Susan Woods headshot


The academic world for individuals on the autism spectrum has unique and important elements that families will want to explore and understand as their student gets ready to embark on the journey of higher education. Understanding the academic experience should involve knowledge and clarification of the legal and logistical processes and the differences between high school and college. Preparedness may help parents and family members to provide the support and guidance that their autistic student needs to be successful.

Some Key Areas to Guide this Knowledge Are:
  1. The applicable laws and policies for accommodations in higher education
  2. Disability documentation requirements to receive accommodations in higher education
  3. Typical academic accommodations in higher education
  4. Communication policies and applicable privacy laws in higher education
  5. Selecting the best-suited academic environment
  6. Preparing for academic demands
Laws Governing Accommodations in Higher Education:

The high school IEP/504 plan provided under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) entitles or guarantees services and accommodations to students with disabilities and may include remediation and modifications to core curriculum. In higher education (college and universities), the applicable laws are the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These federal laws protect students from discrimination and provide equal access, but they have different objectives than the K-12 protection under IDEA. Some examples of differences are:

  • Students must self-disclose their disability and request accommodations. An IEP is not recognized and may only be referred to as supplemental information to the primary documentation of the disability.
  • Students are responsible for providing their own evaluations and documentation when requesting accommodations.
  • Fundamental modification of core and program requirements or academic standards are typically not provided as an accommodation.
  • Personal services (1:1 aide, personal care attendant, in class coaches) are typically not provided.
Disability Documentation Requirements to Receive Accommodations in Higher Education:

The college or university Disability Services website* typically details the process and the documentation guidelines. Accepted national best practices include guidelines and a process that outlines the current functioning and limitations according to the ADA, and supports the need for accommodations or other requested services. Documentation should be:

  • From a medical or other qualified or credentialed professional, unrelated to the student, whose credentials match the disability being evaluated
  • Clear and contain a specific diagnostic statement
  • Sufficiently comprehensive to establish specific evidence of a substantial impact on one or more major life activities
  • Detailed and offer a historically-relevant description of prior accommodations and mitigating measures
  • Recent enough to assess the current impact and functional limitations posed in a post-secondary academic setting

*Note: there is variation in what the “office” or department that provides accommodations at a college or university may be called or how it’s identified on the website. Most often, the office is located within a Student Life, Wellness, or Student Support Services area. Some common department names are: Disability Support Services, Office of Disability Services, Services for Students with Disabilities, Disability Resource Center, Access Center, and Accommodations Center. It may require a bit of searching to locate the correct office on some college or university websites.

Typical Academic Accommodations in Higher Education:

Accommodations are intended to mitigate the impact of their disability on the student’s academic performance, essentially to “level the playing field.” Also, accommodations may be requested relating to the student’s needs in residential settings (such as a private or “single” room in student housing). Typical academic accommodations* for a student (based on their individual disability documentation) may include:

  • Extended time for tests and exams
  • Distraction-reduced area for testing
  • Note-takers, preferential seating
  • Accessible facilities and equipment
  • Assistive Technologies (e.g. Kurzweil, Read and Write Gold)

*Note: Some colleges and universities also offer “specialized support” in addition to required accommodations. Sometimes this is a fee-based service. Federal law does not require specialized support, but it is worth exploring. Many community colleges provide specialized support at no additional fee. This may include: Tutoring and strategies focused on: metacognitive approaches to learning, study skills, organization skills, time management, test-taking strategies, course selection, and advocacy.

Examples of accommodations that are typically not supported in most higher education settings include:

  • Personal aides or coaches for academics or housing
  • 1:1 assistance for coursework
  • changes to or modifications of course content, adjustment of academic expectations
  • alternative assignments, course or assignment waivers, adjustment of behavioral expectations

Accommodations will generally not lower academic standards, water down curricula or compromise academic integrity, substantially change any essential elements of the curriculum or academic program, or ensure that all students with disabilities are successful. Rather, accommodations provide ACCESS. The student is given the opportunity to determine their own level of success.

Communication Policies and Applicable Privacy Laws in Higher Education:

Communication is subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requirements. Parents have no access to student’s records (grades, reports) without written consent from the student. Faculty do not engage in a dialogue with parents.

Once a student has met with the Disability Services staff and developed an accommodation plan, typically the process then develops according to the student’s preferences and requests. For example, most colleges and universities provide the accommodation plan (a letter or a form) directly to the student, who then shares with their faculty. In some instances, the Disability Office may email the accommodation form or letter to the faculty (especially for online or distance learning courses). The key point is: it is UP TO THE STUDENT. Accommodations are not provided retroactively.

The student is considered an adult by the college or university. As such, they have full access to their own educational and medical records. When the student provides these records to the college or university, ONLY qualified staff in the Disability Services Office will have access to them. They are not shared with Admissions, academic faculty or any other department in the institution. The Disability Services Office takes this responsibility very seriously and will maintain rigorous measures to ensure the security and confidentiality of records provided by the student as part of the documentation process. Disability-related information provided to the college or university is considered an educational record; therefore, it falls under the protection of FERPA.

There is some variation of practice around communication. Some campuses have a strict interpretation of FERPA that advises staff and faculty not to speak to a student’s parents without the student’s written consent (except in severe emergencies where health and safety may be at risk). In many instances, if the student expresses that they would like a parent to participate in the intake interview and meetings to establish and evaluate their accommodations, the office will invite the parent(s) to sit in on that meeting. What will likely not be supported is a parent having direct contact with a student’s faculty. In some instances, a student may request a meeting with a faculty member and ask to bring a parent with them. Families are encouraged to help their student develop and practice self-advocacy skills.

Selecting the Best Suited Academic Environment:

Many factors are involved with the college search process. Certainly for students on the autism spectrum, these decisions may need to be made with more deliberate focus and analysis to consider the student’s unique needs and find the best fit. Keep in mind that students in this process may be at varying stages in their general development. The “perfect fit” may be right at one point in time and subsequently change with the student’s development and maturation process. There are a few starting points to guide this process, which are worth exploring in a deep and thorough way with the prospective student. Some questions to consider and discuss:

With respect to the admissions process, it is important to know that college admissions must be “disability blind”. This means that rejecting an applicant (who is otherwise qualified) solely based on disability disclosure is illegal, in accordance with the ADA. While students are considering the personal decision whether to disclose, here are some guiding thoughts to consider: What is the objective in disclosure? Will the application be considered differently in light of a “compelling story” or explanation that sheds light of some potential special circumstance that the high school transcript cannot detail? Are there gaps or inconsistencies in a student’s high school transcript that can be explained with disclosure? If considering disclosure in a college essay, will this be a major factor in the admission decisions? Can the disclosure be framed in a positive way, as in how the student’s achievements and contributions have developed as a result of conquering some of their challenges? Is their disability identity a part of themselves that they wish to share with the college or university? If an interview is part of the college or university admission process, will disclosure assist in framing some of their communication challenges? Again, this is ultimately a personal and individual decision, but should be considered very carefully given this context.

And, finally, visit and tour the schools, surf their websites, talk to alumni and current students, meet the Disability Services Office staff members and get a “feel.” Then, ask your student whether they can they picture themselves there. Choices, as well as risks, are part of their development. Also, keep in mind that no decision is set in stone.

Preparing for Academic Demands:

College-level work is intended to challenge and help the student grow academically as well as socially, civically, and personally. Colleges and universities establish institutional and content-area student learning outcomes that may involve a wide range of academic and co-curricular learning opportunities for students to develop and practice skills and abilities to prepare them for their future academic and career endeavors. These may include: Written and Oral Communication, Critical Thinking, Quantitative Literacy, Multicultural and Global Literacy, Social Responsibility and Personal and Professional Development. You may want to support your student in the following ways as they prepare to meet these expectations and academic demands:

Be realistic with respect to the course load, pre-requisites and areas of strength.

Begin to pare down some of the HS supports to help them become a more independent and resilient learner.

Practice how to access resources and support services together.

Practice communication strategies.

Help your student to increase their level of responsibility and independence, perhaps using a scaffolded approach – mastering a step or stage before moving onto the next.

Develop and practice accessing supports to help manage stress and academic demands.

Encourage them not to “bite off too much.” A slower start with reduced course load, a balanced schedule, and appropriate level of course rigor may help your student to be successful.

Applaud your student’s making at least one good and trusted connection (with an academic advisor, a professor, a counselor, a disability services staff member, a club advisor or others), which means they are more likely to establish a safety net to help them through any tough times.

Help the student begin to identify and practice their own stress management support and techniques, as well as maintain their connections (via phone, skype or continued treatment appointments) with an established mental health professional, counselor or pragmatics coach in their community who may support them in their transition to college.

Susan Woods headshot

Susan B. Woods

Susan Woods, M. Ed, recently retired as Associate Dean of Student Support Services at Middlesex Community College after 27 years. Susan managed the college’s Disability Support Services, supporting 1000 students with documented disabilities, as well as alternative and grant funded support programs. Susan has regularly provided training and workshops to faculty and staff on creating welcoming and inclusive environments and universal design for instruction. Her work now focuses on professional development and training to high school personnel and families to help support the successful transition to college for students with disabilities. Her professional development website is www.susanbwoods.com.

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