Colleges Help High School Students with Autism Reach Higher Education

The transition from high school to college is challenging for any recent graduate, but students with autism have additional obstacles that colleges and universities are trying to help them overcome.

Approximately 50,000 youth with autism leave high school each year, and about one-third choose to go to college, according to a 2015 study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

But the special education services legally mandated for those students end at high school graduation, and only 58 percent had a transition plan in place, according to the study. This gap, sometimes referred to as the “services cliff,” often leaves those with autism feeling lost between the high school system where they were supported and parents were heavily involved, and the college system, which relies much more on independence.

College students with autism are typically high-functioning intellectually, according to Rebecca Edgington, EdD, director of the students with autism transitional education program (STEP) Autism Center at Eastern Illinois University (EIU). Though they fare well academically, they are still accustomed to the structure and environment of high school, Edgington says. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of those who disclosed their disability to their postsecondary school received accommodations. 

“One of the hardest things we’ve seen with our students is that academically, they have the skills that would make them successful, but it’s the soft skills and socialization that make college difficult to navigate,” says Tina Likovetz, EdD, associate director for student accessibility resources at the University of West Florida (UWF). 

Behaviors and adaptations that may have been tolerated or ignored when living at home might become problematic when the student lives on campus, often with a roommate. Conflicts can lead to isolation, anxiety, and depression, Likovetz says. 

Sara Gardner, director of Autism Spectrum Navigators at Bellevue College in Washington, says that 80 percent of social expectations are learned nonverbally by neurotypical people. “The problem with teaching an autistic person social skills is that expectations will vary from classroom to work team to boardroom, country to country,” she says. “People pick up the way they are expected to act by observation, and some do it better than others.”

Gardner says that negotiating tasks like registering for classes and sending emails can be more challenging for someone with a cognitive disability. It’s a communication barrier more than a social one, she says; a student with autism may enter an office and not pick up on social cues about where they are supposed to stand to wait to be served, and the person behind the desk may respond angrily. Sometimes the solution is as simple as appropriate signage, and other times the issue can be addressed with extra coaching for the student and for the staff.

Efforts to Help Students with Autism
UWF holds an early arrival move-in and two-day workshop for students with autism, which Likovetz calls a “crash course beyond the traditional orientation.” The tour of the campus is extended, and there’s an emphasis on consent and dating among other social issues. As the semester begins, the student has one-on-one sessions with a counselor who is trained to go past simply asking if everything is going well. 

“Verbally they say everything’s fine, but we ask strategic questions to see if resources are needed,” Likovetz says. 

EIU also has an early move-in program to allow students with autism to settle in when it is quieter and less chaotic. Then they attend a special orientation, followed by individualized tutor introductions and a personal tour with their own schedule. Peer mentors take them around the campus as much as necessary until they’re comfortable, finding not only classrooms but professors’ offices, drinking fountains, study areas, and restrooms. 

WFU’s program is new, but Likovetz says they have already seen that those who did not opt into the program had lower GPAs than those of participants, and students living on campus have higher rates of success than those living off-campus. That result was surprising to her, given the potential family support for someone living at home, but Likovetz says those who reside on campus might feel more connected to the university.

Of the students with autism who continued their education past high school, 70 percent attended a community college at some point, according to the Drexel study. That makes two-year colleges a “major gateway” to continued education for them.

Bellevue’s autism program is one of the most highly rated, according to rankings such as Best Value Schools. Gardner believes that higher education and society as a whole need to address cognitive disabilities the same way they have recognized physical disabilities. “The whole burden is put on the neurodivergent person to learn the language of the typical,” Gardner says. “We teach about self-advocacy and self-regulation, social interaction and … what barriers may get in the way.”

Bellevue has a two-year career preparation program teaching identity development, which Gardner says is about learning who a student is as an autistic person rather than trying to fit in with the typical population. Students meet with trained peer mentors once a week, one-on-one in the first year and in groups the second year.

The approach seems to be working. For the last eight years, Bellevue’s retention rate for those enrolled in the program reached 95 percent, higher than that of the neurotypical student population. Participants complete 85 percent of their classes, with 69 percent making satisfactory academic progress.

“It has been a phenomenon, and very satisfying to see the growth experienced by the students and the maturity that comes when they’re able to embrace themselves as they are and don’t have to be like everyone else,” Gardner says.

Applicants come from all over the country to attend Bellevue’s program, even though the community college would ordinarily expect most of its enrollees to be local.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), offers two programs for people on the spectrum. The two-year academic program, named Succeed, culminates in a chancellor’s certification that may or may not include going forward with a degree. It provides academic supports such as planning skills, managing and budgeting time outside the classroom, prioritizing, and other noncredit life skills that help students learn how to live independently and support themselves.

A second program called Link continues these supports to assist those pursuing an academic degree. Director Andrew Kliethermes says they consider the student from “a holistic perspective” to look beyond accommodation in a classroom to independent living, vocational inclusion, social inclusion, even on-campus employment, which he said is a “huge indicator of retention.” 

Approximately 35 percent of the Succeed participants indicated that they wanted to work toward a degree, which is why Link was formed, set to launch this coming fall. Kliethermes says the demand will only increase with the number of students with autism now graduating from high school. “Now 50 percent of our students have a goal of staying at UMSL and entering a degree program,” he says.

Likovetz says educators understand autism better now than in years past, when children were usually mainstreamed into regular classes in high school. 

But parental involvement must also transition, which can be challenging. They’ve had to be highly involved during the K-12 years, Likovetz says, and to some extent parents “kind of leave it to the university to take over, and we’re not equipped to take on that role.” To help them adapt to their new role, the university added a half-day to the orientation for parents.

“It’s a little different than for neurotypical students,” she says. “But when the grades drop, suddenly [the parents] are at the door.”

The biggest challenge in launching a program for students on the spectrum.— or any higher education program — is funding. Likovetz says one of the main solutions was partnering with other campus departments such as psychology and special education. 

“We needed peer mentors, and we found that a traditional volunteer was not working. They just weren’t equipped to handle it,” Likovetz says. Instead, they hired interns from the university’s Center for Behavior Analysis who have behavioral skills and can break down tasks and model them for students they coach, Likovetz says. These include issues such as how to find a library desk, how to join a club — things that neurotypical students “just pick up on,” she says. 

Another challenge is that a significant number of students with autism are hesitant to seek services; fewer than half are willing to disclose that they have a disability. Edgington says she does feel more are willing to disclose their disability now that there is greater awareness and acceptance nationally, but there is still work to be done to encourage them to access resources on campus. 

Gardner recommends that schools considering launching an autism program should first study what barriers the students face academically and in a career.— and it’s not just about socialization, she says. 

“Students have been told that they don’t know enough communication, but they really don’t know enough about advocating for themselves,” she says. “They need someone to restate it in a way they can understand.”

Thus, Gardner sees their work as “running on a social justice model, … access rather than assimilation.” She would like to see “universal design” in classrooms, more flexibility in classroom structures to allow more creativity and flexibility in showing their learning and adjusting access to help all students learn more effectively, not just those with autism.ν

Elizabeth Donald is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.