Helping Students With Autism Thrive: College Life on the Spectrum
Part I of this series discusses the college application process, but what happens once a student with autism begins school? Keep reading to find out in Part II where we will discuss life college life on the spectrum.
Once in college, there are very few support systems put in place for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Whereas academic support has been increasingly provided for students with disabilities, few faculty and staff have been expected to provide the level of social support necessary for students with ASD (Source). The university I attend, The University of Maryland, grants typical academic services including extra time on examinations, receiving lecture notes from other students, as well as priority registration. However, the University does not provide any social services specific to students with ASD. Many people assume that students with ASD do not attend college because they do not qualify academically. However, this is not necessarily true. Generally, social challenges are typically what prevent students with ASD from entering post-secondary education (Source). College faculty must be aware of the social challenges so they can provide the necessary supports for students on the spectrum.
The following video discusses the PACE program. PACE illustrates various ways in which a college faculty and staff can help students on the spectrum better succeed in college.
Wondering what students with ASD have to say about their personal college experiences? Researchers from the University of Connecticut Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities surveyed a group of students on the spectrum about college life (Source). Below are responses from the students about their college experiences:
“Social life was very difficult in college. Not only was there not much to do in the surrounding area of the campus, I was never usually invited, nor did I enjoy attending crowded parties or bars or heavy alcoholic consumption. I felt that being in college, I needed to enjoy that in order to fit in so I never really found a niche.”
“In retrospect, I used my isolation to justify taking academics more seriously, but this didn’t help me achieve more academically. My social life was nonexistent.”
“I had to leave the dorms, because I was being teased and taunted all day and night. I was the big joke of the dorm.”
Loneliness and isolation are two of the most prevalent social challenges experienced by college students on the spectrum (Source). Students with ASD may isolate themselves by choice or feel like they are forced to isolate themselves in fear of peer disapproval. College students with ASD tend to isolate themselves by staying in their dorm room or gravitating toward quiet rooms on campus. One reason young adults with ASD will retreat to isolation is because they find social interaction to be too stressful. If they do initiate social contact, they will likely remove themselves from the situation based on self-perceived social awkwardness. By removing themselves, the students are not making the necessary friendships to help decrease stress. For college students both on and off the spectrum, friends help to decrease stress levels, and without friends, stress levels remain elevated or increase further (Source). Because students on the spectrum already have an increased stress level, not having a decent social network can be detrimental to one’s day-to-day living. On the other hand, if the student does successfully make a friend, he or she may not necessarily realize that friendship is a two-way interaction. In this case, the student may not be able to maintain the new friendship. Social interactions are enormous obstacles for college students with ASD both in a social setting and a classroom setting.
Being in college, I have come to know that group work and group projects can be a major percentage of the final class grade. In general, group work is cumbersome for anyone to complete, but for students on the spectrum, group work is even more tasking (Source). Group work incorporates problem-solving skills, cooperating with others, which in turn increases social interaction, and in some cases, utilizes leadership skills. College students with ASD report difficulty engaging in the group as well as navigating the distribution of assignments. The students’ grades can really plummet if they are having difficulty engaging.
The video below presents interviews with students on the spectrum about their personal experiences with group work.
An Out of District Coordinator from Brookline Massachusetts, Greg Beaupre, illustrated that college students with ASD have difficulty with social skills, expressive language (e.g. speaking and writing), as well as adult living skills. He described adult living skill challenges as having an unbalanced diet (nutrition), having poor hygiene, having little to no knowledge of money management, not knowing safety protocol, and inappropriately using social media. A study done by Jennifer Cullen, a social worker from Widener University, looks at the needs of college students with ASD (Source). Cullen supports students on the spectrum through their transition into adulthood and describes another obstacle with adult living skills: prioritizing. Students on the spectrum reported having trouble with prioritizing their daily tasks. For instance, the students would prioritize their academics and neglect their poor daily living needs such as hygiene. These skills should be learned during the transition period during high school in order to ensure the student is prepared once he or she arrives at college.
Unfortunately, another common issue for students with ASD is being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment (Source). Nowadays in college, an inappropriate eye gaze or out of sequence comment may be seen as inappropriately sexually aggressive. However, for people with ASD, especially if he or she is nonverbal, those eye gazes and comments are normal and how they communicate. People must be more knowledgeable about ASD in order to better interact with those on the spectrum.
There are career related services at any university, but none specific to help students on the spectrum (Source). Even if specific services exist, students with ASD are less likely to utilize career-related opportunities like the career center and internship opportunities. This could be because the career centers do not know how to help students on the spectrum plan for a career. It is especially important for students with ASD to participate in a full range of career activities to not only be competitive in the workforce, but to also get the experience of what it is like to have a job. If they have prior experience, it will be easier to adapt to job demands.
The Brookline Out of District Coordinator has some tips to help students on the spectrum thrive in college. First, he highlights that a good disabilities support advisor is key. If you are a parent, make sure your college bound young adult finds an advisor to guide him or her through the college experience. If you are part of the college faculty, make sure you are hiring adequate advisors that can support students on the spectrum with their complex needs. Next, he describes that universities need trained disability liaisons. The disability liaison is the one to gather and review the student information (high school IEP, testing accommodations, etc.) and create a document that will be shared with instructors, residential staff, and whoever else will need the information. This will be very helpful for instructors to help students with ASD better learn the material taught in class. These small tips can make an enormous difference in the academic performance of a college student with ASD.
What’s the next step, you ask? Tune in next month for Part III about how students on the spectrum transition from school into a career.
About the Author
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.
Briel, L. W., & Getzel, E. E. (2014). In their own words: The career planning experiences of college students with ASD. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 195-202. (http://centerontransition.org/documents/publications/career_planning.pdf)
Cullen, J. A. (2015). The needs of college students with autism spectrum disorders and asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Postsecondary Education And Disability, 28(1), 89-101. Retrieved from (https://www.ahead.org/uploads/publications/JPED/JPED%2028_1/JPED28_1_Full%20Document.pdf)
Gelbar, N. W., Shefyck, A., & Reichow, B. (2015). A Comprehensive Survey of Current and Former College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 88(1), 45. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345538/)
Van Pelt, J. (2008). Autism into adulthood—Making the transition. Social Work Today, 8(5), 12. (http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/090208p12.shtml)
Welkowitz, L. A., & Baker, L. J. (2005). Supporting college students with Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s syndrome: Intervening in schools, clinics, and communities, 173-187. (http://www.asperger-manitoba.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/AS-College-Support.pdf)