Parents of students on the autism spectrum are used to being fierce advocates for their children’s rights and needs. But when a student starts college, everything changes. “It feels like driving off a cliff,” says Theresa Revans-McMenimon, a Counselor/Specialist for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders at Westchester Community College in New York and STS Editorial Board Member. “For parents it’s a very anxious time, because they have to start taking a step back.” Making it doubly hard is the fact that the support and accommodations afforded to college students look a lot different—and typically a lot more limited—from what students were entitled to in high school.
And while parents of neurotypical students struggle to avoid the “helicopter parent” label, parents of autistic students walk an even finer line. We talked with college disability service providers to get their advice on how parents can help students succeed on their own terms.
Be prepared to step back: “Families are used to really being in the weeds with their students, and making things happen and translating the world for their students,” 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. In college, parents must give up the quarterback spot and become cheerleaders instead. It won’t happen all at once, but the stepping back can help build students’ confidence in their own abilities. “More often than not, it’s the student starting to assert themselves, saying ‘I got this,’” says Revans-McMenimon. And providing too much parental support can backfire, says Wolf. “Very often we see well-meaning parents whose clinging is sending the message to students that we don’t trust you to succeed,” says Wolf. “We want to send the opposite message.”
Find your own support network: College isn’t just a transition for your student: it’s a transition for parents, too. But for many parents of students on the spectrum, it can be difficult to find other parents who are going through the same thing. “It’s really hard to get support from others in your situation,” says Brown. But there are organizations that can help parents connect. Some schools have a special education PTA (SEPTA). Additionally, organizations like the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE), based in Watertown, Massachusetts, have events and resources specifically for parents. If you do some sleuthing but can’t find anything in your area, consider putting a call out on a social website like Facebook or Nextdoor. Friends and neighbors may be able to help you connect with someone right in your back yard.
Be realistic: Is college the right choice for your student? Post-secondary education should be strategic, not automatic, says Wolf, so it’s important that students and parents take a critical look at long-term goals to see how they line up with college planning. Timing matters, too. “A student who needs their parents to remind them to do their homework and take their exams is not ready for college,” says Wolf. A little extra time, like a gap year, can help some students catch up and prepare. Being realistic also means accepting that there will be mistakes along the way. “Sometimes parents see students fail and think they need to jump back in,” says Revans-McMenimon. But giving students the opportunity and support to recover from failure can be the best education of all.
While you’re working on setting realistic expectations, seeking support from others who have been there, and accepting a new role in your child’s life, you may still feel like you have to do more, and that’s natural, too. If you are looking for a few more practical tips about things you can do with your student to prepare for this transition, check out the steps in our timelines for concrete steps to take in students’ junior and senior years of high school to set them up for a successful transition to collegiate life.
Are you a parent navigating this new territory? Tell us how it’s going in the comments, and be sure to share any useful advice that’s worked for you.