Five Ways to Prepare Your Autistic Student for Achievement as They Transition to College

If you’re like most parents whose child is heading off to college, it’s a time of mixed feelings, and those feelings of excitement and anxiety, mixed with pride and the knowledge that your family is embarking on an important transition, can vary in their degree from day to day. The confidence that you had on Monday might have evaporated by Tuesday, replaced with a sense of worry and the feeling that you may have missed an important opportunity to support your child’s successful transition from high school to college.

Elsewhere, we’ve discussed how knowing the difference between laws that govern high school and college learning environments can help you understand and feel comfortable in your new supporting role as well as the personal steps parents can take to embrace this uncertain period. We also have two terrific timelines, one for junior year  and one for senior year, that autistic students and parents can tackle together in order to understand the new rules, expectations, and routines that will come with college. However, if you find yourself wondering if you’ve left any stone unturned, here are a few more things you can do to help your student start the semester prepared to achieve their goals.

Help students be their own advocates: “Students should know the details of their disability and how to discuss it,” says Lorraine Wolf, Director of Disability Services at Boston University and author, with Jane Thierfeld Brown and G. Ruth Kukiela Bork, of Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel. Identifying individual strengths and weaknesses and developing the vocabulary—and the comfort—to talk about them early on, in a safe and familiar environment like high school, sets students up for success in college. It also gives both students and parents confidence to take the leap toward a balanced interdependence.

Parents can help students with role-play exercises, practicing how students will discuss their disability with their professors once they are on campus. And while students should know the name of their disability, the most important thing is that they have an opportunity to reflect on the accommodations they need for success, says Theresa Revans-McMenimon, Counselor/Specialist for Students with Autism at Westchester Community College in New York and STS Editorial Board Member. Students should ask themselves, “What do I need to succeed?  How do I function best and what accommodations do I need to assist me?”

Find a point person on campus: “We suggest that a designated point person be identified on campus that will be willing (with the student’s permission) to have regular contact with the family or the student’s therapist or other clinician regarding the student’s progress,” write Wolf, Brown, and Kukiela Bork. Then put the terms of that contact—how often parents will call, write or email—in writing. “This establishes a professional relationship that reassures the parents that the provider knows how to deal with the student on the spectrum,” while supporting the student’s independence, they write.

Practice life skills together: Parents can help students practice everyday skills, like using an ATM card and taking public transit, together. Comfort with these skills will help reduce everyone’s anxiety about the transition to college and the growing self-efficacy that comes with it.

Coordinate a campus visit: Help your student do a dry-run (or many dry-runs) before the first day of class. Practice getting to campus, whether that means taking a bus or subway or driving, and then finding key locations like classroom buildings, the library, and the Disability Services Office. The more specific, the better, says Revans-McMenimon, recalling one student who was tripped up when she had to use an elevator to get to class, something she’d never done before.

While summer might seem like a convenient time for a practice visit, to get the real feel of campus bustle, Revans-McMenimon recommends dropping by when classes are in session: “Come on campus when other students are there—not just summer, when it’s like walking in a park.”

Consider a cell phone: If your student doesn’t already have a cell phone, now might be the time to think about getting one, according to Revans-McMenimon, who says that mobile phones can be great time management tools: “I suggest to students that they use the calendar feature for their class schedule to serve as a reminder of when they have class in case they become distracted or lose their sense of time while engaged in an activity.” The same approach can help students plan ahead for projects and other deadlines, she says: “Program the cell phone with reminders of when to begin researching for a paper or to start writing one.”

If you’re a parent uncertain about this transition or how to help your student navigate their new environment successfully, let us know what other tips or techniques you’d like to see explored here.

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Kate Becker is a science writer in Brookline, Massachusetts. She studied physics and astronomy and was previously senior researcher for the science documentary series NOVA. Contact her at http://www.spacecrafty.com/

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