Colleges and universities have begun to accept that students on the spectrum have much to offer and that's a huge leap forward for our society. Still, to ensure success, parents and students must have a flexible plan that provides for the unexpected.
When evaluating a student's readiness to attend college, ask yourself:
Can he wake up and get ready for his day without assistance?
Can he plan for assignments and tests--and stick to a schedule?
Can he advocate for himself if things go wrong?
Does he understand his disability and can he speak clearly about what he might need from staff and faculty?
Understandably, many parents want to believe that their child will grow into the demands of college and that labeling their child as different will make things worse. While this might be true for some, for most, it's a plan for failure. It's hard enough for kids who haven't had learning or emotional challenges to survive the stresses of college life.
Those who specialize in counseling students on the spectrum often suggest a multi-tiered plan that allows for a change in strategy if things don't go as planned. For instance, a student could have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C:
Plan A: Head off to college and plan to evaluate progress monthly
Plan B: If the college environment proves too stressful, have the student return home to attend community college while developing the specific skills that may have been lacking
Plan C: Search out a less traditional post-secondary education option, such as a vocational school or certificate program
Experts also recommend that expectations between parents and student are detailed in advance. For the sake of clarity, it is a good idea to have the student sign a contract with his parents specifying:
The number of family phone calls per week
That parents may check on grades even if the student is over 18
That the student will not withhold information about difficulties he may be having
In return, parents agree to support the student both emotionally and financially as he pursues his desire to attend college
When choosing a college, consider these factors:
Does the school welcome students on the spectrum?
What level of services do they provide? Is there mentorship, tutoring, life skills instruction, therapy?
Is there flexibility in housing? Can a student get a single room (the most common request)? Is there any kind of supervised housing that might provide more daily maintenance support?
Are there student-sponsored organizations on campus where students can gather to discuss the challenges they have in common?
A last word:
One final issue that stirs controversy in the college counseling community is whether or not students should disclose a disability prior to being accepted to a school. It's our opinion that they should, and that a school that balks at this information is not right for the student. More than anyone, a kid on the spectrum needs to be able to be herself.