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Autistic @ College: 6 Tips for Learning Environments

Contributor Katie Matthews shares tips on how to find the best college learning environment for autistic students. Remember, paths may differ from person to person. College transitions can take a variety of forms. The important thing is that students reflect on their strengths, challenges, and general needs for a healthy and productive college life. Try not to worry about what you think you should want. Instead, look to build upon the outlooks and support that have gotten you to this point. 

And don’t forget to take our handy  STS Campus Tour Checklist with you to visit campuses. It will help you keep track of important considerations. 

Knowing what type of learner you are and what sort of environment will be the best fit for your next educational step can be challenging. A high school academic counselor can help narrow down what sort of schools are the best fit based on your academic standing and G.P.A. However, there are many more aspects of college life that are important to have in mind while making your choice. I recommend applying to multiple schools—with some being “reach schools,” which would be harder for you to get into, and some being “safety schools,” where you know you can definitely enroll. After you begin hearing back, though, can be the hardest part of making a final decision.

Lastly, remember that this process can begin to feel quite overwhelming and anxiety inducing for almost every student. Don’t be afraid to go slowly through the process, work with parents and others in your network. Here, I will highlight some of the areas to consider when thinking about where to apply, touring, and hopefully attending university.

 1. Physical location

    • When thinking about your college search, it’s important to consider WHERE the colleges are located. For many of us, certain types of weather/climates or the general population of the area (rural vs. urban campuses) can impact overall mental health and general enjoyment. For example, if you’re the type of person who thrives in crowded city areas, where it feels like you can go unnoticed or blend into the masses, consider a campus in a city. If you’ve experienced seasonal mood disorder and fare better in a sunnier environment, choose a location that fits that criteria. One mistake many first time college students make is choosing an environment that they WANT to learn to love or that personifies the type of person they want to be, rather than what they know has served them well in the past.
    • Is the campus walkable? Find out if it’s somewhere that you’ll need to drive and own a car to attend, or whether you could use public transportation to get to your classes. For some students, proximity to home is important because they envision commuting back and forth to the campus while living at home. Some urban campuses do not allow for student parking, and you’ll most likely have to navigate public subway and bus routes, as well as take advantage of a school shuttle system. Again, think about what you usually enjoy. Is time walking with your music on relaxing and regulating for you, and you don’t think you’ll mind a 15-minute walk between classes? Or would you prefer to be in one main building for the majority of your day in a smaller school?

 2. Types of Students on Campus

    • While most college and higher education classrooms will have a myriad of student types, it’s still important to think about WHO the people you will be interacting with mostly are. Take a look at the demographics of each college you’re considering. For most schools, it’s easy to find out information regarding average age of students, what ethnicities are represented, what level degree people are pursuing (GED, BS, MS, PhD), whether they are mostly full time or part time students, and whether the majority of students commute to school or live on campus.
    • If you are hoping to become highly immersed in the social aspects of higher education, this is a good time to look at what sort of clubs and extra curriculars are available.

 3. Speaking of Living on Campus…

    • What type of housing does the school provide and what are the costs for living there? For many universities, the cost of on-campus living isn’t listed readily along with the cost of tuition. It’s an important factor to consider. Are dorms available for all students, or does it work on a first come, first serve or lottery system basis? If you do live in a dorm, check to see if a roommate is mandatory. At some schools, you can request a single room or different room-size combinations depending on your preferences and possibly your housing accommodations through the Disabilities Services Office (DSO).
    • Check in with the DSO as well to see if there are any accommodations available for autistic students. Is the college located somewhere that you could live at home and attend, or do many students rent apartments in the surrounding area? This might be a good time to think about, and discuss with people who know you well, whether you’re ready to amp up your studies while also living autonomously for the first time, or if you’d be best served to take smaller steps towards assimilating into independent living.

 4. Cost of Attending

    • While many students are granted academic or merit scholarships, most students must work part time or take out student loans to help cover the costs of college. Talking with a financial advisor or your parents about how much money in student loans is safe for you to take out or how much money you have saved for college is a good start to thinking about the financial side of attending school.
    • Are there work study opportunities available on campus? These are federally funded, on-campus jobs which help defray the cost of attending the university. Students doing work study can sometimes even actually “study” while working, such as working at a check-in desk at the gym.
    • Think about how transportation will also factor into overall expenses. If you’re thinking about going out of state, what will the cost be to come home for weekends or the holidays? What is the cost of bringing a car to school and parking on campus? What is the general cost of living in the area?

5. Degrees Offered/Areas of Interest for Majors

    • Though you might not know exactly what major you’d like to pursue, it’s important to make sure that the university has the department you are interested in and offers degrees that you are considering. For example, some schools offer “Mechanical Engineering” but not “Mechanical Engineering Technologies.” Many schools are “known for” a certain area of study, such as a mathematics department or education department. Though this doesn’t mean that’s all you can study there, knowing where the school puts most of its money and resources is useful for understanding their priorities.
    • Does the school have any partnership with internships at workplaces in a certain field? For example, if you’re considering studying biology, can you shadow someone working in a genetics lab? Attending a university that fosters networking and connections can help with future career prospects.

6. Disabilities Services Office (DSO)

    • Does the school have an active and helpful DSO? If you find a link to the office online, feel free to call and chat with someone who works there. This is a good way to get to know the people on campus who may be potential supporters. Having some existing structures in place, as well as experience with other autistic students, shows that a school may be more open to accommodating your studies and your ultimate success.
    • Can you connect with a current student on campus? Talking to someone who has had a similar experience to yours and is now studying at the school can provide a wealth of information that won’t be available on any website.

What other considerations are you making while carrying out your college search? Did any other areas stand out as being very important to think about? Let me know in the comments below!

You might also like Autism and STEM: Am I Ready for the College Experience? What Are My Goals? and What Autistic Students Can Expect from College Science Classes.

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Katie Newton

Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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