Michelle Rigler is the director of the Disability Resource Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) and the co-developer of the MoSAIC Program at UTC for college students on the autism spectrum.
For many young adults, starting college is a tremendously exciting time, but the experience can be very different for people on the autism spectrum. College is perhaps the most social environment one can experience. Making the transition to this environment can create exhausting anxiety in a person with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Knowing what to look for in a support system is critical.
The disability services program at a college or university is going to be the lifeline for students on the spectrum and will also serve as reassurance for their parents. A program with a strong understanding of the impact of autism can be the key to success academically and socially. Programs that offer more specific support for students on the spectrum can help them enjoy a more typical college experience without fumbling through the many social rules of the college campus.
Key Questions to Ask
The following five questions will give students and parents some direction in deciding whether a college/university disability services program will have the level of support needed to manage the transition to higher education.
What is the philosophy of the disability services program?
Every college and university has a disability services program, but not all of them are run the same way. Some programs operate by the “letter of law” while others operate by the “spirit of the law.” This means that some programs operate in a legalistic way, making decisions based on the fundamental requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act-Amendment Act (ADA-AA). Others make decisions with the federal requirements in mind, but focus more on doing what is needed because it is necessary to the success of students on the spectrum. Programs that operate within the “spirit of the law” view the federal mandates as the baseline not the ceiling. This philosophy will guide a program to develop the peripheral programming that is often necessary for a college student with an ASD to experience success.
What types of support services are available?
All disability services programs will offer the basic academic accommodations as required by the ADA-AA. These accommodations could include but are not limited to services and accommodations such as:
• Extended testing time
• Testing in distraction reduced environments
• Class note takers
• Use of adaptive technology
While these accommodations will be helpful and often times necessary, it is the extra programming that will offer the most support for a student on the spectrum. If the program provides anything specifically designed for this population of students, the level of support will be more adequate. The extra programming could include anything from residential education to a comprehensive and holistic program that addresses all areas of student life.
Are there other students on the spectrum that are involved in the disability services program?
If a disability services program offers the types of support college students on the spectrum need, there will inevitably be more students seeking these services. This group of students with similar difficulties could serve as a great support system for you as you enter the social structure of college. If a disability service program expresses that there are very few students on the spectrum requesting services, they may not be offering the level of support needed or may be in the beginning stages of forming a program.
What do others say about the program?
If a disability services program has the level of understanding needed for students on the spectrum to feel supported, other families will talk about it. If you are hearing the name of the support program mentioned in your school or in other areas, it typically means that the program is providing substantial support. There are also websites to look to such as College Autism Spectrum for this information.
Plan a visit with the disability services program…how do you feel after the visit?
Finally, plan a visit to the disability services office. You should get a feel for how well the staff understands autism in a short amount of time. When you visit, have the previous questions in mind. These questions will serve as a catalyst for conversation and will help you gain insight into how well the staff of the program understand the specific needs of this student group.
In addition, pay attention to your instincts. Many programs can talk about what the research says about autism but cannot speak directly to experiences with students. Research is vital to keep a program operating effectively, but having a personal understanding of autism and the impact on college students is what keeps students coming back.