Tyler is an autistic adult working as a Quality Assurance Specialist for an aerospace engineering and manufacturing company. While he had an IEP throughout his public schooling, navigating the college environment and workplace without such accommodations has been challenging. I had a chance to correspond with him, and here he shares some of his journey through a series of interview questions, providing important insight into what it was like for him as an autistic student using local resources and planning for his future. Thank you, Tyler!
Katie Matthews: When and how did you know you wanted to pursue a STEM career, and when did you decide that you wanted to go to college?
Tyler: For me, there was rarely a day in which I considered not going to college – I always really liked school and learning and wanted to build on that, making it a natural step forward from high school. As for [a] STEM career, numbers have always seemed to fascinate me.
KM: What was the college application process like for you? Where did you end up going to school and what did you study as a major?
Tyler: I went to college at Central Connecticut State University and majored in mathematics with a specialization in statistics. As for the application process, issues came with deciding how much I was willing to disclose about my disability and finding the right school for me. My mother worked with Jane Theirfeld Brown from College Autism Spectrum to learn about the types of services that might be available to me at different schools. I applied to a number of colleges, but I decided to go with one close to home for easier commuting as I wasn’t ready to live on campus right away.
KM: What sort of classroom accommodations or help from your family did you seek out while in college?
Tyler: For accommodations, I disclosed [my diagnosis] and met with the Disability Office and the main [accommodations] I used for the first few semesters were alternate testing sites and extended time. I also had a private life-coach who worked with me a few hours each week on college’s social aspects and looking at potential jobs. Originally, it was difficult for me to talk with professors and she helped me navigate that issue, making sure that I had my schedule organized and had study schedules in place. In my sixth semester on campus (junior year, spring semester), I moved on campus to a single dorm room. The classes I needed to take were later at night, so it made sense.
KM: What were the biggest differences for you in terms of high school workload vs. college workload and lifestyle?
Tyler: For me, the biggest difference between high school workload and college workload was that high school had more assignments but was a lot more stable, as I was only in one building. In college (with my classes spaced apart so I generally had two per day) I had more room to work on assignments, but I was bouncing around, especially between classes which were in different buildings, and then I was also [balancing] academic life with work. Getting a place on campus helped alleviate stress as then I had a place to rest and calm.
KM: How did you prepare for the transition out of college and into the job market?
Tyler: Right out of high school, I was working with the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services to find a job and develop work skills, and they found two prospective jobs in New Britain – one at Catholic Charities and one at the Institute for Municipal & Regional Policy (located at Central’s downtown campus) – and I picked the latter. The job, though, didn’t start until the summer following my freshman year. I briefly had a job coach help me with some aspects of the position, but I soon began completing my work without her. During the semester, I tended to work around ten hours per week as I also was taking four classes and had to figure out the bus system to get to work and back. My workload expanded to just under 20 hours during the summer.
KM: What were the most challenging parts about finding your current job and once you started working?
Tyler: I got my current job thanks to a connection from my life coach, originally starting as an intern in my final semester of college, which would last over a year. One of the major difficulties is with transportation as I’m still working on getting my license. As for the job itself, I have difficulties approaching others for help. My exact job title is Quality Assurance Specialist, working in the quality assurance sector, inputting risk evaluations regarding the company’s suppliers.
KM: When thinking about your time in college or now in the workplace, what sort of social outlets do you have and most enjoy?
Tyler: While in college (and even now), my primary social outlet was taking ballroom dance, which was much easier to attend in earlier semesters as I was commuting and had earlier classes so I had afternoons and evenings free. However, as college continued, it became increasingly harder to attend dance as I had evening classes that interfered. Now that I’m out of school and working, I can more easily attend and enjoy my dance lessons.
KM: Did you ever have times you felt lonely or isolated because of having autism or for any other reasons? If so, how did you deal with that?
Tyler: I don’t exactly feel that lonely or isolated—in fact, I generally prefer being alone or with minimal presence.
KM: Do you have advice for other autistic students in their transition to college or even into the workplace?
Tyler: The advice I would give for other autistic students in the transition is to create your own path, one that may end up noticeably different than that of your peers. You need skills other than those taught in a classroom, and in order to succeed in both college and the workplace, a balance is necessary between both social skills and work skills.
Thanks again, Tyler, for sharing your path!
Just as Tyler said, every journey to a fulfilling career will be different. What do you envision will be a challenging part of navigating the school to work transition for you? What can you start working on now? For related resources, check out Autism and STEM: Am I Ready for the College Experience? What Are My Goals? and Autistic Self-Advocacy and STEM: A College Journey
For those community members currently working, what resources helped you succeed? Please share below!
Tips from Tyler’s mom:
Start preparing early: “I started attending college-prep presentations when Tyler was in middle school, learning about college expectations and how things work when a student no longer has an IEP or is no longer protected under IDEA.”
Try different programs, but don’t be afraid to customize: “In the end, we kind of created our own program for Tyler for college. We have also worked really closely with the Center for Children with Special Needs and Center for Independence.”
Collaborating with psychologists, autism resource centers, and other professionals can lead to having a great team to work with: “The life coach model is also fantastic. I know it is what is offered through our state services, but the waiting list is years! We used the model but had to create our own (at expense to the family). Mom can’t call the boss or check in with a professor, but the life coach can have that vocational relationship and can work with the individual to develop skills they may need to handle a variety of situations.”
Don’t neglect the big picture: “We have always been pushed with our outside supports to make sure that Tyler was building the skills that he would need in order to work in addition to being able to function in the classroom. When you think about it, Tyler started school at age 3 – he was really good at ‘doing school’ by high school with so much practice – but his opportunities in the community and work place were much more limited. I hope Stairway to Stem encourages students and families to work on the job skills and social skills with the same focus and drive as the academic skills. I think every year school systems are moving in a better direction, but it is still a work in progress. Once you leave the IDEA umbrella, you are really on your own with such limited resources and funding.”
Take it slowly: “Tyler works for the aerospace supplier two days a week—it is hopefully moving to three days per week in the coming months. His college has also kept him on at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy where he works the other three days. So yes, he is a success story but it is different and harder than his classmates.”