Junior Year: Five Things Students on the Spectrum Should Do to Prepare for College

Application deadlines. Test deadlines. Financial aid deadlines. The path to college is riddled with dates and cutoffs. But there’s another important “unpublished” calendar—the one that helps students and families prepare, practically and emotionally, for the start of college. There’s no one right way to do it, but here are some key moments along the way that can help all students reflect, prepare, and plan for the transition to college.

Junior Year

Think about your goals: “The transition to college really starts with the decision to go to college in the first place,” 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. Some questions to consider: Why do you want to go to college? What academic, professional, and social skills are you hoping to develop? Is a four-year college, a two-year program, or technical certificate the right fit? Having clear and realistic goals will prepare you for the next steps.

Practice talking about your disability: Know the name of your disability but, more importantly, understand your strengths and weaknesses and the kinds of accommodations and support that help you thrive. Practice talking about these things in a comfortable environment, like with a high school counselor or your family, so that you’ll be ready when it’s time to take that conversation to college.

Practice sustainable coping strategies for anxiety: Sometimes strategies that work in high school, like pacing the halls or retreating to a counselor’s office, aren’t acceptable or available in the college environment, says Theresa Revans-McMenimon, a Counselor/Specialist for Students with Autism at Westchester Community College in New York and STS Editorial Board Member. “Often I suggest to the student to record the class so if they do need to leave, the recording will pick up any part of the lecture they may be missing,” she says. For students who anticipate such a need, Revans-McMenimon also recommends picking a seat near the door and identifying a nearby lounge area as a safe “home base.”

Research colleges: In addition to all the usual questions students and their families ask when they start looking for colleges (Can we afford it? Will I be accepted? Do I like the location? Does it offer the classes I’m interested in?), ask the Office of Disability Services about their experience working with students on the spectrum. What services and accommodations are typically offered to students like you? Are there required courses that can’t be waived or modified? What’s their graduation rate for autistic students? And, though it might be tougher to answer, ask how students on the spectrum seem to fit in on campus—the answer might be illuminating. Knowing what kind of programs and support are available will help you plan for the college transition by eliminating poor fits and encouraging relationships at possible programs, all before students enroll.

Read up on the Americans with Disabilities Act: This is the law that protects your access to education after high school, and it’s different from IDEA, the law that entitles students to special education services in public k-12 schools. Maybe you benefitted from an adjusted curriculum in high school; that won’t happen in college, though you may still qualify for accommodations like extended exam time. Plus, in college, you are responsible for reaching out to the appropriate student service program yourself: it won’t happen automatically. Good resources: the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Taking these steps doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll avoid all the drama and uncertainty around applying to colleges and other post-secondary educational opportunities, but it can help. If you’ve got these mastered, be sure to check out our related post, “Senior Year: Seven Effective Tactics Autistic Students Should Use to Prepare for College.” And if you’re a senior who is feeling behind, don’t panic. There’s still time to do the important work represented in these steps to help you make the most informed, productive decisions for your future!

Are you going through the process of preparing for college right now? What additional steps are you taking? What are some of the other helpful tips you’ve heard? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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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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