Navigating College for Students With Autism

The transition from high school to college is often fraught with uncertainty, and that’s especially true for the growing number of students with autism who are pursuing higher education.

Unfamiliar academic demands, the responsibility of managing one’s own time and complex social cues present new challenges for students on the spectrum. “There’s no IEP (Individualized Education Program) in college and the parents aren’t as directly involved,” says Larry Markle, Director of Disability Services at Ball State University. “The same types of services are often available in college, but the critical thing is that the student must take the lead in the process.”

Fortunately, Indiana colleges and universities are among those setting an example of how to help students with autism become comfortable on campus, both in and out of the classroom, with mentoring programs and specialized services.

A new social world

Easter Seals Crossroads’ PeerXChange program spans five Indiana campuses – Ball State, Butler University, IUPUI, Ivy Tech and the University of Indianapolis – pairing students on the spectrum with a classmate who helps them acclimate to campus life and connect socially.

“For a lot of our students on the spectrum, the most difficult part of the transition to college is the ever-changing social cues, from group projects to dorm life and making friends,” says Amy Miller, who oversees the program.

The peer mentor serves as a sounding board, explaining the intricacies of college life and helping set goals with the student. For example, a goal for students on the spectrum might be to seek out a campus club and introduce themselves to at least one person during their first meeting. “It’s a very personal connection, and it helps the student’s parents to know that their child is meeting with someone to talk through the ups and downs,” Miller says.

Academic challenges

The mentorship model also involves faculty at Ball State, where 45 professors volunteer to provide support for students with disabilities as part of a first-of-its-kind program.

Students are connected with a faculty member in their major who serves as an informal mentor in the student’s first year, helping the student practice disclosing their disability and requesting accommodations.

“Research continually shows that students who have engagement with faculty do better,” Markle says. “The two most important ingredients for students with disabilities in college are that the student needs to be independent and they have to be a good self-advocate.”

Finding a safe space

Fostering independence is also a key component of the BUILD program at the University of Indianapolis, which aims to engage students who require more extensive accommodations.

The 50-some students who participate have at least two hours of tutoring a week and can receive time management help as well. The program’s offices serve as a home base of sorts for students to ask questions, request accommodations and socialize. “Sometimes students just come to see me to tell me about their day,” says BUILD Director Dana Goldman. “One of our students doesn’t have an appointment with me really ever, but he comes in twice a week at the same time, and that became our time! It’s nice that students have that safe space.”

Keeping parents involved

These programs also serve as a bridge between college students and their often-anxious parents who may still be adjusting to having less involvement in guiding their child’s education.

While parents are directly involved in the creation of IEPs in high school, once a student turns 18, the responsibility for requesting appropriate accommodations rests with the student. “Parents of kids on the spectrum are such big advocates, so it’s a process to say, ‘Hey mom, take a step back and let them navigate this,’” Miller says. “We encourage the families [to know] that this is their program.”

For more information: 
Ball State’s faculty mentor program
UIndy’s BUILD program:
The Autism Resource Network of Indiana: Info on local programs serving college students on the spectrum

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