Tips for Young People on the Autism Spectrum Who Are Considering Attending College


My 'high functioning autistic' son needs help finding a job? He is really interested in art and is an excellent artist - a God-given talent. He has never gone to school and he is awesome. But I wanted him to go into that field and he is a little scared, he says that college is too hard. He doesn't really understand what I am trying to explain to him about taking just a few classes. I really think that he should pursue a career in that area. Any suggestions on how I can get him to follow that gift?


Most people who find actual work in the field of art have had some type of formal training (although this is not always the case). The occupations listed below represent some of the diverse career opportunities available to art majors. Some require additional education.

• Advertising Artist
• Animator
• Art Acquisition Specialist
• Art Agent
• Art Instructor
• Art Specialist
• Audiovisual Specialist
• Billboard Artist
• Book Designer
• Book Jacket Designer
• CAD Designer
• Cartoonist
• CD/Record Cover Designer
• Children's Book Illustrator
• Collection Manager
• Comic Strip Artist
• Corporate Designer
• Crafts-person
• Custom Decorator
• Desktop Publishing Artist
• Exhibit Designer
• Fashion Designer
• Flatware Designer
• Floral Designer
• Freelance Artist
• Furniture Designer
• Gallery Director
• Graphic Designer
• Greeting Card Artist
• Illustrator
• Interior Designer
• Jewelry Designer
• Journalistic Artist
• Letterer
• Magazine Designer
• Manager (Museum/Gallery)
• Medical Illustrator
• Museum Curator
• Package Designer
• Photographer
• Picture Framer
• Portrait Artist
• Potter
• Press Operator
• Printing Craftsman
• Production Artist
• Production Potter
• Production Coordinator
• Professor of Art/Art History
• Set Designer
• Stylist
• Tattoo Artist
• Technical Illustrator
• Textile Designer
• TV Graphic Designer
• Web Designer

Deciding to go to school/college – part-time or full-time – is a major decision for anyone. High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's can bring additional considerations into the decision. Some may do best in a structured program for people with special needs, or even in a non-degree program that prepares them for living independently, either as an intermediate step before going on to college, or in place of an associate's or bachelor's degree. Others can thrive in more traditional college campus settings with less support.

All schools in the U.S. are required by law to make "reasonable accommodations" for people with documented disabilities. Young people on the autism spectrum should not be discouraged from applying to any school just because they are on the Autistic Spectrum. The fact that a school has not yet worked with these individuals does not mean that it would not be a good match for any given individual, or that it should be automatically ruled out.

However, if a school ends up failing to provide appropriate accommodations (or if they make a sincere effort, but lack the experience to make it work) the person with HFA is the one who will suffer the most. That is why a school's experience with autism spectrum disorders, and the services they currently offer, may need to be taken into account. Supports to insure the inclusion, retention, and success of people with HFA and Asperger's can - and should - be implemented at every college.

Here are some tips for young people with HFA and Asperger's who are considering attending college:

1. A tutor may be helpful, especially for the more challenging courses and for courses that require students to write papers and do independently structured projects. Tutorial services are often available. The program that provides disabilities services will be able to provide information about what is available and how to access these services.

2. Call and write home frequently for support and encouragement from parents.

3. Congratulate yourself for having the ambition to attend college and not letting yourself be limited by a limitation. If you’ve made it this far, there’s no telling what else you will do.

4. Consider taking a few classes online. People on the spectrum may be overwhelmed by the harsh lighting and noise from a classroom. You may want to check and see if a couple of your required classes may be taken online. However, be advised that taking classes online actually requires more self-discipline than in a traditional classroom.

5. Courses that require abstract verbal reasoning, flexible problem solving, extensive writing, or social reasoning are often challenging for people on the spectrum. Such courses may be valuable to take, but could require extra time and support. Taking courses in communication and psychology in order to improve social understanding and skills is advised.

6. Do your best! Instructors are usually very sensitive to people who have special needs. However, this also means they expect you to attend class unless you have medical documentation.

7. Due to difficulties in processing and screening sensory information, a distraction-free environment may be important for ongoing studying, and for taking tests.

8. Establish a medical care provider near your campus. This is extremely important because as a person with HFA, you have special medical conditions that many college people will not share. Do some research online or ask your hometown physician for a referral.

9. For many students with HFA, it is preferable to have a single room. This provides them with a sanctuary where they can control their environment, focus on their work and daily activities without distraction, and not be forced to engage in social interaction all the time. Having a roommate can be highly stressful. On the other hand, it is often helpful to have a mentor nearby.

10. For some students on the spectrum, a reduced course load can help keep the stress levels more manageable.

11. For many students with HFA and Asperger's, living on one’s own may be overwhelming at first. They often need more support than most college freshman for making social connections. All campuses have organized social groups and activities; most students on the spectrum will enjoy participating in some of these, but may need guidance in finding the right groups and getting introduced.

12. Have the number of a personal counselor nearby. You may have your good days and bad. Some issues can be especially daunting for a college student with HFA. There’s no shame in speaking with a counselor on campus that can help you work through those issues.

13. If you are planning on living in a dorm, you may want to let the administration know about your disorder or request a private room. If you are someone who is extremely sensitive to external stimuli (light, sound, etc.), you may want to be placed in a “study floor” instead of a “sorority wing.” Or, if possible, you may want to request a private room so that you have a little more control over your environment.

14. In lecture halls, seating can be important. Sitting at or close to the front, and sometimes in the center of the row, can make it easier to hear and understand a lecture. Some people on the spectrum find it easier to sit near the front but in an aisle seat, so that they have a bit more room to spread out and are less likely to be bumped.

15. In many colleges, the disabilities services program will write a letter to relevant professors, indicating that a person has a disability and may need accommodations. This letter might be the HFA student's responsibility to give to the teacher, or it might be sent out to each teacher. In either case, it is then likely to be the student's responsibility to follow up with the teacher and request specific accommodations (e.g., seating, time on tests).

16. It is important to be aware that most students with HFA and Asperger's need clear, systematic organizational strategies for academic work and probably for aspects of daily living. Calendars, checklists, and other visual strategies for organizing activities should be used by the special needs student.

17. Join an activity to meet people with similar interests to your own. Socializing is not something that always comes easily to people on the autism spectrum. Think of those activities you enjoy or in which you have succeeded. There are bound to be groups or clubs focusing on that activity.

18. Let your teachers know of your condition and what may be helpful to you. If possible, arrange a meeting with them before the beginning of the semester, but no later than the first week. They will probably respect your honesty and the initiative you are taking in your courses. Also, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Instructors are usually willing to help someone who asks for it.

19. Many people with HFA need a little longer to process information and organize responses. This can mean that they will take a little longer in responding to questions in class. It also means that he or she should receive the accommodation of extra time on tests.

20. Many students with HFA need extra time for thinking about problems and for completing work. This means that they may need longer than most students for reading and doing assignments. This should be taken into account in planning your course load so you will not be overwhelmed.

21. Many students on the spectrum will do best in courses that draw on factual memory and/or visual perceptual skills. A sensitive counselor or academic advisor can help guide him or her to a curriculum that will capitalize on his or her strengths and interests.

22. Obtain certification of your disorder from your medical professional. In order to obtain accommodations on a college campus (e.g., disability support services), you will probably be required to have documentation of HFA from a doctor, neurologist, or psychiatrist.

23. Seek career counseling as soon as possible. Finding a job after graduation is particularly challenging for people on the spectrum. Unfortunately, society tends to focus on the limitations that come with the word “autism” rather than the strengths. So you may want to write down some activities you really enjoy doing or perform particularly well. This can be very helpful for a career counselor who will work to provide you with some direction in terms of courses, volunteer, and internship opportunities.

24. Some classes include projects on which students work together in small groups. Sometimes talks must be given in front of the classes. Some professors include class participation as a component of the grade. These requirements can be challenging for students with difficulties in oral communication or in working as part of a group. When this is the case, you should be advised to talk to the professor about his or her disability early in the semester.

25. Some professors assign seating or have students remain in the same seat all semester. In this case, students may need to talk to the professor in order to arrange for seating needs. Sometimes seating is on a first-come, first-served basis all semester. In this case, you should get to the first class early.

26. Utilize your advisor. Take an active approach with your advisor. It can’t hurt to mention your disorder so you can work with your advisor to find a career that is compatible with your strengths. Share the results of any career testing with your advisor, so that you may receive more guidance.

27. When applying for college or a program, it is a good idea to indicate your disability. Of course, you are not required to do so. However, state institutions are not permitted to discriminate against someone due to a disability.

28. Without delay, locate the disability support services on campus. This is very important, as they will likely be the professionals who will arrange (or provide verification) for you to receive necessary accommodations to perform well in your courses.

29. Write down your strengths as well as your limitations. Society tends to focus on the limitations of autism spectrum disorders rather than the strengths. You need to advocate for yourself by writing down what you do well and those tasks in which you have succeeded.

30. Try to think through various aspects of daily life on campus, to figure out the likely pitfalls, and provide written guidelines, checklists, or advance training/preparation, for example:
  • budget
  • building in time for physical exercise
  • campus maps
  • dorm rules
  • e-mail and instant messaging
  • finding rest rooms
  • first aid and how to take care of oneself during a minor illness
  • handling fire drills in the middle of the night
  • how lectures work
  • laundry
  • learning about and participating in dorm activities
  • library hours and how to get help from a librarian
  • meal plans and their rules
  • spending money
  • student health services and medical emergencies (and non-emergencies)
  • transportation
  • using a campus ID and charge card
  • using communal bathrooms
  • using the alarm clock
  • where to eat at non-meal times

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