Autism and choosing a college therapist. Contributor Chelsea Harris speaks with STS Editorial Board Member and counselor for students on the autism spectrum Theresa Revans-McMenimon about how to find the right therapist for you.
There’s a lot to consider when venturing into college life. What courses are you planning to take? What are you thinking about majoring in? Are you going to live on campus, or off? It’s a very exciting time full of discovery, and one of the most important things to keep in mind is who to choose as your college therapist. It’s vital to lock this aspect of your new life down prior to your arrival, as your therapist can help you through transitions you may need assistance with.
While this may seem like a daunting task, there are plenty of resources to help you choose the best fit. In this interview, Theresa Revans-McMenimon and I discuss the first steps to take in finding the right fit, as well as some aspects of having a college therapist that are important to consider.
Q: What’s a good first step that a prospective college student on the spectrum could take toward finding a new therapist?
College students on the spectrum should choose therapists that have training, knowledge, and insight working with individuals with ASD. Psychology Today’s website is an excellent place to begin this search. A person can log on to the site and type in an area of expertise, along with a zip code of where they would like the therapy to take place. The website will then list prospective therapists that could meet the individual’s needs. A brief bio of the therapist is provided along with insurances accepted, cost, and method of payment. Individuals should read the bios carefully to decide if a therapist could be a good match for them and then generate a list of therapists to contact. The therapeutic relationship is built on trust, which is why the students should meet the therapists and explain up front that they are trying to find the right fit. In addition, they should ask questions regarding the focus and method of therapy that the therapist uses.
Availability for college students is important as well. Do therapists have office hours that coincide with their class schedule? What is their availability in between appointments if a need arises? If the students will be dorming, what would be a potential plan for continuity in between semesters? These are all important points to consider when college students are trying to locate a new therapist.
Q: In your opinion, is it better to stick to an on-campus college therapist? Or find someone not affiliated with the school within the area? Why?
Students should inquire about on-campus therapists first; there is the benefit of convenience, and the therapist will have some insight into the campus culture. Costs should be investigated, and it may be cheaper to work with on-campus therapists. However, students should learn if there are limits as to how many times they can meet before being referred out. Scheduling may also be an issue in between semesters.
Therapists are obligated to provide confidentiality whether they work on or off campus, but students should inquire anyway since there may be concerns regarding confidentiality.
Q: What are some ways to combat the potential fallout that can come from connecting with therapists and then leaving for the summer?
As stated earlier, the therapeutic relationship is built on trust and understanding. Students can become dependent on therapists, and this should be discussed during treatment. In addition, the therapist and student should develop a plan for continuity of care for when students return home. That plan should include psycho-education so that students are more cognizant of their symptoms, with an understanding of when and how to reach out for assistance. As the end of the semester approaches, students and therapists should be working towards termination of the relationship. Students may decide to continue with the therapists upon their return to school, or they may not. In either case, students and therapists should prepare for the termination process. This would include a review of the students’ successes and goals while in therapy and the development of coping strategies while the students are away and have returned home. Taking these steps will help to assuage any possible feelings of rejection.
Q: In my research, I’ve found that a lot of colleges offer support programs for students on the spectrum. Some seem to be more focused on group therapy facilitated by school therapists while others are more like get-togethers for students, their friends, and family. What do you think of these? Do you think they’re beneficial? Could they replace traditional one-on-one therapy?
In my current position as a counselor for students on the autism spectrum, I work closely with students and their families. In some cases, I have had the opportunity to meet parents, siblings, grandparents, and even aunts and uncles. These families have been actively involved with the students throughout their school careers and in additional support services. We often expect that the level of involvement would continue rather than drop completely. I do, however, encourage parents to start taking a step back. One way to manage this given-and-take for students and parents regarding level of parental support is for students to complete a FERPA form. In fact, parents need assistance with transition as well, and they may feel more at ease when they have a face with a name for their student’s new support person, which is why I am open to meeting students’ parents/guardians during the initial connection. It also provides me with an opportunity to develop more insight into working with the students. For some parents, knowing they have the ability to communicate with college personnel may ease some of their anxiety of letting go.
Transitioning from high school to college is a process and it takes time—it cannot be accomplished overnight. This is no different from when someone is considering retirement, marriage, or even a career change. There is planning and often consultation with experts, family, and friends as to what the next steps should look like. This should not be different for a student with a disability.
In my work, I meet with students individually and in a group setting. Social skills can be developed with both methods, but I do encourage students to attend groups or join a club if they are able. Fostering friends and connecting to a greater community is healthy.
Q: What are some resources for students to use in their first few weeks in school, perhaps before they’ve found a therapist?
Students should contact the Disabilities Services Office to discuss their needs and to learn the procedures for having their accommodations met. Incoming students should also tour the campus prior to the start of the semester to assist their acclamation and attend new student orientation. When speaking to the Disabilities Services Office, students can inquire about on-campus therapy services and how to access them, as well as ask if there is a waiting list for students. If there is a waiting list, then students should start their search for an off campus therapist.
Q: Perhaps a student has never chosen their own therapist before. What are some things they should keep in mind when looking for one?
First impressions are important. Students should see if it is a “good fit.” Is the therapist someone they feel they can relate to and feel comfortable with? This is a relationship where the student may be disclosing intimate details of their life, so rapport is of the utmost importance.
It’s important to keep these things in mind when thinking about finding a college therapist. What are some steps you, or someone you know, have taken to find the right fit?