Insights from the Experts:
Adelphi University on Long Island in New York has made a commitment to its students with autism in the form of a program called Bridges. The program's purpose is simple: to provide the support students with autism need to succeed at Adelphi. Bridges is specifically for students who have already been accepted to the university; but Dr. Ionas Sapountzis, Director of the University's Center for School Psychology Program and Mitch Nagler, Director of Bridges, offer insights into how to prepare so that, by the time you arrive on campus, your teen with autism is ready to succeed.
Start Building Indepent Living Skills ASAP:
First and most importantly, say Nagler and Sapountzis, it’s important to start as early as possible teaching independent living skills. Even in their early teens, it’s not too early to start building skills so that autistic youngsters can wake themselves up, use a bank, shop for food, cook breakfast. “The earlier you can start, the better.”
Have a Recent Neuropsychological Exam Completed:
Parents often assume that a high school IEP (Individualized Educational Program) is sufficient to prove a need for accommodations in college. But Nagler says “You need a recent neuropsychological evaluation to document your needs. The IEP doesn’t count. It’s helpful to have an IEP, but you need that psych report.” Because a full evaluation can be very expensive, Nagler suggests parents consider having the report completed through the school district.
Look for Schools That Offer Appropriate Supports:
Both students and parents can be proactive about finding the right school with the right supports. Says Sapountzis, “It’s important to ask about these services ahead of time; when you look at different schools, you can ask about this. Talk to the person in charge of the disability office. It’s public information. You can then apply with that information in mind.”
Meet with Colleges' Disabilities Support Officers:
Once you’ve selected a few prospective schools, it’s time to meet with the disabilities support service office at the school of interest. Nagler explains that almost every college and university has a disabilities support service office, but “not all are autism friendly; students with autism may need unique accommodations because of their learning styles.” Accommodations might include extra time for tests, help with note taking and more.
Come to Campus Early to Plan for Transition:
In June, after you’ve been accepted to college, come to campus. Don’t wait until August when the entire freshman class arrives. Meet with the director of disabilities support to plan for transition. “That part hasn’t been worked out smoothly yet at most schools,” says Sapountzis, “so parents and kids must be pro active. Take preventive action.” Unlike K-12 public education, colleges will not come to you with identified concerns: you must document, communicate, follow up. “In college, YOU must say “I need help.”
Understand That College Students Must Speak for Themselves:
While parents can and should be involved with the preparation process, it’s important for them to recognize that they can’t get involved at the same level when kids are in college. In college, the student must actively ask for help. Some students don’t want to do that, says Sapountzis, but anxiety and stress can end a college career. It’s critically important that students are able to recognize danger signs and be ready, willing and able to access the support they need.
More Options for College Prep:
Not every teen with autism will be college bound. Even those with the intellectual ability to handle college may not be ready for the social demands and executive functioning of a residential campus. If your teen with autism is among those who can handle the coursework but not campus life, there are a few options to consider.
- Junior college in your local area is a good choice for students who are ready to taste independence but not quite ready to take off on their own.
- Distance learning from home is a good possibility for some students who find typical classes and lectures don't work for their learning style.
- College prep programs are springing up across the country, offering intensive residential programs to prepare teens for independent living. Some of these are associated with universities, others are standalone.
Whatever direction you take, the keys to success are preparation - both for the student and for the school. If you're not sure that your child or their school of choice are ready for the challenge, it's okay to wait, or to take it a step at a time.