Insider Guide: Navigating the College Admissions Process for Autistic Students (Without Sacrificing Your Mental Health)

On college applications and admissions for autistic students. Contributor Abi Hunter has some words of wisdom based on her experiences. Read on and get ready to enjoy your senior year AND land at a college that’s right for you. 

When I was seventeen years old, like millions of other high school seniors around the country, I started my college applications. I was lucky enough to attend a private high school on scholarship, one with vast resources to support students getting ready for postsecondary study. I had an assigned counselor and attended school-sponsored workshops on essay-drafting. I had worksheets that told me how to order my extracurriculars on the Common Application.

The Process was still Awful.

I applied Early Action to my top school, an Ivy League, and was deferred. When more results started coming in, in early March, I got rejection after rejection. My mental health got worse. I had made the mistake, over those past six months, of making my self-worth entirely a function of my results. I spiraled, started spending hours out of class crying on counselors’ couches, and eventually wound up seeing a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with depression and prescribed me 20mg a day of prozac. After crying and procrastinating and researching my options extensively, I made a decision that I was satisfied with. It wasn’t ideal financially. Then, I got off the waitlist at one of my top choices, did the math, and made a deposit. I still wasn’t all that happy.

What I’d done, for six months, for four years, really, was base my self-esteem and self-love entirely on how I came out of this process, and that was the worst mistake I could have made.

So even when, in the end, my final result was fine—great, even —the dozen rejection letters I’d received still haunted me.

What I would do Differently

What I would do differently, more than anything, is focus on things that I loved. I thought that the college process, at the time, was something I loved, because in addition to the other mistakes I had made, I let it turn into a special interest. I remember being slumped over, horizontal, on my psychiatrist’s couch and having him ask, “what do you enjoy doing?”

“Nothing!” I said.

“I’m diagnosing you with dysthymia,” he responded. “It’s a kind of depression that is less severe but longer-lasting than clinical depression.”

There were definitely things that I’d enjoyed doing before August of the previous year, but I had subordinated them to my all-consuming obsession with college applications.

I read books, read articles, crunched statistics, and spent hours on Naviance comparing my SAT scores to others who had applied to my top-choice schools. My conclusion was that I should have tons of choices, even if I got rejected from some of the more difficult schools. When my hypothesis turned out to be devastatingly wrong, I went into crisis. There is nothing hopeless about the process of applying to colleges, but if you let it take over your life, it cannot and will not end well.

I would rather I had paid much less attention to the process and focused on reading books, preparing for my senior project, and studying for AP comparative government instead. Politics was something I loved immensely when I was seventeen but, again, when it came time to focus on applications, I simply let my interest fall away.

The most important, most helpful advice that I can give any autistic student about to start this process is: don’t let it become a special interest. If you feel things starting to tend that way, do your best to tamp it down. Even if you have to take breaks from working on your applications, if you’re not missing any deadlines, take those breaks.

Set aside time for your passions, for your special interests and the things that give you immense joy.

Instead of thinking about where you’re going to college, think about what you’ll do there: no matter where you go, whether it’s a local community college, a state university, or a private university, there will be fun clubs for people who share your interests, interesting classes taught by passionate professors, and dozens if not hundreds of choices for your major. If you know you’re interested in STEM but not sure where exactly you would like to cultivate an interest, check out some books from the library.

Watch YouTube and Khan Academy videos on topics you’re curious about. If you know precisely what you want to do, focus more on your love for the topic than emotionally committing yourself to one university or another by falling in love with certain classes or degree programs. You will have so much time for that later.

Some people will tell you that you won’t have any time to focus on yourself during your senior year. The truth is that this is the time it’s essential to focus on yourself, what you really want, and what you really love. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help, to say that you’re struggling if things get hard. Use the resources at your high school or in your community, and talk to the adults in your life about how this process is going. The outcome of the college admissions process will impact your life, of course, but one thing it cannot do is destroy it, and that is an incredibly powerful thing to remind yourself of.

Do you have questions or comments about your own applications process? Let me know.

You might also like this list of autism-friendly college programs. A great place to start or continue your search.

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Abi Hunter is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics jointly with a Master of Science in Computer Science. She has worked in software development for two summers. She is passionate about the intersections of formal linguistic theory and computer science, and hopes to pursue further graduate work in this field. Abi is passionate about STEM and computer science education in particular, and loves sharing her understanding of her favorite complex topics in programming and linguistics.

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