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Autism in Adulthood- Post-Secondary Education

The challenges you may face as a student on the autism spectrum working to attain a post-secondary education will undoubtedly be similar to the ones you have faced your entire academic career. Like all students entering post-secondary programs, you must meet the challenges of developing and balancing your academic and social life while being thrust into independence. Much like for employment, there are transition services available in high school to help you prepare for post-secondary education life. However, after high school these services and supports are no longer required by law, which may leave students with nowhere to turn to for assistance when additional help is needed.1 Fortunately, more colleges and universities are adopting structural supports to assist individuals on the autism spectrum with all aspects of college life. As an individual with autism spectrum disorder, you and your parents must research the various post-secondary programs that offer varying degrees of institutional support.

Like any student, the work you put into high school is a major part of what prepares you for your post-secondary education. Although every child in America has the right to attend high school, attending college is a privilege set aside for those who work for it. As an individual on the autism spectrum, working towards your post-secondary education begins with a transition plan, which is required to be developed and implemented into the individual’s IEP at age 16 by law.2 The transition plan should identify your academic strengths to best determine a match between your interests and a school.3 You should explore all educational options as you prepare for life after high school. Whether you decide on a vocational school, a certificate program, a four-year university, or community college you should determine what supportive services they offer. To receive federal funding, post-secondary programs must ensure that they are in compliance with both the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 as these laws prohibit public institutions from discriminating against “otherwise qualified” individuals on the basis of disability.4

Each family’s decision concerning post-secondary education must be made based on the individual’s strengths, needs, and desires. According to Autism SpeaksPost-Secondary Educational Opportunities tool kit,5 the three main types of post-secondary education models are as follows:

  • Mixed/Hybrid Model: In this model students take part in academic classes and/or social activities with students that are without disabilities but also participate in classes with other students that have disabilities. The latter types of classes generally focus on building life skills and transitioning to the new environment. These types of programs tend to offer students employment experience on or off campus.

  • Substantially Separate Model: Much how the name indicates, students in these type of programs work solely in classes with other students with disabilities. These students generally participate in basic social activities on campus and may be offered employment experience that usually takes the form of a rotation with pre-established employment slots on or off campus.

  • Inclusive Individual Support Model: The individual’s career goals are the major focus in this type of education model. Students receive individualized services in college courses, certificate programs, and/or degree programs, for audit or credit. The course of study and employment experiences stem from the individual’s career goals. The model is “[b]uilt on a collaborative approach via an interagency team (adult service agencies, generic community services, and the college’s disability support office), agencies identify a flexible range of services and share costs.”5

Astute preparation is a key for anybody attending a post-secondary program, but for individuals on the autism spectrum, preparation is of even greater importance. SAT, ACT, IQ or achievement tests may be required depending on the type of institution you would like to attend.5 As you begin research into potential programs, you must ask yourself what your career goals are, what the entrance requirements for specific programs are, what the average length of completion for a specific program is, and what courses and how many overall credits are required for completion.6 Research into potential programs should involve determining what accommodations they offer and if there is a disability support student organization that works towards ensuring that students have a community that promotes acceptance and diversity.6 Your preparation should not only focus on academic programs, but also on how to plan for adapting to new social situations and independence.

Another important skill to develop as you enter into life on your own is self-advocacy. When you enter a post-secondary program, the responsibility of advocacy falls squarely on your shoulders. Success in self-advocacy “involves knowing when and how to approach others in order to negotiate desired accommodations, so as to achieve mutual understanding, fulfillment, and productivity.”7 This skill will help you to better communicate your needs, which will become beneficial as you enter a post-secondary program, become more socially affluent, and will help you to attain a desired level of comfort in your eventual career. As an advocate for yourself, you must know what supports and services are necessary, but also when and how to properly utilize disclosure. Disclosure “involves sharing with another person information that is potentially discrediting or stigmatizing to one’s reputation with the goal of better mutual understanding.”8 Disclosure and self-advocacy are inter-related because some degree of disclosure is generally required to negotiate your desired accommodations, which may require further explanation before they are awarded by the disability support staff.7

The act of disclosure may seem burdensome, but the process is necessary for you to become a proficient self-advocate. Some of the difficulties concerning disclosure involve deciding what information you should disclose and to whom. There is some risk in failing to disclose your disability to the proper channels of your post-secondary education program. For example, if you receive a poor or failing grade in a class due to your disability and fail to disclose, you cannot retroactively request supportive accommodations because “accommodations will only be in effect from the time you make the request.”4 If you do decide to disclose, set up a meeting with your disability support office to discuss the impact this will have on your education. For this meeting, it is advantageous to bring a copy of your high school IEP (if available), a letter from your doctor or psychologist that documents your diagnosis, and a list from your doctor/psychologist that would explain which accommodations are appropriate and why.4 From this meeting the disability support staff should provide you with a confidential accommodations letter for you to give to each of your professors in order for them to provide you with the necessary accommodations.

Clearly, the objective of entering into post-secondary education is to develop a skill or trade that will allow you to find and maintain employment after completion. Like anybody leaving the house for the first time and being plunged into independence, people with autism may require help to deal with the structure and stress of life on their own. Individuals on the autism spectrum with plans to attend a post-secondary program should review a helpful guide known as Navigating College: A Handbook on Self Advocacy Written for Autistic Students from Autistic Adults. The handbook includes articles on accommodation, independent living, health and safety, self-advocacy, and social issues in college written by adults with autism.