15 Jun College Proves Elusive for Those on the Autism Spectrum

June 15, 2016

Thousands of students with autism will graduate from high school this year. Why aren’t more of them going to college?

Five years ago, NPR reported on a new trend in higher education: as more and more students with autism were applying to and attending university, university programs especially designed to support these students in achieving success were becoming increasingly common.

Five years later, while more students with autism are attending college than ever before (in some places, the numbers have more than doubled), and a handful of special college programs designed for students with autism do exist, students with autism, even those with high IQs who performed well academically in high school, are still far less likely to attend and graduate from college than their general education peers and than other peer groups with disabilities.

Many students with autism demonstrate exceptional academic potential and are sometimes some of the brightest students in their class. So why are these students not going to college or struggling when they get there? As in all things, the reasons are myriad.  One of the most commonly identified explanations simply has to do with the shift in support students receive between high school and college. Whereas in high school students are still protected under IDEA and are entitled to specific services based upon their disability, in college students move to a system of eligibility, in which they must identify themselves as having a disability, disclose this information, and seek out the accommodations and services for which they are eligible. Because so many students are not accustomed to seeking out services on their own, many end up trying to grapple with the academic and social demands of college without the kinds of supports that facilitated their success in high school.

Like the reasons behind the problem, the solutions are myriad. But research has shown that through a combination of high quality transition planning that focuses on self-advocacy and college-readiness followed by college programming specifically designed to support students with autism, these students are more likely to stay enrolled in college, improve academic performance, and have more satisfying social experiences.

Here are a few things families and educators can do, in both college and high school, to empower students with autism to be successful in college:


  • Plan Ahead:


One of the most effective things families and educators alike can do to facilitate future success in college for students with autism is plan ahead. Ensuring that students are educated on what their post-secondary options are early on and then finding out whether they want to go to college is a good first step.

Once a student has identified college as a post-secondary goal, there are lots of things families and educators can do to plan ahead, including identifying not just the academic but the social, practical life, and executive functioning skills the student will need to be successful in college and building those into a transition plan.  Families and educators can also help students research colleges and encourage students to identify not only top colleges with degrees in their areas of interest, but colleges with programming to support students with autism.

  • Teach Self-Advocacy, Social Skills, and Executive Functioning Skills:


When bright students with ASD end up dropping out of college, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with academics. A student with autism can get excellent grades in high school, achieve high test scores, get into a great college, and still fail or drop out of college. The reasons are often more complicated than a student’s academic ability or failure to study.

Students with autism may not know how to access the extra support services they need and for which they are eligible, they may run into problems navigating the social landscape of college, they may encounter issues with professors who don’t know about their disability and/or don’t understand it, and they may have difficulty staying organized or managing their time.

While students are still in high school, families and teachers can help prepare students to know how to manage these issues when they encounter them later down the road by ensuring students are learning more than math and reading in school.

Teaching students how to self-advocate can go a long way in empowering them to access support services in college and to educate their peers and professors about their disability. Focusing on teaching students social skills can help them maintain positive relationships with their college professors and build meaningful relationships with their college peers, one of the most rewarding aspects of the college experience. Teaching executive functioning skills can help students keep organized and manage their time in such a way as to prepare them to be able to handle the pressing demands of college academics. Determining exactly what skills (beyond academic skills) students planning on attending college will need to be successful and then building these into a student’s transition plan can make the difference between a college dropout and a college graduate.

  • Involve Students in Transition Planning:



In an article he wrote for Vox last year, Noel Murray, the father of a son with autism, explained how he learned that one of the most important things he could do for his son to prepare him for college was to include him in planning meetings he had with his teachers and educational team: “the number-one thing I should be doing for Archer is something I hadn’t even considered,” he explained, “making sure he’s in the room when my wife and I have our annual meetings with his school.”

Murray went on to discuss how ensuring that his son was educated on what services and accommodations he was receiving to support his success in school was preparing him to be a better self-advocate when he went to college, but also to have a better understanding of what kind of extra help he was getting in high school that he wouldn’t necessarily receive in college so he knew what to expect.

Involving students in their transition planning not only help students take more ownership over their own learning but can empower them with the kind of independence and self-knowledge they will need to be successful in college.


  • Look for Universities with Programming for Students with Autism:



While they are certainly not at every university, special programs to support students with autism do exist at some universities. There are dozens of programs across the nation that provide additional programming and support for students with autism attending university and have been shown to improve outcomes.Project REACH at the City University of New York, Opportunities for Postsecondary Successat Colorado State University, and the Autism Support Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia are a few such programs that have been successful.  Through a combination of individualized programming, peer mentoring, and other resources and supports available to students with autism, these programs have improved graduation rates, academic performance, and quality of life for students with autism in college.

While there are many factors to consider when choosing a college, what kinds of programming a college offers to support students with disabilities may be one of the most important factors in helping students with autism stay in college, learn, and matriculate with a degree.

There is no reason that students with autism, who are perfectly capable of all kinds of success, including academic, should not be attending college and/or dropping out at rates that far exceed their peers. It is the responsibility of high schools to better prepare these students for the demands of college and for colleges to better support these students in being successful once they are there. As more and more students with autism graduate from high school every year, families, educators and institutions have a unique opportunity to reevaluate their role in these student’s success, and to improve upon practices and norms to better support ALL students.

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