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Autism and College: Ideas for Sending a Teen with Autism to College

Sending a teenager who has autism to college can be complicated. We caught up with Lisa Meeks and Tracy Loye Masterson, authors of the just released Parties, Dorms and Social Norms: A Crash Course in Safe Living for Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum, to get some advice on autism and college.

Autism and College Success: Tips for Parents

1. Take Small Steps. 

If you’re not sure your student is capable of moving away from home, then consider alternatives. “Start with classes at a community college,” says Meeks. “See how that goes, while they are still at home with all their supports.”

2. Get Experience in High School. 

Teenagers on the spectrum tend to have a depleted resume, they don’t have a lot of experiences. Getting them out in high school doing things is really essential,” says Loye Masterson. This will not only help your teenager get into college, but also broaden your teenager’s experience before arriving at college.

3. Look for a Great Fit. 

Teenagers on the autism spectrum tend to do better in school when they’re passionate about what they’re studying. “If the school you’re considering doesn’t have an engineering and robotics program, but that’s what your teenager loves, well, philosophy classes are only going to carry you so far,” says Meeks.

4. Ask About Available College Autism Support Programs. 

All colleges must make accommodations for students with disabilities, but what kinds of accommodations are available for your particular teenager can vary from school to school. Parents worried about autism and college can connect with a school’s office of disability services to discuss what’s available at any time (including before a student has applied).

In general, says Meeks, the goal is for students to transition to college and, with time, require no extra support. “So you can look for programs that perhaps start with good transition planning and then that support should fade quickly,” she says. Note also that certain kinds of specialized support may not be provided by the school your teenager wants to attend, so it’s important to explore in advance what your options will be as paying privately can add up.

5. Seek Out Colleges with Excellent Reputations Serving Students with Autism.

Some of the best colleges for autistic students include University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and Landmark College in Vermont.

6. Expect Challenges. 

“Anything that is not explicitly stated is going to be difficult for your teenager to navigate,” says Meeks. For example, walking late into a class. “How do you learn that? Do parents sit a teenager down before college and say ‘If you’re going to be late to a class, this is how you do it.’ No because the way we learn is by social modeling. We see somebody walk in a room and do it the wrong way, and we see the reaction and we categorize that in the back of our memory to never do that. Then we see somebody come in the right way and we think, ‘Okay that worked. Put that in the file.'”

“People on the spectrum don’t get that. So, instead of going to class late, what ends up happening is they either end up pacing outside the door because they’re so anxious, or they don’t get out of bed because they wake up and they go ‘Oh my God I’m late, I’m late,’ which starts this downward spiral of anxiety that ends in complete debilitation.”

7. Including Challenges with the Opposite Sex.

This area can be particularly fraught for teenage boys with autism. “Individuals on the spectrum, if they get some type of positive attention — and it’s usually some kind of boy-girl situation where the boy is on the spectrum and the girl is being friendly or nice — there is the potential for the individual to interpret that he has a girlfriend. Then he’s showing up outside of her classroom and so on. Across the country on college campuses there is a re-focus on really taking sexual harassment seriously, so there’s this new potential for individuals on the spectrum to end up in a lot of trouble.”

8. Be Optimistic about Autism and College. 

“We interviewed many young adults and their families to find out how they navigated through college and young adulthood effectively,” says Loye Masterson. “It’s about taking taking the right steps to safely navigate this social jungle of sorts and learning to use the tools your teenager’s disposal.”

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.

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