Helping Students With Disabilities Transition to College: Part 1

January 28, 2020

Students With ASD and Other Disabilities Need College-Level Accommodations and High School Transition Planning to Succeed

transition planningCollege is one of life’s most important gateways to independence, success and economic security, and young adults with disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”), are matriculating to college in record numbers. For example, high school students with ASD have goals in line with their neurotypical peers, and it is expected that nearly 45% of high school students with ASD will enroll in some form of post-secondary education[1]. Given that roughly 550,000 American children with ASD will be transitioning into adulthood in the next decade, the increase in college students with ASD is not surprising[2]. At one university in New Jersey, the administration reported a 600% increase in students with ASD in the last ten years alone[3].

Unfortunately, when it comes to ASD and other disabilities, many colleges, families and young adults are unprepared for college life and lack adequate transition planning. Despite being intellectually capable, students with ASD often do not make it to graduation. Only 44% of college students with ASD receive their degree – significantly less than the 60% graduation rate for all disability groups and the 67% rate for the general population[4]. Students on the spectrum require support. In grade school, that support is administered via an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”). However, research consistently shows that college students with ASD need better transition planning throughout high school and continued accommodations in college that address their unique social, emotional, and executive functioning needs to succeed[5].

Even for neurotypical students, college is a “stressful and disruptive” event, where students “must abruptly meet higher academic standards, taking sole responsibility for tracking assignments and meeting deadlines. They may also be living away from home for the first time, building new identities, managing new relationships, and coping with loneliness[6].” As a result, college is particularly difficult for students with ASD, who are less likely to graduate than their neurotypical peers, or even peers with other disabilities.

Although there is not a single factor that causes these lower graduation rates, it is generally understood that students with ASD face unique difficulties when entering college, particularly social deficiencies, that go well beyond academic preparation. For example, while students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”) primarily struggle with time management and attention, college students with ASD are primarily seen as struggling with social tasks and the skills of daily living, including making and maintaining friendships, even though students with ASD and ADHD have overlapping issues. According to one study, which interviewed the parents of college students with ASD and ADHD:

The primary needs and challenges faced by students with ASD, as identified by their parents, relate to social skills training and opportunity, emotional and tangible independence training, and self-advocacy related skills. In comparison to students with ADHD, these needs appear to be unique to ASD, and should be targeted in the context of support and intervention programs in order to promote academic and social success in higher education for students with ASD[7].

Unfortunately, social integration struggles appear to be a hallmark of the college experience for students with ASD, with 50% of students reporting difficulties not only obtaining and maintaining friendships, but also participating in college social events, which are often overstimulating[8]. Studies have also strongly suggested these social difficulties are not just the result of living on the spectrum, but rather “reflect the more general social rejection” associated with the stigma of having a diagnosed disability[9]. Normal college life experiences such as Greek Life and attending large social events can be daunting to this population. Indeed, most of college life in freshman dormitories requires navigation of almost 24- hour social activities.

In addition to struggling with social rejection—whether due to the symptoms of ASD or the stigma against those with disabilities—students with ASD are more likely to experience co-morbid mental health problems than their neurotypical peers. In fact, studies have shown that college students with ASD, even while reporting overall satisfaction with their academic lives, have high rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicidal ideation. These mental health concerns are so severe that college students with ASD report mental health issues, specifically anxiety and fear, as their primary obstacles to succeeding in college.

To succeed in college, it is imperative that all students with disabilities notify their prospective colleges about their disabilities prior to enrollment. Important conversations about how well a university supports students with disabilities and how they integrate those sensitivities into daily campus life must be had before a student chooses a college, particularly a four-year institution that is far away from home. Students should not select a college ill-equipped for their disability.

Further, once matriculated, college students with disabilities must register their disabilities to receive even the most basic services and accommodations. College students with disabilities do not enjoy the same level of protections they received in high school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, § 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (“IDEA”), and its Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) requirements do not apply to postsecondary institutions.

Students still have disability protections at universities, however, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (“Section 504”), and Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq. (“ADA”). These federal laws place the onus of receiving disability accommodations on the disabled student, who must register their disability and proactively ask for help. No university, even a public university, is required to provide accommodations until it has received notice of a qualifying disability and a specific request for accommodation[10].

Multiple studies suggest that when students disclose their disabilities and receive accommodations, they are more likely to have retention and graduation rates comparable to their neurotypical peers. Thankfully, a majority of college students do register their disabilities. Unfortunately, it is not the automatic and standard practice. Some studies suggest that only 65% of college students with ASD register, while others report registration rates as high as 92%[11]. Also, even when students do register, they may be hesitant to disclose their disability to professors, thus delaying the receipt of important services. Likewise, some students do not disclose their disability status until after enrollment, thus missing out on important discussions about the level of support the university intends to provide.

Although Students With ASD Manage Academically, They Need Additional Supports to Address Social and Emotional Needs

When college students with ASD register their disabilities, they are generally pleased with the academic accommodations they receive. In a study by Jennifer Sarrett, 68% of surveyed college students with ASD reported that their disability accommodations met their expectations, although there were reports of difficulties with the process and professor adherence. The top five accommodations preferred by college students with ASD in that study included extra time on tests, note takers, distraction-free test rooms, flexible or extended due dates and the use of technology in the classroom. These preferred accommodations, particularly the extra time on exams, are routinely recognized as the most beneficial academic accommodations for college students with ASD. Other accommodations that are seen as beneficial include individual housing accommodations, priority registration and access to faculty office hours prior to registration.

For those 32% of students who were dissatisfied with their disability services, they felt that the accommodations “did not address their sensory, social, academic, or psychiatric needs[12]. The fact that nearly one-third of surveyed college students with ASD were dissatisfied with their accommodations is not surprising given that the disability services offered to students on the spectrum have been primarily developed for other disability populations. Further, despite being generally pleased with academic accommodations, college students with ASD acknowledge that they may not always recognize the supports they need[13].

To succeed at college, students on the spectrum need both academic and non‑academic supports. Extra time on a test is nice, but it is meaningless if a student is suffering from crippling anxiety due to executive functioning deficits. Studies have shown that students do best if daily accommodations, such as note-taking assistance and individualized housing, are paired with weekly one-on-one check-ins with a faculty member, graduate student, and/or mental health professional. Indeed, the most beneficial supports, according to college students on the spectrum, were weekly sessions of academic coaching (where students spend an hour on improving, updating, and developing executive functioning skills), tutoring, faculty mentoring and counseling. Students also found enormous benefit from a university’s summer transition program, where students with ASD are able to move onto campus one week early and receive training on available disability services, social opportunities on campus, and help in establishing daily routines. Students with ASD can thrive if their academic accommodations are supplemented with regular non-academic supports that address their social and emotional needs.

Students, Families, and Teachers Must Embrace a High School Transition Plan for College With a Focus on Non-Academic Skills

The most important step that families and students with ASD can do to ensure success in college, however, is to develop a transition plan while the student is still in high school. Not only does high school transition planning provide greater control for students and families while the student is at home, able to receive greater parental supports, and under the protection of the IDEA, but it helps instill new skills prior to the student entering a time of heightened risk and distress.

In their 2017 study on the factors most likely to influence collegiate success or failure for students with ASD, Anderson & Butt found that across four overarching themes—Preparation Beyond Academics, Student/College Fit, Campus Supports, and Family Supports—a central issue was how well students and their families could prepare for and, if need be, avoid altogether, the stresses of college while the student was still in high school[14]. In other words, “[h]ow well the transition from high school was planned, and to what degree strengths were encouraged and weaknesses ameliorated, was crucial[15].

First, it is recommended that parents and students work together with high school staff to craft a robust IEP to address non-academic goals. Students should be full participants in the development of their IEP, as it helps give them the self-advocacy skills that they will need in college. Topics should include sex education, as well as “academic modifications, independent living skills goals, vocational goals, and mental health supports to help identify a college fit for each individual with ASD[16].

Second, during transition planning, parents and students should not confuse a student’s academic ability with their ability to handle the stressors of college. In fact, overemphasizing academic achievement is ultimately detrimental, as it prevents families from accurately evaluating a student’s social-communication deficits, executive functioning issues, mental health problems, and lack of life skills. As one mother noted, choosing to embrace academic success, while rejecting obvious mental health concerns, is alluring, but ultimately results in a “collective fantasy[17].

Third, upon taking into account a realistic assessment of a student’s non-academic abilities, students and families must do their due diligence regarding how the student can integrate into the college and access supports, whether from the university or from home. Factors that must be taken into consideration include: (i) distance from home, family, friends, and therapists; (ii) class size, cost, and course load flexibility; (iii) accommodations and support services offered by the university, and; (iv) willingness by the student to both seek out and accept support, be it from the school or family, while they are in college. Often, this assessment will result in families and students choosing community colleges, where incoming students can ease into classes, live off-campus or at home, and, with less financial burden, still access many of the support systems put in place in high school. These factors may be why students on the spectrum report higher levels of belonging than their neurotypical peers when they are enrolled at two-year institutions[18].

Finally, as graduation approaches and stress and anxiety increase, families should do more to integrate their children into some form of postsecondary experience. If possible, high-functioning students with ASD should take some courses at a community college while they are still enrolled in high school, so that they may become comfortable with the social and academic demands of college. Likewise, parents can facilitate college tours, enroll their children in pre-college summer programs specifically for students with disabilities, organize meetings with disability service offices, and help their children take advantage of early college orientation programs to ease transition prior to the start of fall semester.

Failure to adequately assess a student’s non-academic abilities while in high school, and to embrace a college transition plan around those needs, can have negative consequences. Students go from being told how smart they are—after all, they were getting such good grades in high school—to feeling guilty about the fact that they cannot enter the chaotic dining hall or even leave their rooms. Resulting feelings of failure, guilt, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are common.

Thankfully, with proper high school transition planning, this failure and frustration is avoidable.


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[1] Amy L. Accardo, College-Bound Young Adults with ASD: Self-Reported Factors Promoting and Inhibiting Success, 9 Coll. Educ. Faculty Scholarship 36, 36 (2017), Scott L. J. Jackson et al., Preface: Special Issue—College Experiences for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 48 J. Autism & Dev. Disorders 639, 639 (2018)

[2] Jackson et al. 2018, p. 639

[3] Amy L. Accardo et al., Accommodations and Support Services Preferred by College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 23 Autism 574, 576 (2019)

[4] Yasamine Bolourian et al., Autism and the University Experience: Narratives from Students with Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 48 J. Autism & Dev. Disorders 3330, 3331 (2018)

[5] Rebecca Elias & Susan W. White, Autism Goes to College: Understanding the Needs of a Student Population on the Rise, 48 J. Autism & Dev. Disorders 732 (2018), Susan W. White et al., Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in College: Results from a Preliminary Mixed Methods Needs Analysis, 56 Res. Dev. Disabilities 29 (2016)

[6] Connie Anderson & Catherine Butt, Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum at College: Successes and Stumbling Blocks, 47 J. Autism & Dev. Disorders 3029, 3029 (2017)

[7] Id. p. 741

[8] Jennifer C. Sarrett, Autism and Accommodations in Higher Education: Insights from the Autism Community, 48 J. Autism & Dev. Disorders 679, 680 (2018)

[9] McLeod et al. 2019, p. 2330

[10] See, e.g., Carten v. Kent State Univ., 78 Fed. Appx. 499, 501 (6th Cir. 2003)

[11] Id.; Sarrett 2018, p. 685

[12] Sarrett 2018, p. 685

[13] Accardo et al. 2019, Accommodations, p. 581

[14] Anderson & Butt 2017, p. 3031-32

[15] Id. p. 3032

[16] Accardo 2017, p. 44

[17] Anderson & Butt 2017, p. 3033

[18] McLeod et al., 2019, p. 2331