For students with autism, going to college has become a very attainable opportunity. In fact, more than 44 percent of students with autism receive education beyond high school, according to an article published in Spectrum News. But the transition from high school to college is a challenging one for all students, and autistic individuals who are fully capable academically — with average and even above average intelligence — often struggle with socialization and newfound independence, which can make this time an even more difficult one.
It’s a tough time for parents, too — sometimes it’s even harder for parents than students. This is typically the first time in their lives that parents are affording their children with this level of independence, and many parents of autistic college students wonder if they have made the right choice letting their child go away for college.
At the Kinney Center, we offer support to students with autism who are enrolled at Saint Joseph’s University. We often assist parents with this transition, too. There are several signs we tell parents to look out for that may require intervention or extra attention, as well as recommendations for these students to feel more engaged and successful on campus.
Many parents mistake homesickness with something more serious. Homesickness presents itself differently in everyone, and it’s a very real feeling that many college students experience. We recommend giving students — autistic or neurotypical — at least a month as they adjust to their new lifestyle before you become too concerned.
Students on the autism spectrum often have anxiety related to socialization and sometimes need an extra push. They may struggle to make friends, especially in a new environment, which can contribute to feelings of loneliness and homesickness. They might be intimidated in class surrounded by other students they don’t know yet. Clubs and activities are a great way to make friends, particularly activity-based organizations like a video game club, a baking group or a club sport, which can alleviate pressure to chat up a stranger and allows participants to focus on an activity they enjoy.
For example, I remember a time when one of my students was struggling to bond with his roommate. I asked if he had ever invited his roommate to grab lunch, and his response was, “Oh, I can do that?” Students with autism don’t always master these basics of socialization in high school and may need encouragement before they branch out. When students are busy and involved on campus, they’ll start to feel more at home, which can lead to happier, more successful students.
It’s important to find the right balance of offering your student support and independence during this time of transition and change. As parents of an autistic child, this is likely the first time your child isn’t living under your roof, and giving them space is important for their growth and development. However, you do want to plan for regular check-ins, as this can help you determine if your child is struggling.
As you likely know, individuals with autism are typically quite honest, and when you ask direct questions, your child will likely tell you the truth. When you check in, ask questions like:
— Are you making friends?
— Do you eat meals with other people?
— Are you getting enough sleep?
— Are you going to class and getting your work done on time?
— What are you doing with your free time?
These are important questions to ask, especially as changes in eating and sleeping habits and general productivity can reflect mental and emotional issues or even depression, something that often surfaces during college years. Even individuals without depression can benefit from having someone to talk to, and at the Kinney Center, we often provide this type of support. Make sure you and your child are aware of resources on campus if needed.
In high school, students’ schedules are very structured and often don’t change day-by-day. While they may not be in class all day in college, students may be busier with more homework, additional hours of studying and extracurricular activities. If your child struggles with his or her class schedule, this could escalate and lead to trouble down the line.
While universities won’t change the curriculum, accommodations can be made for academic assistance. At the Kinney Center, we meet with our students regularly to review their schedules and determine what they can do with free time, so we can make sure they aren’t falling behind. For example, if a student has two hours between classes, it may be wise for them to spend that time in the library working on homework rather than going back to their dorm — something they may not determine on their own. Students with autism also benefit from visuals, so color-coded schedules can help them identify classes, meetings with professors, club meetings, assignments, free time, etc. If your child does need help managing his or her schedule, either recommend a meeting with an academic advisor or take a look together at the beginning of each semester.
One thing to remember is that academic ability does not always predict success in college. When students struggle with organization, social interactions and independence, their grades — and general feelings about college — may suffer. But when students go to college feeling prepared, and when parents are involved and aware of how to set their children up for success, college can provide these students with a world of opportunities they never thought they would have.
Bridget McElroy is the Assistant Director of Program Support at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University.
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