College students with autism find academic, emotional support in specialized programs

As the number of young people identified with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) increases, several U.S. colleges and universities are designing programs specifically for students with autism to ensure they feel supported, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. These programs are working to meet the varied emotional, academic, and social needs of young adults with autism who have some of the lowest college enrollment rates and highest rates of unemployment among people with disabilities.

According to the American Psychological Association, autism is “a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by markedly impaired social interactions and verbal and nonverbal communication; narrow interests; and repetitive behavior.” Although individuals may experience ASD in various ways, around 90% of youths diagnosed with autism have atypical sensory experiences, including high- or low-tactile sensitivity. Others may have difficulty with executive functioning skills such as time management, organizing, planning, and emotional regulation, and over half have an attention deficit disorder (53%) or anxiety (51%).

Around three dozen states have college programs for students with autism. Most of the 100-some programs are offered at four-year institutions, even though the majority of the estimated 167,000 college students with autism who do pursue higher education enroll in two-year institutions, The Chronicle reports. Campus autism programs cost an average of $3,000 and $4,000 a year, according to the College Autism Network, with low-income students able to cover some or all of the cost through financial aid, scholarships, or state vocational rehabilitation grants.

Autism programs serve campus communities

To ensure students with autism feel a sense of belonging and well-being, these programs offer coaching or advising services, peer mentoring support, career preparation, and social events. Bellevue College’s Neurodiversity Navigators program pairs students with peer mentors, who help prepare them for a variety of social interactions, while New York University’s free Connections ASD Program offers weekly one-on-one sessions with trained staff and peer meetings with other students who are on the spectrum.

Many campus autism programs also give students space to self-identify and disclose their diagnosis to faculty, administrators, and fellow students on their own time. Participants with ASD in one recent survey said they initially disclosed their autism diagnosis to access disability accommodations before telling their peers. They also describe being torn between “passing” as neurotypical and incorporating their diagnosis as part of their identity. Experts surmise that for every student with autism who discloses their diagnosis, one or two students choose not to, according to the Chronicle.

Related: College programs a key step for some students with intellectual disabilities >

Campus autism programs also train faculty and staff to be more attuned to the needs of students with autism while also dispelling misconceptions about teaching them. Professors “think they’re going to have to make a ton of concessions,” says Michelle Elkins, who directs Western Kentucky University’s Kelly Autism Program (KAP). Instead, Elkins explains, they realize the students with autism may have average or above average IQs and may just need some small accommodations including extra time on a test or study environments with few distractions.

For students with autism like Otto Lewis, a sophomore at Western Kentucky, the goal of college autism programs isn’t just to provide academic support for students on the spectrum. It’s about “being treated like a respected adult,” he says. “It’s to make them feel like they’re actual people.”

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