was the project leader for the development, research, and implementation of this program, and is now its full-time program coordinator.


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