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How to Succeed as a College Student With Autism


Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological disorder with a range of conditions characterized by challenges with speech communication, non-verbal communication, social skills, and repetitive behaviors. The word “spectrum” refers to a wide range of differences, challenges, and strength each person with autism has. Studies show that one in 59 children will develop autism, and it’s the fastest growing disability nationwide. With this statistic, it’s important for school officials, doctors, counselor, parents or anyone to fully understands the overall needs of children with autism. Adults with autism make up about 1.7 percent of the college population with an 80 percent dropout rate. The main reason for these numbers is because most colleges, unfortunately, do not understand how to accommodate the needs of students on the spectrum.

Here are some challenges those with autism commonly face in college.

1. Organization problems. College students on the spectrum may tend to misunderstand social and communication cues. Living independently or with family can be a struggle because more responsibilities all at once can cause an overload. Managing homework, job, independent living, maintaining health, and meetups for group projects can all be overwhelming.

2. Self-advocacy. The main shocker for high school to college transition is that it’s up to you to convey your needs. In grade school, your parents, teachers and counselors decided and advocated for your educational needs. Once the child becomes a teenager (high school age), they are allowed to sit in their IEP (Individualized Educational Plan), but may not fully understand their accommodations. Most colleges don’t require IEPs, but they do require the students to understand and advocate for their needs.

3. Being overwhelmed. Those with autism have many challenges on a daily basis. Individuals with autism have a higher chance of accumulating many responsibilities without understanding the demands. Some do very well in an educational setting, but may lack the emotional stability to cope with competing in college.

4. Being invisible. Since having a student with autism in a college class is very rare, it is easy for them to be invisible to the instructor. College is geared more towards extroverts and professors remember those students more. Most individuals with autism are introverts and unfortunately in a college setting, especially with large lecture class, the professor will probably be unaware of their existence. Students with autism in college are viewed as regular students with a note given to them by student disability services. The student has to physically carry their accommodation note and talk to their professor one on one about their needs for the class.

5. Learning issues. Students on the spectrum often have a learning style the traditional college setting may not understand. The college learning atmosphere is based on lecture and verbal participation (discussion). Individuals with autism often thrive when it comes to visual aides, and not many college or universities offer this style of learning. While teachers will rely on non-disabled students to determine how the class is progressing with understanding the material, sadly those of us with disabilities are often ignored.

6. Transitioning difficulties. After high school graduation, all educational and support services people with autism received since they were young stop. Before high school graduation, your parents, doctors and teachers find risk signs, diagnosis, provide accommodations, monitor progress and advocate for your needs. In college, it is solely up to you to advocate for your educational needs to professors. The law requires colleges and universities to provide accommodations to students who are eligible for services. People with disabilities in college are expected to follow the same academic standards as regular students, with approved accommodations. Accommodations may include access to instructors’ notes, taking an exam in a quiet area, extra time on assignments or more. You have to be your own self-advocate in an environment that is generally not geared towards helping students with disabilities succeed.

How I overcome obstacles, and how you can as well:

1. Understand your needs and accept responsibility. You are the captain of your ship, it’s up to you to steer the ship in the direction you want to go. Before you can steer the ship, you must learn how to sail. As an individual with autism, you must understand autism and your needs. To become wise you must gain knowledge, but before you gain knowledge, you must first acquire understanding. Everyone person with autism is different, and your needs differ from others on the spectrum. First ponder your strengths — the things you do very well. After identifying those strengths, find ways to make yourself better in that area. Then you want to look at your challenges. Do not be down on yourself, you can only go up from here. It’s just the beginning.

Next, find a career or a college where you can thrive based on your strengths and receive help to overcome your challenges. After understanding yourself as a person overall, you must accept responsibility for your success as a person with autism. You will have people in your corner to help you, but it’s up to you to meet the academic expectations of everyone else. Use your resources, understand yourself, do your best and do not stress. There will be dark days, but there is always a brighter day the next day. Look to the future.

2. Find resources and support. Before going to a university, make sure they have a disability services center on their campus. Meet with your advisor and ask them about the coordinator or contact person for disability services on campus. Once you are in contact with that person, plan a meeting where you can explain your needs, and they can inform you of the resources they have. Most college campuses have accommodations such as extra time on assignments, access to instructors’ notes, and taking an exam in a quiet area, to name a few. Remember you are paying for these resources in your tuition; you have every right to use them. Colleges and universities are mandated under law to accommodate students with a disability, and you have the right to those accommodations. However, you must understand how to use these resources, and abide by the same educational standards as all students.

You are not alone; you have people at school that you may not know yet, but they are rooting for you. These people will be there to support you whether they be the disability services team, parents, teachers, tutors, counselors, or other students. Get to know these people and stay in contact; they will be the ones to guide you along the way. As a student with autism, you must have a trusted circle of support and know your resources and how to use them.

3. Meditate to yourself. Always make time to detox from everything and restore yourself. Find a quiet place where you can relax and clear your mind. Listen to some jazz or any relaxing music, watch your favorite comedian, or read a funny comic — anything to help you relax. Doing this will help you reduce sensory overloaded and stress as a college student. You are an intelligent person and go through a lot, so relax and give yourself time to recoup from a long day.

4. Set small goals and celebrate your accomplishments. Before accomplishing a big task, you must first master the small steps to get there. Imagine you build a house out of Legos. To create a house, you must gather all the Lego pieces needed to make the house. Then you stack each Lego piece one by one until you build your Lego house. It’s the same with anything else. If you want to do anything significant, you must start small. All successful people, whether celebrities or everyday people started small. Setting small goals will help you navigate through college better than starting with something complex. One thing I did was set one small goal for a week, for example, one goal was to meet with one of my teachers each day to discuss my needs. You can do one goal a day or week, but start small and add more as you progress. Once you accomplish your goal, no matter how small or insignificant, treat yourself to something good. Remember being in college and overcoming obstacles with autism is an inspiration and is worthy of praise.

5. Always be proud of yourself and your autism. You are unique and special in your way, so be proud of yourself. Individuals with autism are often some of the most humble and genuine people on this earth, and a joy to be around. People with autism in the college setting strive, graduate, earn post-graduate degrees, and have amazing careers no one would ever imagine. Believe in yourself and always be around those who are positive and want to see you prosper. Look back on all the years from birth to now — having autism, overcoming challenges, and achieving your dreams is impressive. You are an excellent person and deserve a standing ovation for the person you are today. You are a wonderful and inspiring person not only to the autism community but also to yourself and everyone else. Do not let anyone tell you anything else.

Getty image by G. Nagel.