Congratulations, Parents! You have a soon-to-be high school graduate! Now what? Thinking college? If so, be prepared for a rollercoaster ride. Some of it will be great! Some, well, maybe less so. As a life/college/career coach, a former college instructor, and a parent of two neurodiverse college graduates, I get your challenges! In this article I share some thoughts that might help you navigate these decisions with your teen. Several program links are also included, so you can better picture what various options might look like. So, what should you keep in mind?
Consider college readiness
We are used to seeing our students at home and in their familiar K-12 learning environments. The structure of the school day and the interventions outlined in their special education programs provide a great deal of oversight and support. Further structure is provided by the things we tend to do for our teens as part of our family routines. We get them up in the morning. We cue bedtimes and meals. We do their laundry, make their appointments, and oversee their meds. Sometimes we even cue their showers. All while keeping our fingers
on their emotional pulse and slipping in assistance when stress management is needed!
So, what will happen when your student begins college and needs to take those responsibilities on for themselves? Some of our folks are ready. For others, this may be too much of a change to consider all at once. Jane Thierfeld Brown offers a twenty-minute eye-opening talk on college-readiness. Be sure to watch it with your own teen in mind
Some students may benefit from deferring college to take a “gap year.” This in-between high school and college time can be spent working on life skills,building confidence, or dipping into the world of work. Gap years may be provided through organizations or informally arranged by families. For instance, one of my coaching clients had a very positive experience with Dynamy’s gap year program in Worcester, Massachusetts (https://dynamy.org/).
Would you like structured help preparing your student for more independent living? There are
residential post-secondary programs that explicitly teach life skills, such as handling finances, meal preparation and housekeeping, managing health and wellness, social and community
engagement, and work-readiness skills. CIP, also known as The College Internship Program (https://cipworldwide.org/) or Transitions (https://transitionsusa. org) are two nationally recognized examples that I have toured. The College Experience at the College of Saint Rose
(https://thecollegeexperience.org/) is a local example. These programs can also be used for academic support.
A more commonly used college readiness path is to begin with a local community college. This lower-cost option not only allows students to test whether college is right for them, it also
can ease them into assuming greater responsibilities. A two-year Associates Degree has practical value, but many community colleges also have formal transfer agreements with four-year colleges. Some community colleges now offer either residential or commuter autism support programs. An example in upstate NY is the Career Next program (https://careernext.org/).
Consider the college
The usual advice on researching colleges also applies to your kid, of course. Standard college guidebooks can provide useful descriptions. Teens should also consult with their high school
guidance counselor as to which schools fit their interests, preferences, grade point average, and test scores. But keep in mind that guidance counselors tend not to be versed in your child’s disability.
Many colleges offer prospective student tours. Check with the school. Some require preregistration, especially if you are interested in a particular major such as engineering. You may wish your first visit or two to be to a local college, especially before you begin your search in earnest. Even if your student is not interested in attending a local option, it
can help establish a comparison template, to start your teen thinking about what types of variables truly matter to them.
College visits usually begin late junior year. Advice varies as to the best timing of your college visits. Sometimes you have to compromise between the college calendar, your teen’s current
commitments, and your family’s availability. You are going to want to stay away from the college’s final exam and midterm exam weeks--these stressed times are not the best introduction for your prospective student! Virtual college tours can be useful for screening
campuses, but nothing can substitute for visiting and picking up the vibe, so please be sure to do an in-person visit at least sometime before committing to a particular school.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of going for “the best school your kid can get into,” especially given how bright many of our folks tend to be. That mindset can be very dangerous: You have to take a realistic look at what your student can manage. High school tries to prepare students for the academics, but college is about so much, much more than academics! It's easy for anyone to become overwhelmed.
So, what criteria should a student on the spectrum use in selecting a college? There is not one answer that applies to all individuals. In general, our folks tend to benefit from schools that are more student-centered, with smaller classes and more individualized attention. Travel distance may be an important factor when it comes to trips home to assist with keeping emotional balance.
Consider how each potential college choice would help develop job readiness skills. Does it offer internships, coops, or project-based learning? Many of my adult clients have managed to
achieve their college degree, only to hit a daunting obstacle when it comes to obtaining their first job. A college choice that builds in work readiness would have made that transition much easier for them. A few colleges, such as Rochester Institute of Technology, even have partnered with neurodiversity hiring initiatives to ease job placement for autistic graduates (https://www.rit.edu/ spectrumsupport/neurodiverse-hiringinitiative).
There are so many factors to take into account! An autism-trained college match consultant, such as College Autism Spectrum (https:// collegeautismspectrum.com/team/) can help you make a more informed selection for your individual student’s needs. This particular group of professionals has served as autism consultants to many college disability programs, so they know the playing field quite well. Their website lists some of the programs you might want to consider, but again, it is all about the right fit!
Structure college for success
One of the biggest shocks to parents is the degree to which students are given the freedom and responsibility to manage their own college experience, and parents are not expected to be involved. Your teen is now considered to be an adult. They have total control over their own personal information under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). No one will tell you if your student is struggling, unless your teen gives permission. You won’t even receive copies of their final course grades. Your success plan, then, might include a
discussion of who your student should go talk to if they start to have problems.
This might include their academic advisor, the counseling center, or the staff at the Disability Resource Center.
The Disability Resource Center at your student’s chosen school is likely to be an important partner in their success. The staff at the Disability Resource Center will discuss with your student the specific challenges posed by their disability and what accommodations they are entitled to receive. Although students can register for disability services at any time in their
academic career, many choose to do so prior to beginning their first semester.
When you and your student begin these discussions with the Disability Resource Center, you need to be aware that the laws governing college disability services are different from those in K-12. There are no individualized education plans (IEPs) in college. All colleges are required to do--in fact, all they are allowed to do--is grant the accommodations that will put your student on the same footing as those students who do not have disabilities. Furthermore, once the college accommodations have been approved by the Disability Resource Center, it is up to the student to request their use each semester for each specific course they want to use them. The accommodations are not provided automatically. Some students struggle with the self-awareness, self-advocacy, and advance planning needed to do this successfully.
What are some of the accommodations that might be available? You will find that extra time and separate location for tests (but not other assignments!) are common disability accommodations. These must be scheduled by the student in advance with the Disability Resource Center for every test. Note-taking is another accommodation our students expect
and may be granted. But in practice, notetakers are often very difficult to find, so students often use Livescribe recording pens instead. Of course, your student will also have access to collegewide student support services, such as the writing center, tutoring services, and
Our students are more likely to be successful when they can do college on their own timetable and at their own pace. Your student may need to take a reduced course load, especially in the first year when they are trying to get the hang of more independent living. Check to see what the minimum requirements are for “full-time” academic status for financial
aid or residency purposes. Full-time status can also sometimes be redefined as a disability accommodation through the college’s disability services office. You may find that your kid absolutely needs a lighter schedule. Truth is that many of our students need more than four years to complete their degree.
Specialized disability support programs
Some colleges offer specialized autism support programs for an additional fee. The Spectrum Support Program at Rochester Institute of Technology (https://www. rit.edu/spectrumsupport/), for example, offers three levels of academic, executive functioning, self-advocacy and social
supports for participating students. There are currently over 75 colleges offering specialized programs, in over 35 states, with more being developed every year (https://collegeautismspectrum.com/ collegeprograms/)
Yet another option on the support continuum is a specialized college designed to meet the needs of individuals with learning differences. At these colleges, dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and
executive functioning challenges are the expected norm, so support services are fully integrated into the curriculum for all students. Examples include Landmark College in Massachusetts (https://www. landmark.edu/) or Beacon College in Florida (https://www.beaconcollege.edu/).
Finally, you may consider hiring a life/ college/career coach such as myself. The individualized attention and the flexibility of scheduling offered by such a private contract appeals to many of my clients. They value having an experienced ally assisting them with their time and stress
management, while also helping them access other services on an as-needed basis.
Costs vary considerably across these different program options. Are they worth it? It all depends on what your teen needs to be successful. Before ruling one out simply because of cost, discuss what options might be available for financial assistance. For example, some can be covered at least partially under Medicaid or your state’s vocational habilitation services.
Landmark College even notes that portions of their fee can count as a medical tax deduction!
As a parent, I found it useful to look at the range of supports available, so my sons and I could consider together what particular types of “menu items” might be appropriate for them. Sometimes, the only way to find out what level of support is truly needed is for the student to try their preferred way first. Keep in mind that support programs, no matter how well intentioned, are not likely to be successful unless the student recognizes their value and commits to their use!
Want more guidance on how to navigate college?
Adjusting to the realities of college life poses many new challenges, to both students and their parents. Finding Your Way: A College Guide for Students on the Spectrum and its companion website provides rich, autistic-respectful resources for you and your student. Published by the Organization for Autism Research (OAR), these materials can be accessed
online at https://researchautism.org/ findingyourway/ or you can request a free, paper copy to read, which you might happen to leave out on the kitchen table for your high school senior to see. Other useful resources can be found at RIT’s Spectrum Support Program’s public webpage (https://www.rit.edu/spectrumsupport/ prospective-students-and-families).
Additionally, some colleges, such as RIT, offer parent newsletters and interactive parent support pages, hosted by the college or hosted independently by parents. I found such information-sharing, problem-solving and emotional validation to be invaluable as a parent. This may be their college journey, but it is also a part of our learning how and when to let go so our young adults can learn to fly.
Jan Starr Campito,
M.S., M.Phil., is a life/college/ career coach specializing in neurodiverse clients. She is the author of the book Supportive Parenting: Becoming an Advocate for Your Child with Special Needs and recently published a book
chapter on moving towards adulthood in A Spectrum of Solutions for Clients with Autism (edited by Rachel Bédard and Lorna Hecker.) She is a frequent speaker, and advocate for individuals and families on the spectrum. This is her third article for Autism Digest. To contact Jan or to
learn more about her nationally available coaching services, visit https://www.jancampito.com.