As throngs of children with autism turn 18, many will enroll in college in pursuit of higher education. With one in 88 children being diagnosed on the autism spectrum every year, this means almost 45,000 to 50,000 kids with autism turn 18 each year, according to autism researcher Paul Shattuck, PhD of the A. J. Drexel Autism Institute.
Colleges and universities across the nation are not prepared to support these students. According to the website CollegeAutismSpectrum.com which was started by Dr. Jane Brown who has a college-age child on the autism spectrum, there are a mere 23 programs with dedicated programs to help students succeed in the collegiate environment. Many of these programs cost upwards of $5,000 per semester in addition to the typical costs of attendance often making them out-of-reach for already financially-strapped parents of a child with a disability.
When a student with autism graduates from high school and enters college, they are no long covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which guarantees a “free and appropriate education” up to age 22. Individual Education Plans (IEP) are replaced by accommodations approved under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 known as “Section 504 Plans”. Students no longer have a team of educators, administrators, counselors, and health professionals hammering out their plan of education as they are now adults and are expected to advocate for themselves.
When a student with autism enrolls in college, they are encouraged to meet with the Office of Disabilities to define appropriate accommodations within the classroom. Extra time on tests, dictation devices, and written instructions are some of the more common accommodations but what is sorely lacking is the thing they need the most: support and training as they become self-advocating adults.
In the college environment, students with autism are required to self-define strengths and weaknesses, deal with conflict resolution, and navigate the complexities of group dynamics for assigned projects all while adjusting to a new world without the strong support network they have relied on their entire academic career. Parents and other caring advocates are discouraged from “interfering” which leaves a new college student at the mercy of the strength of the support program of the school. And too many schools are failing them.
Community college is often the first step for the student with autism as living away from home may not be possible yet. The combination of a new academic environment and living away from supportive parents is often too much to handle as those with autism may still be learning important life skills at this age. Sending a student to a college thousands of miles from home is not a viable option so the local community college is the choice for many.
Of the twenty-three colleges listed on CollegeAutismSpectrum.com as having an autism support program, one is a community college. The U.S. Department of Education states there are 1,100 community colleges across the nation and only one provides a dedicated autism support program. While every college or university is required to have an Office of Disability Services, few are prepared to offer the support for the thousands of students with autism who are now or soon will be enrolled on their campuses.
There are many private companies offering guidance for schools wishing to increase support for students with autism but, for community colleges with limited resources, this is beyond their budget leaving thousands of students who would benefit from this guidance with sub-standard services.
Over the past twenty years, services for those on the autism spectrum has grown leaps and bounds. Children are diagnosed more accurately and quickly, therapies such a Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are now covered under major insurance plans, and inclusion in classrooms in public elementary and secondary schools is the new normal. However, the minute a student steps onto a college campus, the environment reverts back to an outdated model. Support must be updated in order to give students with autism the opportunity to excel academically and find success in the college environment.
The US College Autism Project is seeking grants to finance training for faculty and staff of universities and colleges so they can better serve students with autism but, sadly, interest and enthusiasm is low. To find out more about the US College Autism Project and attend a conference, please visit their webpage. Dr. Michael McManmon, founder of the College Internship Program, a comprehensive post-secondary support program for adults on the autism spectrum is also the author of the wonderful book Made for Good Purpose: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Help Their Adolescent with Asperger’s, High Functioning Autism or a Learning Difference Become an Independent Adult.