May 15, 2014
By Campbell Teague
College can be challenging for college students, especially first time students with autism who are adjusting to the new environment and possibly learning how to live independently in the dorms. There is a new wave of students with autism preparing to enter college. In fact, more students with autism spectrum disorders are attending college than they have in the past. According to the CDC, 1 out of 68 school aged students have autism. These young people are aging out of school and preparing for post-secondary options, including college, and many professors and campus staff do not know how to support them.
I have autism and I went to college, earning both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. I was very fortunate to have a generally good college experience. Almost all of my instructors understood that I was different and that I had special needs. Most of my professors and the disability services office worked with me to provide the right accommodations. I did not live in a dorm, because I was able to drive to college from home. The only negative experiences I had at college were primarily with other students. I am not good at socializing, but I tried. Sometimes, I found myself getting shunned and frowned upon. I also discovered that many students did not know what autism was; some even believed that autistic people were monsters waiting to snap, as they are sometimes portrayed in the media, which is not true at all. In spite of these difficulties, I did make some wonderful friends who did understand me.
ASD students need special accommodations to thrive. One of our challenges is socializing. On campus, we often have a hard time making friends and getting plugged into college groups. Another challenge is living on campus. Some students with ASD may struggle with sharing a room with a stranger. Dorms can also be very loud. Some of us have problems navigating the college campus, and we might even have to deal with stereotypes such as those I mentioned earlier. So, the question is, what can parents and college staff do to support us? Here are some helpful tips and information that I can share based upon my own experience attending college.
- The first thing parents need to do is get documentation that their child has ASD. Providing documentation allows students with ASD to register with the college’s disability services office. Registering with disability services provides a way for receiving accommodations.
- In addition, families should familiarize themselves with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates accommodations for people with disabilities in settings such as universities and colleges. Accommodations will vary among ASD students. Some common examples include allowing for more time to get to class, note takers in the class, and alternative testing locations.
- Additional accommodations might include having a special room in the dormitory or having a special place to go during sensory overloads. I would like to see more colleges adopt accommodations like these
- Professors often don’t know how to support students with autism. In fact, some professors might be scared or intimidated by students with ASD or like some students, be influenced by stereotypes in the media
- The most important thing professors can do is to accept that ASD students are different, and that we require special accommodations. This means honoring our accommodations and taking the time to work with us and the disability services office.
- Autism is not a behavior problem; people with autism are wired differently. For example, some students may ask a question in class, then ask the same question again a few minutes later. Professors may get annoyed with this, but sometimes we need to hear the same thing twice before we get it.
- When an ASD person has a meltdown it is not intentional. Usually, it is a response to something such as lighting or loud sounds in the environment. Having a plan with a professor to leave the room for a calmer space can be very helpful. Compassionate and caring professors can go a long way in making college a pleasant experience.
- Resident directors also need to understand that they may have a student with ASD who does not socialize and needs special living accommodations. For example, we may need to have a single dorm room without a roommate to avoid constant dysregulation.
- Lighting in a dorm room may need to be changed, too, such as the removal of CFL bulbs. CFL bulbs flicker and can cause headaches for some of us on the spectrum.
About the Author
Campbell Teague is an adult with autism; diagnosed at the age of 23. However, it was speculated he was autistic when he was four years old. He earned an Associate’s degree in Natural Science, a Bachelor’s degree in Biology (health science), and in 2013, completed a Master’s degree. He has an interest in Meteorology. He also is a disability advocate and blogs about autism, often integrating his Christian faith into his advocacy.