The first week of college classes can go by in a blur: new faces, new classrooms, and a new mountain of textbooks and syllabi on your desk. But if you are on the autism spectrum, there are a few important things you can do during your first week to make sure you get the support you need in the semester ahead. (Of course, you can start getting ready earlier, too: more on that here and here and here.)
Meet with the Disability Services Office: The Office of Disability Services (which may go by slightly different names from college to college) often serves as the hub for support services on campus. Staff there will help establish your academic accommodations and can connect you with other services on campus, like peer mentoring. They can also take you through new paperwork, explain what documentation (like a letter from your doctor) you’ll need to qualify for accommodations, and help you understand and navigate privacy law that covers your school records now that you’re in college. Keep in mind that, unlike in high school, none of this happens automatically. You will have to reach out to the disability office to get the process started. “Half to two-thirds of students with autism never disclose to disability services,” says Jane Thierfeld Brown, Assistant Clinical Professor at Yale Child Study, Yale Medical School and Director of College Autism Spectrum. “We can’t work with people we don’t know about.”
If you’re struggling to decide whether or not to disclose your disability, it might help to know that information you share with the Office of Disability Services stays within that office. So, while your professors will be aware of the accommodations you need, they won’t know the nature of your disability—unless you want them to.
Email your professors: Set up a time to talk with each of your professors so that you can get to know each other. This is an opportunity to have a conversation about the accommodations that can help you thrive. Don’t be discouraged if your professors can’t meet right away, says Lorraine Wolf, Director of Disability Services at Boston University and coauthor of Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel. “Any professor would respond to a student who makes a direct meeting request that’s well written and thoughtful.”
Identify your help lines: Don’t wait until you’re struggling to line up help. In conversation with the Office of Disability Services, identify resource people on campus who you can turn to in a time of crisis: a “safe person, safe space,” says Wolf. It might be a nearby family member or friend or someone who works in student services. However, students may be surprised by how many different people on campus are ready to help out. “I’ve had secretaries, deans, faculty, coaches, VPs all identify as wanting to help as needed,” Wolf says.
Take a good look at the school calendar: “Transitions are constant through a semester,” Wolf says. “There will be challenges almost every other week that require a change in schedule”—fall break, Thanksgiving break, midterms, daylight savings time—and throw off your routine. You can’t avoid these changes or make them completely stress-free, but you can map them out ahead of time and give yourself time to plan for them.
Try a club: Music, politics, advocacy, poetry, philosophy: whatever you love, there is probably a club on campus for exactly that. Since you’re meeting up with other students who are all enthusiastic about the same thing, you will have a ready-made conversation topic. Try to arrive and get settled early. “Walking into a room is hard,” says Theresa Revans-McMenimon, a Counselor/Specialist for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders at Westchester Community College in New York. By coming in before the room is crowded and noisy, you will have a chance to get comfortable and say hello to one or two people, rather than dozens.
Keep it up: You’ve connected with the people on campus who can help support you. As the semester goes on, stay in touch. You can reach out to your support network for help with an immediate need, like a problem with class material or a personal issue; an ongoing challenge, like time management; or just to check in. The advice that Revans-McMenimon most often hears current students giving incoming students: “Speak up. Don’t be afraid: You have help.”
Have questions or some additional tips for support? We’d love to hear them in the comments!