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Transition Programs: an Overview for Autistic Students Going to College

Are you thinking about starting college, but are worried about the disruption of being in a new place, surrounded by new people, with new responsibilities? A great way to ease yourself into this new lifestyle is to enroll in a university or college transition program. These programs are designed to help you learn team building skills and prepare you for what to expect in social contexts before you begin your new journey.

Transition Programs Overview

You may be wondering exactly what a transition program is and what it would entail. STS Editorial Board Member Theresa Revans McMenimon, a licensed therapist and counselor for students on the spectrum at Westchester Community College (WCC), explains that the WCC transition program, also known as the “Transition Boot Camp Program,” runs for a little over a week. It focuses on assisting students in preparing for their upcoming college experience. The four main objectives of the intensive program include:

  • increasing student confidence in regards to their upcoming college experience
  • ensuring their understanding of the differing accommodations between high school and college
  • assisting students in realizing the difference between high school and college workloads
  • increasing their readiness and confidence regarding socializing in a college environment.

Revans-McMenimon also states, “Students are provided with campus tours to find their individual classrooms, a tour of the library, and campus radio station (for fun). In addition, they are provided with education on their rights under the ADA, the disclosure process, communication/social skills, and anxiety reduction exercises. Students also meet with a writing tutor for one hour each day of the camp to help enhance their college writing skills.”

While all transition programs differ, their goal is to assist students in gaining confidence and crucial skills for their new college life. Revans-McMenimon notes that “under the special education law, transition services start when a student is about 15 years old, and this is part of a student’s IEP. What this transition planning looks like varies from student to student and school district to school district.” Every state has varying laws on transition programs. It’s a good idea to check with your school counselor regarding these laws and your options for enrollment.

IDEA Act

As noted on Great Schools, a non-profit that informs students and families about educational opportunities, The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA Act), passed in 2004, “sought to improve postsecondary results for students with disabilities by requiring public high schools to provide better transition planning.” The IDEA Act, according to the Department of Education’s website, “is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children. The IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities.” One point of the IDEA Act is to “facilitate the student’s move from school to post-school activities.” As Revans-McMenimon mentions, “If we are told to plan and invest for retirement, why are we not advised to plan for our transition to college? The benefits are: easing anxiety for the student and helping them to hit the ground running when the first day arrives. Students should be aware of the expectations of college and the shift in responsibility from parent and school district to the individual.”

Now you might be thinking, okay, this sounds perfect, but where do I start? How do I find the right transition program? While not all colleges and universities offer these programs, many do. You can also check with your high school advisor to see if your school offers a program, or if a local community college or organization is open for enrollment.

Transition Programs and Support Models: Considerations

Additionally, there are typically four models of support in higher education for students on the spectrum. These not only include various types of transition programs, but also more generalized educational support programs designed to facilitate student success. In “Transition: A Guide to College Readiness and Applications for Students with Autism”, Briana Brukilacchio states:

  • The standard college model offers reasonable accommodations and counseling services, but does not have specific programs available for students with autism, nor are different services coordinated through a central office.
  • Other schools offer a standard plus model, which includes additional support such as peer groups or a dedicated staff member for students with autism. A unified model has made an effort to coordinate services across offices, and often includes special advisors to assist students who have disclosed a diagnosis. Specialized programs are tailored towards students with autism and may even include a unique residential component. They also tend to include mentorship and advising, some form of peer support, and social, personal, and academic resources.

It’s important to know that you have options for support to assist you in achieving your educational goals, as well as to know that different programs may come with different price tags. Some transition programs and support models charge participants. So, for example, specialized programs with unique components are likely to come with increase cost to the student and family.

Additional Resource

There are great resources available that allow you to explore transition programs and learn which colleges and universities offer various types of programs. On Spectrum U, for example, you can check out various school programs by school type. For instance, if you’re interested in attending a liberal arts school, you can check out the different colleges listed under this category, as well as what types of transition programs each school has.

What types of support would you like to see in a transition program?
What aspects of your upcoming college experience would you like more explanation on, and what kinds of support would help you in achieving your future goals?

Looking for more about community colleges or financial aid? Check out these posts:

Community College Can Be a Good Fit for Students on the Spectrum

Exploring Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment: An Interview with College Student Jake Keene

Scholarships, Grants & Loans for Students on the Spectrum

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Chelsea Harris
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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