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Finding a College Program for Students with Autism

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Published: 
May 12, 2014

This is the fourth in a series examining the research and reality of the transition to adulthood, with advice from experts who have studied the process and young adults who have lived it. Other articles include parts 1) Coming of Age: The Transition to Adulthood, 2) Daily Living Skills: A Key to Independence, and 3) Autism and the College Experience.

Photo of college cap and gownRegardless of where a student falls on the autism spectrum, whether he was valedictorian or left high school without a diploma, there is a U.S. college program for him. But it probably will take a little research to find the right fit. Here are some resources and tips that can help.

What are the options for students with intellectual disabilities?

Students with intellectual disabilities can receive U.S. federal grants to attend approved programs at one of 30 colleges and universities, including big names such as Clemson, University of California, and Vanderbilt. Students at these "comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP)" programs focus on academic, vocational and independent living skills. They generally attend some classes or job training programs with nondisabled students. For a list of schools, see the Federal Student Aid website.

Not every state has an approved CTP program. However, that doesn’t mean there are no options near you. You can search by state for programs at ThinkCollege.net. That website lists two-year community colleges and four-year schools that have programs and services for students with intellectual disability.

My child got accepted to a selective university. Can she still get help?

Every U.S. college and university that accepts federal money must provide "reasonable" accommodations to students with disabilities who are otherwise qualified for admission to that school. Those accommodations often include extended time on tests, taking tests in a room free of distractions, and use of a note taker or recorder for class notes. Schools do not have to provide individual tutoring, although some colleges, particularly two-year schools, may choose to offer it.

Colleges may differ in the levels of support they offer students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), so it’s important to do some research. You may contact a college’s disabilities services office to find out what types of supports are available for free, how to apply for them, and more.

Students and parents may want to ask:

  • How many students do you have with ASD?
  • What types of academic accommodations do you typically provide?
  • How do I let professors know I need accommodations?
  • If I live on-campus, can I get my own dorm room (a "disability single")?
  • Do you offer tutoring?
  • Do you have peer mentoring or counseling programs for students with ASD?

What if a student needs more help than "reasonable accommodations"?

Some universities also have add-on programs for students with autism that exceed the federal requirements for accommodations. For an additional fee per semester, students can receive extra support, such as mentoring, tutoring, counseling, and/or help with social, independent living and self-advocacy skills.

The West Virginia Autism Training Center opened one of the first such programs at Marshall University more than a decade ago. A number of other colleges and universities offer similar programs, as do some companies that work with students in particular regions of the country.

The WV Autism Center has created an assessment tool for families to use when researching colleges, called Benchmarks for Effective Supports for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Among other things, it recommends finding out if a college has:

  • "Professionals or paraprofessionals who assess and teach independent living skills,"
  • "Access to basic academic adjustments and reasonable modifications (i.e. extended time on tests, note taking services, etc.) necessary for success in the classroom," and
  • "Professional or paraprofessional staff available to teach the skills necessary for social networking."

To learn about your rights and responsibilities at college, check out these resources from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights:

Finding the right school, and supports, can make the college transition smoother.  "With a carefully planned transition, appropriate accommodations, and support, ASD students can be successful academically and socially in college," according to researchers Ernst VanBergeijk, Ami Klin and Fred Volkmar.1

What’s been your experience with the college transition? Email ian@kennedykrieger.org to let us know.

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References: 
  1. VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A. & Volkmar, F. (2008) Supporting More Able Students on the Autism Spectrum. Autism Dev Disord (2008) 38:1359–1370. View abstract.