Supporting Your Autistic College Student Who Also Has OCD

Supporting college students who have both autism and OCD. Mental illnesses actually tend to be more common for people on the spectrum, with Obsesive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) at the forefront. While it’s vital to address these disorders, there isn’t always an indisputable cure, and it can be difficult to aide your loved ones when you’re not near. Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to assist autistic students who are also experiencing OCD, helping them have a positive college experience while still abiding by the rules and regulations of FERPA, and giving them their necessary space.

According to the Child Mind Institute, “Obsessive-compulsive disorder…is an anxiety condition in which a [person] is plagued by unwanted thoughts, images or impulses (called obsessions) that he [sic] attempts to fend off or neutralize by performing compulsions (ritualized or repeated behaviors).” Oftentimes, OCD and autism can look very similar to someone not experiencing it, but there are a few key differences. An individual with OCD will continuously immerse themselves in consistent repetitive actions, such as the need to touch certain objects repeatedly. They tend to become obsessed with certain objects or actions that ultimately seem troublesome to them. The difference between OCD and autism lies in how the individual reacts to these actions and tendencies in public. Generally, someone diagnosed with OCD will be ashamed of their actions, while someone on the spectrum isn’t typically affected by what other people think of them.

You may be wondering how you can help your autistic loved ones also experiencing OCD as they transition into their college experience. It’s important to note that once your student has enrolled in college, you will need to abide by the rules and regulations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), ensuring that you’re providing them with their necessary space. FERPA, in short, is in place so that “once a student turns eighteen, or attends school beyond secondary school, the rights of access to the student’s records transfer to the student. This means that all academic information regarding your college student goes directly to the student unless the student has given specific, written permission to release that information to someone else.” It’s very important that you allow your student their basic privacy rights; however, you may be concerned about your student and their performance once they no longer require your supervision.

One of the best ways you can assist your student once they’ve moved into a college setting is by collaborating with them to set up a support system. Work with your student to establish important relationships before their arrival on campus. A solid support system should include a mental health professional and suitable and appropriate school staff, as well as family members. Begin your search at the campus counseling center, and talk with your student about whether they think a school therapist is the right fit for them. If not, seek out mental health professionals in your student’s new city or town. It’s important to establish who your student will see prior to the start of school, so that it’s not overwhelming to them to find a good fit while they’re already going through a transition. Next, check in with appropriate school personnel, perhaps within the school’s academic support center. It’s important to connect with someone who understands your student and their needs, so they can properly assist them and not unintentionally enable them.

Also, be aware of challenges related to independence, and how overwhelming that can be to someone on the spectrum, especially an individual with OCD. Stephen Shore, a prominent advocate of autism, says, “Managing the independent aspects of life as a college student such as living in a dorm or apartment, combined with scheduling homework, maintaining proper nutrition, etc., may overwhelm the individual’s executive functioning capabilities.” Thankfully, having a support system in place will aide with these possible difficulties, but it’s always good to have a sense of the potential adversities your student may face when they go off to college.

What are some strategies you’ve implemented to aide your child in their transition?

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Chelsea Harris has appeared in The Portland Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Fem, Minola Review and Grimoire, among others. She co-runs a zine and reading series in Bellingham, WA called Wallpaper Magazine. Chelsea received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago. You can find her work here: chelseamarieharris.tumblr.com/writing

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