Let’s face it: transitioning from high school to college is a big deal. Will making friends be a challenge? Are you ready for this big step? Will you have the support you need? There are so many unanswered questions. If you’re an autistic student, one of your biggest questions may be whether to self-disclose. Self-disclosure means identifying yourself as an individual on the autism spectrum.
After high school, all the rules change. Your parents or guardians can no longer advocate for you regarding your education in the same way. The federal privacy law, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), prevents your parents from accessing your assignments and discussing your work with your professors. “Everything is based on the student. Parents want to protect the students, but the student has to be advocating for themselves,” says Jane Brown, Director of College Autism Spectrum and coauthor of two books on the autism spectrum and the college experience. Just as your parents cannot disclose for you, your high school cannot provide your college with your diagnosis information. Legally, the only person who can advocate for you is yourself.
College experts say that self-disclosure is a key component to self-advocacy for autistic adults. And it is always a personal choice. However, there are many benefits to disclosing. Here are five significant reasons to self-disclose when entering college.
1. Self-Disclosure is the Only Way to Receive College Accommodations.
In high school you are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law that entitles you to the accommodations necessary to succeed in K-12. Once you graduate and turn 18, you are legally an adult and covered under a different law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a civil rights act that only guarantees equal access to education. It does not guarantee access to accommodations. “Only self-identified students can have accommodations,” explains Catherine Taylor, the Disability Services Counselor at University of Hawaii, Maui College in Kahului. Self-disclosing your autism to the Disability Services Office at your school allows you to access the accommodations you need. College accommodations often include extra time on tests, up-front seating, smaller groups, voice recognition software, readers, note takers, service dogs, and more.
2. There are Often Many Supports for Students who Self-Disclose.
Not only will you have access to personalized accommodations, but almost all schools offer special programs and supports to aid autistic students. These include opportunities for assistance with time management and chances to connect with fellow students on the spectrum, as well as extra help choosing classes and accessing to specialized tutors.
3. Self-Disclosure will Still Protect Your Privacy
Just because you self-disclose doesn’t mean everyone has to know. Most colleges will provide professors with an accommodations letter. This letter states the accommodations you need to succeed in their class, but it does not go into any details—it’s a “no questions asked” policy. In other words, your diagnosis is confidential and only known to the Disability Services Office.
4. Self-Disclosure Can Build Your Confidence
Self-reflection is an important step in self-disclosure. “Students benefit from knowing themselves and how to represent themselves. They need a knowledge base on their disability and why they need accommodations,” advises Susan Woods, recent Associate Dean of Student Services at Middlesex Community College and STS Editorial Board Member. Once you understand your own needs, you will likely feel more comfortable discussing them with the Disability Office and others who are there to support you. Taking the reigns and advocating for yourself can lead to a boost in your self-confidence.
5. Self-Disclosure can Lead to Independence and Success.
For many college students, greater independence is often an important goal. Many students want to be looked at as adults, live on their own, and take responsibility for their futures. Part of being a successful self-advocate is understanding your autism and what you need to succeed. Every adult has individual needs and is responsible for advocating for themselves. Once you have taken steps to access your accommodations, you have a much better chance of succeeding in your college goals. By disclosing, you may significantly increase your opportunities to grow and develop new skills, and that’s something to be excited about.
Are you thinking about whether to self-disclose as you start your college career? What other considerations are playing into your decision? We’d love to hear about your decision-making process in the comments!
Resources: Interviews with Experts
- Jane Brown, Director of College Autism Spectrum, collegeautismspectrum.org
- Catherine Taylor, the Disability Services Counselor at University of Hawaii, Maui College, Kahului, HI
- Theresa Revans-Mcmeniman, counselor for students with autism spectrum disorders at Westchester Community College, Valhalla, NY
- Pamela Farron, Berkshire Community College, Pittsfield, MA
- Leanne Baumeler, Coordinator of Disability Services, Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City, MI
- Susan Woods, recent Associate Dean of Student Services at Middlesex Community College, Lowell and Bedford MA