Tips for the Transition Back to College for ASD Students

Students across the country are making the trek back to campus within the next few weeks, as winter break comes to an end. As students pack their belongings and plan their travel back to college, each is thinking about the new semester: “What will the new professors be like?” “Can I handle the workload?” “What should I pack for campus, and what should I leave at home?”

Several years ago, at the Penn State National Autism Conference, I met and befriended Caitlin Baran. Caitlin earned a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s degree in psychology from Shippensburg. Caitlin also was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 1997. Considering her extensive experience in the area of “transition to college,” I once asked her to provide some tips on the topic of returning to school after an extended break. Caitlin’s advice follows.

Support For Off-Campus Travel for College Students with ASD

Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Welcome to the holiday season! The season is one of change, for a variety of reasons. The arrival of the holidays announces the coming of cooler weather for most of the U.S., begins a time of travel, and signals the end of the calendar year. The holidays are a time of change for college students, too. Most students who have been living full-time on campus since summer will be traveling back and forth between home and their dorms multiple times within a few short weeks.

Support For OffCampus TravelOff-campus travel can be complicated. Travel by rail can be rife with delays. Bus travel can be time consuming. And those traveling by air frequently encounter challenges due to cancelled flights and the navigation of multiple airports.

The Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (2012) is an assessment tool with which to determine the readiness of specific institutions of higher learning to support the academic, social, and independent living needs of students living within the autism spectrum.

An Assessment of Personal Readiness for College with ASD

In a previous blog I wrote about the topic of readiness within higher education to support college students with Asperger’s Disorder. The series touched on the ability of colleges to provide effective academic, social, and independent living supports. The “Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Asperger’s Disorder,” a tool to assess readiness of a specific institution, was provided.

But how can individual ASD students know that they are ready for college?

College with Asperger’s: 7 Benchmarks for Effective Support on Campus

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has risen significantly since first described in the 1940s. The Center for Disease Control estimates currently 1 in 68 children in the United States lives with an ASD diagnosis, and that 46% of those diagnosed have average to above average intelligence.

College Students with Asperger’s: Academic and Campus Accommodations Necessary

A large body of literature describes the significant, life-long difficulties faced by many individuals diagnosed with ASD. The support needed for college students diagnosed with more traditional disabilities are well documented. However, information is lacking in regard to effectively supporting the college instruction of students with Asperger’s Disorder and how to support their navigation of a campus society.

Building a Community for College Success

An Asperger Student's Personal Experience

Each summer the West Virginia Autism Training Center, located at Marshall University, conducts a college experience for rising high school seniors interested in learning about the college lifestyle. Students take a typical class, live in dorms, participate in skills groups, and attend study halls.

And in between all that, they try to have some fun.

Significant to the experience is the building of “community” – in both the physical and social sense of the word – in which students can feel safe and connected to others. The college support program strives to create an experience where students can recognize and realize their potential.

The Importance of Follow-Up With Your Professors in College

One of the most challenging aspects of supporting college students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder is the need for follow-up with professors, college staff, and others to ensure deadlines are met and that assignments are turned in according to each syllabus. The fast pace of college, combined with the severe anxiety and executive dysfunction common to the spectrum, create the perfect conditions for students with ASD to forget deadlines or avoid high pressure academic or social situations on campus.

Teacher with students in classroom

I’ve known dozens of students with ASD who promised: “I will work on my speech for Communications class this evening after dinner.” And they mean it sincerely when they say it. Stress and commitments mount as the day moves forward, however, and by dinner time students who made the promise may feel overwhelmed and over-stimulated and avoid the assignment. Some may become focused so intensely on another subject or topic that they forget about working on their speech.

Communicating Strengths and Needs in College

Whether or not a student should formally disclose an autism spectrum disorder to disability support staff at a college or university is a personal decision one should make after thoughtful consideration. It is my opinion, however, that students have the potential for a better college experience when they provide faculty with information that improves the ability of the instructor to communicate with the student and accommodate his or her academic and social needs.

Using Choice to Increase Academic Success

We at Marshall University have found that providing professors with information and examples about preferred instruction styles can help facilitate a successful classroom experience. Your school might have disability services in place that offer facilitation between professors and students to help fit their accommodations. Oftentimes these services take the form of a letter written to the instructor that explains the student’s necessary accommodations for the class, which the professor must adhere to.

Look to see if your campus offers such services, and set up an appointment with a disability services representative to discuss your options. If your school does not offer services such as these, you can create this letter yourself. Here is one example of how this could look.

Diagnostic Label of Asperger’s as a Stigma?

Students making the transition from high school to college often question the need to make public – either verbally or by providing a formal evaluation to disability service professionals in higher education – their diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder.

Student sitting reading a book and taking notes in lecture hall

The concern is one to consider; common sense suggests to us that public disclosure of an autism spectrum disorder may cause stigmatization.

But does it really?

Advice From a College Professor of ASD Students

Dr. Julio Alves, of Marshall University, has worked extensively with college students diagnosed with ASD in his role as instructor of Classical Guitar Music Theory. Students who pursue a degree in Fine Arts face a significant hurdle in that they must pass both academic and rigorous performance evaluations to graduate.

A video interview with Dr. Alves can be seen below.  The video isn’t professionally edited; in fact, the camera is a little shaky and the transitions between questions aren’t perfect.

Oh, but the content!

The insight and advice shared by Dr. Alves is worth sitting through twelve minutes of less-than-perfect editing. Some gems to watch out for:

  • At the 1:25 mark, Dr. Alves describes his initial anxiety upon learning that he would be providing instruction to one or more guitar majors diagnosed with ASD. He points out that his training to be a college professor did not include learning to teach students with ASD, and he felt both excited and afraid of the challenge.
  • At the 2:30 mark Dr. Alves states that he, as a teacher, may have learned more from the student (about himself, and his ability to teach) than the student learned from him.
  • At the 3:20 mark he explains the initial doubts he had about how well students with ASD could perform in college, and how that bias changed over time.
  • At the 4:35 mark Dr. Alves discusses the importance of relationship development with students. He provides a real-life anecdote that beautifully illustrates the importance of relationship building, and explains how professors must take the lead in building the relationship. The story also proves how well students with ASD can perform in the classroom when information is crafted to fit their learning styles.
  • At 9:27 Dr. Alves provides some basic tips to professors who teach college students living on the autism spectrum. He emphasizes the importance of creating a learning environment that feels comfortable and safe for students.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeWo0B5qolo

By Dr. Marc Ellison

Practical Solutions for College Success

It’s that time of year! Students are preparing for college – gathering items for dorm living, buying textbooks, and saying one last so-long to high school friends as the summer winds down. Colleges and universities across the U.S. are preparing for the fall term too. At Marshall University, (and many colleges across the country), incoming freshmen arrive on campus several days before classes start to adapt to the campus community.Lonely male student posing while his classmates are talking

Acclimation to campus can be especially difficult for students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder. Taylor and Colvin, in their article “Universal Design: A Tool to Help College Students with Asperger’s Syndrome Engage on Campus” (2013) provide helpful suggestions to institutions of higher learning that could make the orientation for students with ASD more effective.