Higher Learning in the United States is a very individualized experience not only among the students, but also among institutions. When it comes to the Autism Spectrum and the resources offered, no two institutions are alike. Different institutions offer different levels of support. This can be because of differences in the priorities and mission of institutions as well as the amount of resources they have.
All intuitions are supposed to follow the basics of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); however, some institutions have elected to offer additional dedicated resources for members of the autism spectrum. This may include additional tutoring, social support, dedicated residence halls, and other supports. Some institutions may charge a fee for these programs. Others may be private companies offering these resources for an area that is oversaturated with colleges and universities. There are even some intuitions that are solely designed to support members of the Autism Spectrum and other neurodiverse populations, typically at a cost higher than the average college.
Since services vary so widely between schools, choosing the correct school for your interests and needs is crucial. Once you have determined what you want to study, you will need to search for schools that offer that field of study as an option in addition to offering the non-academic resources you might need. Beyond that, there are several factors to consider:
School Type– Colleges in the United States are either Public (those subsidized by state governments for in-state students) or Private. Additionally, Private schools are either run as non-profit colleges (where the college uses income to fund the intuition only) or for-profit (where income is also used to support corporate owners and shareholders). I attended a public intuition for both undergraduate and graduate school. I found it offered excellent resources and amenities.
Another factor to consider with school type is whether to attend a two-year or four-year school. If you are concerned about being able to succeed in college, it may be best to attend a two-year institution before transferring to a four-year institution. Community colleges can also help you save on the total cost of your education.
Size– Colleges come in all sizes ranging from a couple dozen students to tens of thousands. Typically, for the purposes of accommodations, larger institutions mean more support systems in place. However, there also are a lot more people and crowds. While I attended large universities with tens of thousands of students, in both, I was able to find a smaller group of friends and colleagues. In undergrad, I was a member of the smaller Honors College for my core classes. In graduate school I was a member of a small cohort of a dozen people going through the program at the same time I was.
Location- College can be in rural, city, or suburban areas. The location of a college can determine what sort of outside resources are available such as mass transportation options, vocational rehabilitation services and outside funding sources. Additionally, it is important to consider the possibility of internships available in the area. I attended undergraduate and graduate school in the close suburbs of a large metropolitan city. Part of the reason I chose this school was the location. This city was central to work in my undergraduate major. Another part was the varied mass transportation options.
Another factor regarding location is how close you want to be to home. You may want to be closer to home and the resources of your family, but that is not a “one size fits all” situation. You may want to be further away to increase your independence. I chose an institution that was a long overnight trip away from home, giving me independence, but allowing my parents to come for the occasional visit.
Further Factors: While not directly related to resources, the following are important for selecting an institution:
- Competitiveness– Most institutions have some level of competition when it comes to admissions. Some, such as Ivy League institutions, only admit a small percentage of applicants, while others are ‘open enrollment’ in that they accept all qualified applicants. Open enrollment schools are typically either for-profit institutions or community colleges. It is important to know where you stand in comparison to other applicants and select a range of institutions that you might, could, and almost certainly would get into.
- Graduation Rate– Not all students who start college graduate. Some institutions have a higher percentage of students who graduate than others. It is an important factor to consider. The best place to gather such information is from the US Department of Education at https://collegescorecard.ed.gov. This site also has helpful information regarding the percentage of students who have loans, who are paying them off, and how much students make when they graduate.
- Program Rankings– Some fields rank programs at various colleges. If you are going into a field of study that does this, it is important to see if there is a national recognized body in that field that accredits or ranks programs and to take that into consideration.
Once you decide what institution you are attending there are a variety of resources to consider:
Financial- Financial Aid can take many forms, scholarships from a college, or an independent source, grants, federal work-study, and student loans. The most important thing to do for getting financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at https://fafsa.ed.gov/. This single piece of paperwork is what most colleges use to determine how much aid a student gets. It’s important to fill it out as early as you can. The FAFSA needs to be filed annually. Even if you do not receive aid your first year, you may receive it in the future. In the event your parents are not helping you financially with college and are not willing to provide information, try talking to a member of your college’s financial aid staff as early as you can.
Disability Resources- As mentioned above, institutions are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with documented disabilities. Reasonable means that accommodations don’t create an undue burden on the college or affect the academic rigor of your work. For example, extended time for exams is widely considered to be a reasonable accommodation, while changing exam questions to intentionally make them easier is not.
You will need documentation of your disability, which will likely require testing of some sort. It is often best to get the testing needed for documentation of your disability completed or updated in high school, when the local education department will likely pay for it. If not, such testing may be covered by insurance, but that’s not always the case. A staff member will review the documentation and recommendations and then translate those recommendations into standardized accommodations used by many of your classmates.
Every institution has different procedures for accommodations. You may need to have ongoing meetings with the department. If you need to take a test with accommodations, you may need to fill out paperwork and go through a process long before the test begins. While you may not feel you need accommodations at first, it is always better to have accommodations and not need them than to need accommodations and not have them. Additionally, colleges may have further tutoring and assistance resources funded by the federal TRiO grant program for students who are from a low-income family, are first generation, and/or have a documented disability.
Counseling and Physical Health- Most colleges offer some sort of counseling and health services, but services offered vary widely from institution to institution. Some large intuitions may have dozens of practitioners to assist students, perhaps with some dedicated to autism or social skills groups. Others may have only one or two practitioners. It is important to know what resources your college has before a crisis arises.
Case Management- To conclude, I wanted to spend a moment touching on the resources I provide to students as a case manager. As case managers, our goal is to help students succeed, navigate bureaucracy, and refer them to resources that can help them. Expect a case manager to be knowledgeable about resources and able to help with a wide range of challenges, ranging from very common challenges to unique situations. We also help with everything from classroom management to assisting students with mental health concerns. See if there is a case manager at your college and what they can do to help. This field is new and case managers are in a variety of different areas on college campuses. Sometimes, they are in the Dean of Students or Student Affairs office, sometimes in a counseling office, sometimes in a completely different area.
John Caldora, M.Ed. is a case manager who works with students of concern at a large public university in the Southern United States. He is also a member of the autism spectrum. John draws on his personal experiences as well as his knowledge of Higher Education administration to help autistic students succeed. He has spent years presenting to higher education professionals regarding best practice interventions and encouraging self-advocacy in students.