Helping Teens on the Autism Spectrum to Transition to College

A major life challenge for young people with Aspergers and high-functioning autism (HFA) is attending college after high school graduation. Here are some crucial guidelines to follow as you help your "special needs" teen transition to college:

1. If your youngster's diagnosis has been identified and supported in your school district, a transition plan to support him from graduation to higher education should be implemented by age fourteen with specific resources and contacts identified.

2. Some high schools partner with local colleges to offer higher-education opportunities while the teenager is still attending high school. Inquire about such opportunities well in advance of your teen’s senior year of high school since there may be a waiting list, limited availability, or sign-up procedures.

3. Hopefully at some point in your youngster's school career, a guidance counselor completed an inventory of his aptitudes (i.e., strengths and talents). The results of such an assessment can provide a valuable starting point in weighing future educational paths for your youngster to pursue.

4. Your youngster's school should be able to assist you in matching your youngster's strengths and skills with schools known for their expertise in those select areas (e.g., the college with a strong science program, the university known for its music department, etc.). Literature and other resources can be obtained with the support of your youngster's guidance counselor or other staff. 

5. Just prior to graduating high school, encourage your youngster to make an appointment to meet with the guidance counselor to gather information and tips on filling out applications. If your youngster procrastinates, set deadlines by which you expect him to follow through. (Note: His apprehension and resultant procrastination may be misinterpreted as laziness or lack of motivation.)

6. At some point prior to starting college, your child will have to deal with the difficult distinction between “What I want to take with me” vs. “What I have room for and what the college will allow in a dorm.” Usually the two are very different. Advise your child that dormitories are usually tiny, cramped spaces – and he will have to share it with at least one other person.

7. Be sure that your child’s medications are up-to-date. It’s a good idea to have her get a physical just to make sure that everything is working well and that there are no physical limitations that have to be addressed.

8. Be sure to run through the basics of car maintenance at some point. Show how to check the air pressure in the tires, the oil level, the radiator fluid level, etc. Point out the dial or icon on the dashboard that shows whether the car is about to overheat, and discuss what the child should do if that indicator moves toward the dangerous zone. Also, review how to deal with a flat tire (e.g., change it, use a fix-a-flat product, call AAA, etc.).

9. Ensure that you are maintaining the literature, directions, contacts and references, and campus maps as organized as possible. Keep notes cataloged well - and in writing. Carefully photograph or videotape everything, marked clearly, to review as often as needed in order to make a final decision or just familiarize your youngster with the surroundings.

10. If your teenager will be using a credit or debit card, get that established before leaving for college. Be adamant that she is not to sign up for a new credit card. Also, explain how to balance a checkbook and how that must be done each month in order to avoid overdrawing her account and racking up fees for bad checks. Let her know that you are not going to foot the bill for bank fees that she could have avoided.

11. Make sure that all vaccinations are updated — measles, mumps and rubella vaccines should have been given at one and five years of age for entrance into all public schools.

12. Also, make sure that your child has had the hepatitis B vaccine, as well as Menactra — a newer vaccine for meningitis that is specific to the strain that appears to haunt the halls of college dormitories.

13. Make sure that your child has a cell phone with an updated calling plan. Be sure to check to see if it works well on the road to and from school as well as at the college — in the dorm room and on the walkways between classes. Decide whether it would be best for the cell phone’s home area to be based in your hometown, or whether it should be purchased at school, depending upon what would be more convenient for the student. Also discuss what you expect in terms of calls home per week, minutes to be used on a monthly basis or whether e-mail will be the primary communication device.

14. Many teens on the autism spectrum have fears about not being able to fit in, making friends, leaving old friends, and how they’ll fare without parents to talk to on a daily basis. Some teens, of course, are raring to go and won’t give it a second thought, but many fresh high school graduates are fearful of the unknown. Some may even be depressed about leaving home or their old friends. Consider engaging in counseling if you and your teenager can’t figure out the feelings and resolve them. A good counselor can let you know what will help your teenager to feel more comfortable with the move. Thinking and talking about fears and concerns ahead of time will make the transition much more successful and pleasant.

15. Parents should frame this time as a maturing “rite of passage” and not something to be filled with dread.

16. Set a budget. Unless you’ve had an older child recently in residence at the same college by which to gauge expenses, you’ll do a lot of guessing at first. A good place to start is to purchase the school’s meal plan. Also, consider funds needed for books, fees, video nights, shooting pool at the student union, etc. Then, depending upon your child’s responsibility level and nature, decide whether she can handle being given the entire spending money for the semester at one time, or whether it should be deposited into her account on a monthly or weekly basis.

17. Take into account the location of classes and the time allotted between classes, in addition to the distance from your youngster's residence (or the parking lot, if commuting) to classes. Some students with Aspergers and HFA find it physically depleting to spend a lot of time walking long distances, especially in inclement weather. On the other hand, if your youngster has too much time between classes, it can be socially awkward to find ways to fill such downtime, especially if he is a commuter.

18. The "special needs" student would do well to develop a checklist that includes not only “academic milestones desired” but social objectives as well (e.g., joining a student organization, attending an athletic event, participating in other on-campus social events, etc.).

19. Many colleges offer support programs to students on the spectrum. On-site coordinators meet weekly with identified students. Upon admission, any such student meets with a coordinator to whom he is assigned and completes a participant agreement that defines the obligation of the support program as well as expectations of the student's participation in the program. By signing a participant agreement, the student gives permission for a release of information so that test scores, grades, and other assessments are shared with his coordinator. This allows the coordinator to access student grades and provide feedback early on in each semester so that any action needed to improve grades can be planned well in advance of failing a course.

20. Another aid provided to students with Aspergers and HFA by some college support programs is a study schedule that is filled out by each student and visually maps how to get organized, use time wisely, and plan when and where to devote time to studying. A calendar, maintained by both the coordinator and the student, records test dates and assignment and project due dates. When the Aspergers student comes in to meet with his coordinator, the coordinator can, at a glance, get a sense of where the student should be in his class management and can ask how he is progressing.

21. Yet another aid provided to these special needs students by some college support programs is a learning style inventory, which is a simple, easy-to-read questionnaire that helps the student’s coordinator to determine the type of learning style unique to each student (e.g., visual learner, auditory learner, kinesthetic learner, someone who learns best through moving and doing, etc.). Supporting the student to identify his learning style and adapt study habits to some helpful techniques is another of the coordinator's responsibilities. This may, in turn, lead to accommodations necessary to achieve success in certain classes (e.g., a professor's flexibility in how graded notebooks are submitted if the student reinforces certain concepts with illustrations).

22. Determining the type and degree of available support may be a decision-making factor in your youngster's college selection. Making a connection with someone who will function as an ally is crucial to your youngster's ability to assimilate successfully. But college is also about broadening one's social contacts as well. An ally may be gained informally, or the relationship may be prearranged through a student mentorship program on campus. Most forward-thinking, progressive universities have programs established to aid students with disabilities, but finding those that have expertise in the subtleties of autism spectrum disorder may prove challenging.

23. Discuss your expectations with your child. The following issues should be covered:
  • Underage drinking is an all-too-common and socially acceptable college practice, but underage drinking is illegal, stupid, and can quickly get out of hand. A frank discussion of substance use will probably meet with eye-rolling, but it can’t hurt to delve, again, into that area.
  • Lots of freshmen register for 12 or 15 hours but drop to six or nine by the end of the semester. The expectation of the minimum number of credits completed per semester is an issue that should be addressed and agreed upon by both the parents and the student before the semester begins so that there are no ambiguities. Statistically, more college students take four and one-half to five years to complete their studies than the traditional four-year program — partly due to legitimate changes in the major area of study, but also due to too many wasted semesters when only six or nine hours of course work were actually completed.
  • What are your expectations about going to class and not lazing around the dorm room, sleeping in and hoping to catch the information from the roommate’s notes or via video classes?
  • What grade point average needs to be maintained before the new student matures at the community college for a few semesters or years until he’s ready to venture out again? Keep in mind that community colleges offer excellent educations and are usually less expensive. In addition, parents can offer more guidance and supervision if the teen is not ready to “do it on their own.”
  • What should the student do if he or she finds that they are in over their head — either academically (grade or credit problems), socially (too many friends or parties), or emotionally (homesick, not enough friends, lonely)? The college counseling center is usually an excellent resource if the college student doesn’t feel comfortable talking to parents about these issues.

24. In partnership with your youngster, explore all that “going off to college” can mean, including:
  • Attending a branch campus before relocating to the main campus
  • Attending college in another part of your current state (living on campus)
  • Attending college in another state (living on campus)
  • Considering how to transfer schools (and credits) if things aren't working out, or as part of a plan
  • Starting out slowly by living at home but commuting to a local college
  • Starting out slowly by taking fewer classes (on campus or living at home)
  • Taking classes online over the Internet
  • Taking correspondence courses
  • Working part-time and attending night classes (on campus or living at home)

25. By following these guidelines, you and your teen will be better prepared for a pleasant and successful college experience. This should be one of the most exciting, challenging, and stimulating times of his life. By avoiding problems such as poor grades, financial disasters or emotional meltdowns, your young adult will have a much greater chance of success in this new life chapter.

==> Launching Adult Children With Aspergers: How To Promote Self-Reliance

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