Adjusting to college life can be a challenge for any student, but it can be uniquely demanding for students on the autism spectrum.
WebMD defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a “complex neurobehavioral condition that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communicative skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors.” According to WebMD, no two people with autism are the same; the disorder is characterized by a variety of symptoms that range in severity, from barely altered social skills to a disability that may require institutional care.
Coming to college requires a great change in a student’s daily life and routine, which can be challenging for anyone. But, according to Connie Anderson from the American Council on Higher Education, discomfort with this type of change is a defining characteristic of ASD. Additionally, Anderson said that ASD patients often have difficulty in highly social situations, so being thrust into an environment that is characterized by frequent change and social interaction can be uniquely stressful for people with ASD.
“It’s an overabundance of new, which can create a level anxiety that I think can sometimes be more difficult for that group than other students,” said Katey Earle, director of Disability Services at Stevenson. Earle said many students with autism have reported to her that life at college often feels like information overload, where there are too many things happening and they cannot determine which deserves their main focus. Other students with ASD have reported that they have trouble recognizing and understanding social cues from professors or their peers.
According to Brendan Borrell from Spectrum, a website dedicated to providing news about autism research, federal law requires colleges to provide educational accommodations, such as extended deadlines for assignments and extra time on exams for students with documented disabilities. Unfortunately, these accommodations often are not what students with ASD need.
“High school comes with a support system, but colleges have traditionally embraced a sink-or-swim mentality,” said Borrell. “Many students on the spectrum require support that extends beyond the classroom into their social and personal lives, such as reminders to do their laundry regularly or help finding study partners.” Borrell added that students with ASD also often have high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, which can add additional complications and challenges to their educational and personal lives.
Stevenson does offer both academic and housing accommodations to students with ASD. Currently, there is no formal faculty training available to help students with ASD, but Earle said faculty who are interested in the subject can contact her with any questions or requests for further training. Since her employment six months ago, Earle has also taken steps to broaden faculty members’ understanding of ASD by presenting at school division meetings and leading faculty development sessions on the topic. Earle recommends that students with ASD or any disability register with Disability Services to receive the accommodations they may need.
Students with ASD should also consider seeing a mental health professional in case of any crises that may occur.
“If there are signs of student distress once on campus, steps should be taken to address this sooner rather than later,” said Anderson. Anderson recommended that parents of students with ASD arrange meetings for their child with a mental health professional at the beginning of the semester.
Students with ASD can also access online organizations that are devoted to helping students with ASD. The College Autism Network is a national nonprofit organization that works to “improve access, experiences, and outcomes for college students with autism,” and the College Autism Spectrum (CAS) is an independent organization that works to assist students with ASD and their families. In addition to college counseling, CAS offers work and career readiness services for students.
For those looking to help someone who has ASD, Earle recommends talking to the person to find out what he or she needs or is feeling. And, of course, Earle said that it is important to remember that we all have differences that present challenges to us in our daily lives.
“I think Stevenson as a whole is more accepting of all students,” said Earle. “Students are all diverse in their own way, and if we all listen to each other, we can adapt and make sure everyone feels included.”