Autism in college: How are institutions helping students succeed?
Recognizing students with special needs early on is critical
College students with autism are often tempted to keep their needs quiet. They see the move onto campus as a fresh start after high school and a move away from the children they grew up with and, perhaps, were teased by. College is a step toward independence and students determined to make it on their own don’t want to admit they need help.
But they do need help.
According to research about the success of students on the autism spectrum in college, 80% of this population does not complete a degree. And the rate of children with autism continues to grow. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report on the prevalence of the disorder showed a near doubling of cases from 2004 to 2014. Now, one in 68 children is born on the spectrum. For boys, the rate is one in 54.
More children being born with autism spectrum disorder means more children, eventually, entering college with special needs. But unless they sign up for services from their colleges on their own, these students fall through the cracks.
Kate Duffy, co-author with Temple Grandin of "Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism," encourages families to visit disability services centers on campus very early on. Parents often have helpful information for counselors that their children can’t always be expected to disclose.
“In fact, many students with disabilities never disclose in college,” Duffy said. “They don’t want to be considered special ed. They don’t want to be different than their peers.”
The job of colleges, then, is to create a welcoming environment that encourages students to be honest about their needs. It is to train teachers to recognize disabilities and support students in creative ways. And it is to foster open communication between instructors and disability services personnel to keep kids on track.
Westminster College in Fulton, MO, has run a special program for people on the autism spectrum for at least five years and a program for the wider group of students with disabilities for more than 30. When faculty at Westminster notice certain students are slipping behind in their course responsibilities, they reach out to learning center staff members who, in turn, track down students for one-on-one conversations about their needs.
Duffy considers Westminster’s program to be highly successful at serving students on the autism spectrum.
“You have an example of teaching faculty, who have been really well-trained over the years that know about disability and how it affects learning, communicating with the counseling staff about their students, and working really closely together to make sure that they’re successful,” Duffy said. “I think that’s a really good model.”
Another program, THRIVE, based at the University of Central Missouri, combines academics with life skills training for students with intellectual disabilities. The students live in dorms, learning to be more independent while taking classes and exploring future careers. They do internships on campus, getting work experience in sheltered environments. And, if they have the capacity to do so, they are steered toward full degree programs.
Anxiety is a key struggle for people with autism spectrum disorder. While many students find college courses to be stressful and the new environment overwhelming, those with ASD are wired to feel all of this to the extreme.
“Students on the spectrum are kind of naturally anxious — it gears up and gets higher in new situations,” Duffy said. “Going to college is a big shift for them.”
April is National Autism Awareness Month. It’s a good time of year for colleges to revisit the safeguards in place for some of their most vulnerable students and recommit to filling any gaps.
Follow Tara García Mathewson on Twitter