By Courtney Freitag
Many parents of high schoolers on the spectrum don’t realize that planning for college or post-secondary education can begin at diagnosis. By taking advantage of the built-in supports at school, building self-advocacy skills and enriching specific interests, a rewarding life awaits beyond their senior year.
“How do we define success? It depends upon the individual and where they want to go in their life, and based upon each person’s unique talents and capacities,” says Brad Hendershott, autism services supervisor with the Columbia Regional Program in Portland. “Some of our students with ASD aim to graduate from a four-year college and to be competitively employed. Others want a job within a supported context, to participate in the community, and to have the daily living skills needed to take care of themselves.”
Additionally, the federal law that mandates a free public education for those with disabilities, and the individual supports provided through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), begin to dissipate the closer one gets to graduation. Preparing high school students for more than a trade school or community college option takes clear planning and strong supports.
Setting goals in place as soon as a child is identified on the autism spectrum is important, as well as creating a strong team that includes educators, the IEP case manager and school staff. This creates a track for students and identifies the necessary requirements for college admissions.
“Make sure that you have a positive trajectory for your child’s life,” says Karen Krejcha, mom to son Justin, a 15-year-old sophomore seeking to attend a 4-year university for computer game design. “Encourage him or her to be a life-long learner so that he or she will want to go to college and continue learning after high school. Dream big!”
While in high school, plan to attend all IEP meetings and make sure that your child is included in the process, Krejcha adds.
“Make sure to have a strong understanding of how much support or guidance your student is receiving so you can be realistic when planning for transition after high school.”
Hendershott adds that clear goal-setting for postsecondary education includes an age-appropriate assessment, timeline for completion, the roles of team members and a description of the activities that must occur to help the student achieve their goals.
“The student with ASD should meaningfully participate in the development of their transition plan—along with their parents—this will yield better plans and stronger outcomes,” he says.
Understanding and building on your child’s unique interests, strong aptitudes and abilities is also beneficial. Students may take Advanced Placement (AP) classes and have the opportunity to earn college credits, stand out during college admissions and skip introductory college courses.
Additionally, the lack of social competence can be a great barrier for many individuals with ASD who have otherwise solid academic capabilities, Hendershott says.
Deficits in executive skills (i.e., executive function) also pose a significant barrier because at the postsecondary level, there is rarely any “hand holding” with regard to showing up for class prepared, tracking assignments and getting work turned in on time.
Lack of understanding among faculty and peers alike can cause problems for students when the ASD manifests itself in some way, and yet the behavior is misperceived as willfully rude, disrespectful, threatening or strange, Hendershott says.
“We have come a long way in this country when it comes to people with physical and sensory challenges,” he says. “We willingly adjust and accommodate someone when we realize they are deaf or blind. And yet we lag terribly with regard to how we respond as a society to people with neurodevelopmental disabilities who may show no outward signs of a disability.”
Students with autism have many of the same considerations when choosing a college that his or her neurotypical peers do: location, cost and course offerings. However, in addition, those with ASD should consider the level of supports available on campus, structure of a program, class size and the availability of modifications available to students with disabilities.
When it is time for actual enrollment, Hendershott recommends thinking about a plan that thoughtfully scaffolds participation in post-secondary education—both in terms of the academic demands as well as the social and sensory demands.
“To start with, perhaps your son or daughter with ASD can take one or two classes at a community college while continuing to live at home,” he says. “They can adjust to the new environment and expectations with stand-by support that should be faded as they are increasingly successful.”
Take the time to research what different colleges and universities offer with regard to services for students with disabilities. There are some robust supports available, such as tutoring support, note-takers and students may also be able to receive accommodations, such as increased time for tests.
“Person-centered planning is a powerful tool for encouraging the student with ASD to gain increased control over their own life, and for the team to recognize and factor in the interests, hopes and dreams of the student,” Hendershott adds. “The transition plan operationalizes the steps involved to help the student reach their aspirations in adult life.”
Encouraging a strong sense of self-advocacy and empowering children throughout life is helpful to understand how autism, or other learning disabilities, may impact academic studies, Krejcha says. This skill will be helpful when students transition into post-secondary education.
Many colleges and university’s disabilities program can advocate on behalf of students, if the student needs the extra support. By contacting professors about extra accommodations needed, students with autism can request modifications such as extra time and a secluded space to take exams, additional time to answer and process information and exemption or alternate options for oral presentations.
The more that students hone life skills, such as doing laundry and cooking independently, while still in high school, the smoother the transition to post-secondary education can be.
“Some say beginning work on adult transition in high school is ‘too late,’” Hendershott says. “I won’t say that. Let’s flip that over and say it’s never too early to begin working toward adult transition.”