College students in class College students in class People with autism who go to college often have trouble managing their time, speaking up for themselves and making friends. (Photo: wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock)

Autism: The college years

Is higher education in the cards for kids with autism? Learn what colleges are doing to make it possible.

The road to a college education is paved with opportunity. For young people on the autism spectrum, their journey often includes having to learn new ways to navigate the curves, bumps and barriers of life. 

Despite these barriers, people with autism often are also extremely bright individuals who want to learn and can become independent, productive adults. They just need an extra dose of support to keep them on track. That support comes in the form of college programs that go beyond traditional disabilities services – counseling, peer mentoring, tutoring and a community created specifically for students with autism. 

Rolling autism into academics

Sara Gardner, program manager of the Autism Spectrum Navigators program at Bellevue College in Bellevue, Wash., knows what it's like for autistic students as they struggle to maneuver through a process that was not made for them. She knows because she was one of them.

"I attended college many years ago as an undiagnosed autistic young woman," she said. "An autistic person's fear is very real, and for very good reason, usually. Many people do not understand our community, and instead of accepting us and attempting to remove barriers, they instead try to 'fix' us and teach us social skills and more. This can ultimately end up creating more anxiety and depression, and it doesn't support academic success, as it only adds more work on top of a student who is already working quite hard."

Gardner's program focuses attempts to ease common anxieties by focusing on four core challenges autism students face: self-advocacy, executive functioning, self-regulation and social interaction. Executive functioning covers things like organization, time management, task initiation and work memory. Without that support, Gardner said, otherwise capable, intelligent students have a much higher chance of dropping out.

"All students with disabilities receive ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accommodations, and advocacy when needed," said Gardner. "We found that our autistic students, in many cases, needed more than accommodations and advocacy. Even with ADA accommodations, students in this population would have a kind of 'roller coaster' experience in college, coming in and doing well for one quarter, then doing poorly, perhaps dropping out, and coming back again later to try again. We implemented a year-long pilot study to see if we could smooth out the roller coaster, and found out that we could. Following the pilot, we rolled out the ASN program with 18 students, and now have over 200 students who are receiving services through the program."

The Navigators program has become a model for others, Gardner said. Another yet-to-be-named university in Washington State has entered into an agreement with Bellevue to replicate Navigators there.The program at Bellevue includes weekly one-on-one meetings with a trained peer mentor; a series of quarterly career preparation classes; a staffed study hall exclusively for autistic students; and parent and faculty training.

At Israel's Ariel University, a culture of inclusion is an important part of the mission. Administrators there devote significant financial and human resources to ensure that students with autism are given the opportunity to access higher education in Israel. Ariel provides personal mentors to offer life skills workshops, provide exam preparation and assist them in job searches.

Raz Robas (left), a student at Ariel University, with friends.Raz Robas (left), a student at Ariel University, with friends. (Photo: Ariel University)

The program is a result of the vision of the university's late president, Dr. Dorit Ortal, whose granddaughter has autism. Its current president, Dr. Yehuda Daron, "is very passionate about this particular program and assisting students with special needs in general," said Ariel's director of student services, Elinor Einat.

"We had two students in the communications school six years ago who had been accepted to the university but clearly needed extra support," Einat said. "At that point, the college president and general management agreed to launch and fund a special program for students with communications disorders, and the program has grown from there. That was six years ago. Today one of those first students is completing his master's in quantum physics, the other is completing an advanced mathematics degree. We are very proud of them and still in regular contact."

Personalization is paramount – no two people with autism are the same. Einat and her team recognize that and develop plans to address students' individual needs.

"Many need assistance with life skills such as grocery shopping, as they have never lived away from home," she said. "Some need assistance with social skills. Planning and time management can be issues as well. We have mentors who live with the students and help ease their way into life at university. We also have a large team of social workers, psychologists and tutors who help each student with their specific needs."

Ariel celebrated its seventh year of the program on Nov. 11. Its rolls now stand at 30, and officials are discussing ways to expand the program to offer more job placement support.

Why autism?

Social interaction, a big part of the traditional college experience, is difficult for most people with autism. So can be the idea of sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other students at once, or sharing a dorm room with a stranger, visiting a dining hall for meals or participating in a study group. What's routine for mainstream students can be catastrophic for people with autism

The autism spectrum covers a broad range of disorders and is also known as pervasive development disorder. It is characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities. Symptoms usually appear in the first two years of life and can range anywhere from mild impairment (high-functioning, recognized in some cases as Asperger's syndrome) to severe disability (low-functioning and sometimes non-verbal).

When organizing their disabilities services programs, the first factor colleges examine is need. What issues continue to surface among students where it would make sense to offer specialized, comprehensive support? For many colleges around the world, autism became that need.

"Autism is a unique and pervasive disorder," said Mitch Nagler, director of the Bridges to Adelphi program at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. His program currently serves 91 students and requires what he calls "an extraordinary amount of flexibility."

"Students need a defined program designed to help folks on the spectrum, yet it has to be flexible enough to address all those problems individually," Nagler said. "So basically we have 91 students in 91 different programs."

At Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio, support and academics are all rolled into one. Its ASD Affinity Program, now in its first year, builds on the success of the existing Hench Autism Studies Program at the college. Students – autistic or not – have the opportunity to minor in autism studies and, in effect, study their own experiences with autism. Through support in three key areas – academic, residential and social – students "now seem to feel at home," said program director Brad Harsha.

At Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, autism support is carried out through "transition coaching" – students, many of whom are studying psychology or communication disorders as undergraduates, helping their peers enrolled in the school's RASE (Raiders on the Autism Spectrum) project. They're considered university staff and are paid a stipend for about 10 hours a week. These student staffers meet with RASE-enrolled students to address whatever issues they need the most help with – homework, organizing their class schedule, answering their questions, or even for good, old-fashioned friendship.

"Many of the staff here have grown quite close to the RASE students," said Heather Rando, the university's interim associate director of academic support services. The RASE program is in its third year and has 120 students enrolled. "We're seeing a lot of success with this because these are same-age peers, in a way that's different than the student's parents or teacher or another staff member here, someone in middle age who can't really relate to a student. It's fascinating to see all the positives for the students but also for the coaches. It's a circle of growth happening for everybody and it's amazing for me to be a part of it."  

The best measurement of the success of these programs is not in GPAs, test scores or dropout rates, but in the students' own words.

"When I first entered college, I was not very well prepared," said M.H., a student at Wright State and a RASE (M.H. declined to use his full name.) "The challenges I ran into might have overwhelmed me if my transition coach hadn't been there to help. She assisted me though my experience, helping me to get my priorities straight, as well as remind me that I might not always do perfect and that it's OK. The support group helped me simply by reminding me that I'm not an alien, and that there are others with similar problems." 

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