Students with autism face unique challenges that can make the transition to college life difficult. Fortunately, there are many programs across the country dedicated to making that transition smoother, helping college students with autism to enjoy their college experience.
In 2020, universities throughout the country offer programs for students on the autism spectrum who could benefit from additional supports, such as classroom accommodations, peer mentoring opportunities, social skills coaching, and help with learning to live independently. These on-campus programs strive to increase autism awareness as well as support autistic students to be as successful as they can be in college.
Many programs also help autistic students with the transition to the working world after graduation.
Attending College as an Autistic Student
For students with autism, college presents with more than just academic challenges. Students must learn how to live independently, form new friendships, stay organized, and navigate campus life. Fortunately, colleges and universities across the country offer programs for students with autism that provide academic, personal, and social support.
Young adults with autism experience a variety of factors that can make adjusting to college life and performing well academically more difficult than it is for neurotypical students. Many autistic students are well aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They often know that they benefit greatly from additional academic and personal support.
Challenges that college students on the spectrum often face include:
- Organization issues.
- Difficulty with executive functioning.
- Problems with living independently.
- Aging out of school-based support systems.
- Social and emotional difficulties.
- Transition planning troubles.
- Self-advocacy limitations.
- Access to needed accommodations.
- Anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.
For many students, special education services end by the age of 21 or 22, depending on their state of residence. Many others are transitioned away from services by the age of 16. Losing essential supports and accommodations in the classroom can make life extra challenging for students entering college who have been dependent on those accommodations throughout their education.
To aid with this transition, there is a wide range of programs available throughout the U.S. that have been developed to meet the unique needs of students with autism. The goal is to support the success of these students in college and beyond.
Top College Programs for Students With Autism
As the number of students with autism continues to grow across the country in 2020, and awareness and understanding of the disorder grow with it, an increasing number of colleges and universities offer autism programs on their campuses. Many of the programs provide academic and social support, and emphasize work-readiness for life after college.
Here is a list of top college programs designed specifically for students with autism:
- Appalachian State University: Through the Scholars with Diverse Abilities program, college-age students with intellectual disabilities are given the tools they need for personal growth and occupational success. The program is entirely inclusive, meaning students attend courses and on-campus activities with other university students, and they have full access to all university programs and services.
- Nova Southeastern University: Access Plus is a college support program for students with autism attending Nova Southeastern University. The program provides services that support academic achievement, independent living skills, and engagement with events on campus. Daily study hall sessions, weekly psycho-educational groups, residential supports, and assistance in planning schedules and maintaining structure are just some of the services offered.
- Boston University: The Strategic Education Services program at Boston University provides individualized, practical assistance for students with psychiatric, attentional, and developmental disabilities. Through weekly one-on-one sessions, students develop skills focused on time management, planning and organization, study and test taking, self-advocacy, and interpersonal skills. Additionally, reasonable accommodations and supports are agreed upon, and referrals are made to other resources on campus.
- Drexel University: The Drexel Autism Support Program promotes academic and social competency, self-advocacy, independent living, and social integration skills through one-on-one peer mentoring, supplemental case management with trained staff, workshops, structured and unstructured social events, and collaborations with other campus departments, such as the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Steinbright Career Development Center, and the Dragon Scholars Program.
- Eastern Michigan University: The College Supports Program at Eastern Michigan University strives to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders, promote a positive academic environment, improve coordination of university services, meet the individualized needs of each student, and guide students to becoming independent adults.
- Bellevue College: The Neurodiversity Navigators program at Bellevue College offers educational opportunities along with individualized advocacy and access services in addition to accommodations provided through the Disability Resource Center. The program strives to increase successful academic outcomes in the areas of executive functioning, self-advocacy, and career prep.
- Eastern Illinois University: The Students with Autism Transitional Education Program (STEP) at Eastern Illinois University provides enhanced support beyond what is required by the ADA in the areas of academic, social, and daily living in order to minimize the challenges of transitioning to college life.
- Fairleigh Dickinson University: Through the COMPASS program, individualized comprehensive, academic, and social support is offered to high-functioning students on the autism spectrum. It is a two-year program that helps students identify their strengths, develop new skills, and progress toward a higher level of independent living.
- Edinboro University: The Boro Autism Support Initiative for Success (BASIS) is an individualized support program that provides various services, such as social and academic peer advising, regular sessions with a transition coach, classroom accommodations, testing modifications, writing specialist services, and social activities.
- Beacon College: The first accredited college offering four-year degrees specifically for students with learning disabilities, Beacon offers bachelor’s and associate degrees in many different disciplines. Transition programs, ongoing support, and a focus on gaining practical experience are offered.
- George Mason University: The Mason Autism Support Initiative uses a team-based approach to provide additional support services to students on the autism spectrum. Students in the program gain access to a learning strategist whom they meet with one to two times per week, peer mentors who they also see once or twice per week, monthly social activities, and half-credit individualized courses focused on topics such as transitioning to college, social skills, campus resources, career readiness, and independence.
- Rutgers University: The Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University is an ABA program that serves the needs of students with autism and their families. Specialized education and behavior intervention services are provided through a full-day, extended school year program for students up to the age of 21.
- University of Idaho: Through the Ravens Scholar Program, autistic students at the University of Idaho receive individualized support to help with the transition to college. Supports including weekly planning meetings, peer-mentoring services, academic support, individual skills coaching, life and social skills classes, monthly social events, advocacy, service learning opportunities, and access to the Raven Scholars Student Lounge.
- Marshall University: The West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University offers a college program that provides personalized assistance to students with autism so they can achieve their academic and personal goals. The goal of the center is to help students pursue the quality of life they envision.
- Western Kentucky University: The Kelly Autism Program at Western Kentucky University offers educational support to students on the spectrum via individual education planning, classroom accommodations, tutoring, participation in community activities, social and leisure activities, job coaching, and parent support.
- Kent State University: Kent State offers multiple autism initiatives, including a college success program for students with autism and Partnering for Achievement and Learning Success (PALS). The initiatives provide support and resources to help students become successful on campus. It also works to spread autism awareness and understanding.
The above list is a representation of colleges and universities that offer programs specifically for students on the autism spectrum. In 2020, there are many opportunities for college students with autism to get the individualized support services they need to be academically and socially successful in college.
Online College Programs for Autistic Students
For many reasons, an on-campus college program may not be the best fit for you or your child with autism. For students with autism who would like to pursue a college degree but would feel more successful doing so from home, there are many online college programs that also support autistic students. Sometimes, the overall cost of on-campus programs make living on campus unfeasible. For some people with severe autism, living on campus may not be a practical option.
There are trade-offs to consider when selecting an online program over an on-campus one. On-campus programs are able to provide services to students that cannot always be delivered online. Most on-campus autism programs offer specific services, such as:
- Study support.
- Peer mentoring opportunities.
- Individual and group counseling.
- One-on-one academic support and coaching.
- Planned social events.
- Career guidance.
Selecting a College
When selecting a college, the most important things to keep in mind are your personal needs and goals. Take the time to find a college program that interests you while providing opportunities for you to meet your academic and professional goals. The right program will offer reasonable and helpful support and services to help you achieve those goals.
In 2020, autistic students have more options than ever before when it comes to specialized college programs. Autistic students who participate in these programs have more opportunities to thrive in college than those who opt for mainstream offerings. The additional support and encouragement they receive can make a big difference in their academic success as well as their overall college experience.
Going to College With Autism. Child Mind Institute.
Scholars With Diverse Abilities. Appalachian State University.
About Beacon College. Beacon College.
Neurodiversity Navigators. Bellevue College.
Strategic Education Services (SES). Boston University.
Drexel Autism Support Program. Drexel University.
Students With Autism Transitional Education Program (STEP). Eastern Illinois University.
College Supports. Eastern Michigan University.
Boro Autism Support Initiative for Success. Edinboro University.
Access Plus. Nova Southeastern University.
COMPASS at FDU. Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Mason Autism Support Initiative (MASI). George Mason University.
The Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center. Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.
Raven Scholars Program. University of Idaho.
VW Autism Training Center. Marshall University.
Kelly Autism Program. Western Kentucky University.
Autism Initiatives. Kent State University.
Postsecondary Education (College or University). Autism Speaks.
Families: Learn How to Find Autism-Friendly College. (November 2017). U.S. News & World Report.
How Colleges Can Prepare for Students With Autism. (May 2018). Spectrum.
Transition to College. Autism Research Institute.