In 2020, approximately half a million adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will be turning 21 years old (Autism Society of America, 2014). Over the next 10 years, it is estimated that at least 200,000 students with ASD will arrive on college campuses in the United States (National Center for Special Education Research). Along with the transition to college age comes a shift in the laws that assist individuals on the spectrum. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) guarantees that special education and related services are provided for children K-12 who are eligible and in public schools across the United States. This law also mandates that individuals be provided with an individualized education plan (IEP) to address their needs in school. Once individuals either reach age 21 or graduate from high school they transition from receiving support through IDEA to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides students with equal access to an education with reasonable accommodations based on functional impairment.
Given the growing number of students on the spectrum who are entering post-secondary education, programs have become more informed and opportunities now range from specialized job training in the technology industry to two-year community colleges and four-year colleges that include Ivy League schools. It is important for students and families to carefully research post-secondary programs and ask a variety of questions about any specialized services and supports.
What is the student’s understanding of their own social, emotional, academic and medical needs, and are they able to express their needs to others in an appropriate and assertive way?
Independent living skills
Can the student create a structured environment on their own? Does the student have an understanding of how to use leisure time and when it is time to relax versus study?
Can the student engage in meal planning, laundry, and arranging of transportation? Can the student manage their medications and health care needs?
Time management skills
Can the student meet academic deadlines and stay organized?
Does the student interact with a variety of people and can they engage with others effectively? Can the student live on a campus with others without feeling over-stimulated, depressed or isolated?
Does the student have past work experience that can foster independence in the post-secondary environment?
Is the student someone who can access supports when needed and bounce back from disappointments that they may encounter? Can the student regulate their emotions and engage in reasonable problem solving strategies?
Post-secondary education is an opportunity for young people to become independent and successful adults. For individuals with autism and their families the transition presents new challenges as well as new opportunities.
Alison Gilbert, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine with a certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from U.C. Davis.