Students with autism

Helping Students With Autism Thrive: The College Application Process


Beginning my internship here at Madison House, I knew about the special education side of Autism Spectrum Disorder but wanted to learn more about the issues impacting adults on the spectrum. As a junior at the University of Maryland, I began to think about my transition to college and what life is like after high school for young adults with ASD. I wanted to know what it was like for students on the spectrum to apply to college, go to college and even transition to a career. I decided to write a three-part series. This first piece will be about the college application process, the next will be about college life for students on the spectrum, and the final part will discuss transitioning to a career.



Parents, are you thinking about the transition out of high school for your young adult child? Are you and your son or daughter thinking about college applications? You are not alone. Many parents across the country are concerned about how to navigate this complex area. The college application process for young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be similar to the process of young adults without a disability. Though, there are still added obstacles for young adults with ASD during this time period. Here are a few recommendations to help you through the process.


For most young adults with ASD and their families, the transition out of high school is the most difficult time period since the initial diagnosis of ASD (Source). Many young adults with ASD start their transition to leave high school earlier than their counterparts without ASD. In fact, the transition out of high school can start as early as 14 years old for students on the spectrum. No two individuals on the autism spectrum are exactly alike just as no two transitions are exactly alike. For example, a family friend, whose child is on the spectrum, is starting to discuss the transition out of high school. In her case, her daughter will most likely transition to an adult day program at the age of 22. She will have activities, continue working on her vocational skills, and possibly even have a job. On the other hand, my cousin, who is less impacted, took basic classes at the age of 21 at a community college. However, he did not finish college and decided to get a job instead. He is now 26 years old, working in a kitchen at a country club cleaning dishes and doing food preparation. He is living at in his parent’s house but has his own apartment in the basement to give him a sense of independence.


According to Brookline, Massachusetts Out of District Coordinator, Greg Beaupre, some students graduate and earn their diplomas after four years whereas others remain for additional years or up until their 22nd birthday. This all depends on a student’s level of functioning and completion of high school requirements. For example, a student with higher functioning ASD may enroll in degree programs while students with more moderate to severe ASD can enroll in coursework. The graduation from high school is a team decision. However, students have decision-making rights and may elect to accept their diploma despite a team recommendation to continue to receive transition services.


For young adults, both with and without a disability, the college application process can be very stressful. Speaking from experience, it was difficult to decide what school I wanted to go to, let alone the hours spent writing all of the applications and taking the standardized tests. For young adults with ASD, the stress is intensified with additional obstacles that must be taken into account such as finding adequate academic and social supports, learning daily living skills, and becoming a self-advocate. This time period is also very difficult for parents. For students with ASD, a lot of the preparation falls to the responsibility of their parent (Source). Parents, it is important to help your young adult child learn how to self-advocate while also teaching life skills and thinking about what option is best for your child.


The first part in the college application process is preparing for and taking the standardized tests that are required for admission. A parent advocate, Nancy Popkin, illustrates that a child’s IEP may not directly apply to the standardized tests (Source). Parents, you must be aware of this so you can ensure the right person is applying for the testing accommodations necessary for your child. On testing day, students walk into the building that is administering the test, check-in and wait for directions as to which classroom they will be testing in. For students without a disability, finding a classroom is no big deal, but students with ASD may not be able to self-advocate and may need an escort to guarantee they get to the correct room. Popkin suggests that since no one is permitted to escort students on test day, your job as parents must be to teach your children how to be self-advocates before testing day to ensure that they get to the correct room.


Once the standardized tests have been taken, there are various issues that must be considered when determining the right school for your child. Students with and without ASD must decide what type and size of school to attend. For example, will a smaller two-year college be a better fit than a larger four-year college? According to a longitudinal study by the U.S. Department of Education that assesses post school experiences, individuals with a disability, especially those on the spectrum, will most often attend a two-year or community college (Source). Researchers from University of Miami/Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities state that a community college is generally smaller than a university and, therefore, students on the spectrum have a much easier time navigating the campus. The researchers also discuss the obstacles of students on the spectrum such as determining housing arrangements; this could be on campus, off campus, or commuting from home. (Source). For students with ASD, these decisions are based off of various factors. For example, a dorm may mean having a roommate, off-campus housing means buying groceries or having to take public transportation every day, and commuting from home means either public transportation or someone driving the student to class every day.

The video below from Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) discusses examples of life skills that students on the spectrum should be prepared for in college.

Though there are issues that must be considered for students both on and off the spectrum, there are distinctive issues for students on the spectrum. A factor that is specific to young adults with ASD is assessing and teaching independent life skills (Source). Living at home, the parent helps keep the child on schedule, but in college the parent is not there and the student is on his or her own. The student, therefore, must know when to eat, when to shower, how to buy food and many other skills that those without a disability may take for granted.

Next, the student must discuss how and when to disclose one’s disability. Though disability services are provided at the post-secondary education level, the disclosure of the disability is required to receive those services. This factor then goes back to self-advocacy. Students with ASD must be able to self-advocate and initiate contact with the school’s disability office and must be able to communicate with professors to disclose their disability.

The following DPI video discusses the need to prioritize social and organization skill training during the transition period.


For a majority of the students with ASD, the most challenging part of the transition from high school is not necessarily the academic rigor, but the social demands of a college setting (Source). Families and students with ASD must confirm that the potential school not only has the appropriate academic supports and accommodations but also has the necessary social supports. Lastly, the student and his or her family must identify strategies that will help with adjusting to the college setting. Parents, have I made you nervous? Don’t be. As long as you do your homework, everything will be fine.


Wondering what college life is like for students on the spectrum? Wait for the next part of this series to find out!


About the Author

Students with autism

Molly Sullivan, Research Intern

Originally from Dover, Massachusetts, Molly Sullivan is a psychology and human development student at the University of Maryland. As the 2015 community service chairman of Delta Delta Delta, Molly planned community service events with Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN), a nonprofit organization that allows children and young adults with physical or developmental disabilities participate in recreational activities. Molly’s goal is to get her MSW and work with kids or young adults who have developmental disabilities. At Madison House, Molly is a research intern writing a three-part series about life after high school for students on the spectrum.


Adreon, D. & Durocher, J. S., (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279. Retrieved from,%20Links/Autism%20and%20College%20Transition.pdf

Geller, L., & Greenberg, M. (2009). Managing the transition process from high school to college and beyond: Challenges for individuals, families, and society. Social Work in Mental Health, 8(1), 1-19. Retrieved from

Popkin, N. (2013). College Admissions Testing and Autism. Retrieved from

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Garza, N., & Levine, P. (2005). After High School: A First Look at the Postschool Experiences of Youth with Disabilities. A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). (

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