Healthy Living

The Challenges of Living with Autism in College

The Challenges of Living with Autism in College

As autism becomes more prevalent, more research has been devoted to understanding the origins of the it as well as developing effective treatment plans to support the individual. 

Research shows that the earlier treatment begins, the better individuals will be at implementing coping strategies and the more successfully they will adapt to a world that is designed for neurotypical individuals. While this information and early intervention is certainly critical, some treatment providers are trying to shed additional light on another group of autistic individuals: high school and college aged students.

Autism in college

Depending on the functioning level on the spectrum, the challenges faced will vary. While some non verbal individuals may not be able to pursue higher academic studies, many autistic child and adults are entirely capable of performing very well at the college level. While they may not have cognitive impediments that would prevent them from succeeding at a university, they do face a mix of unique challenges. 

Professors Jonathan Cox and Mikle South of Brigham Young University in Utah are focusing their research and treatment development on autistic college students.

Academic difficulties

There are academic difficulties that need to be addressed. For example, a large lecture style class could present a challenge to an autistic student, not so much because of the material, but because of the setting and style in which the information is being delivered. Likewise timed exams could present an external stressor to an autistic student that could prevent him or her from performing to their fullest ability due to anxiety.

Treatment providers and school administrators alike have noted that institutions need to take certain steps to make sure that these students have the tools they need to succeed academically. For example, many schools will provide autistic students with additional test time or provide them with an assigned seat in their classrooms so that they don’t have to worry about finding a spot. These accommodations can certainly be helpful for autistic students, but they’re also not unique. Many students facing cognitive or behavioral impairments such as ADD or anxiety can access similar accommodations to help them perform well academically. It only makes sense that these same steps would be taken to assist autistic students, and in many cases universities have protocol established for making sure students get the aid they need.

Lifestyle difficulties can present bigger challenges

What many treatment providers and researchers are discovering is that autistic college students are impeded less by the academics themselves than adapting to a college lifestyle. Many of these students are quite capable academically, when provided with the tools they need such as extra testing time, keeping pace with their non-autistic peers. Although grades aren’t the problem, statistics still indicate that autistic students are significantly more likely to drop out of college than neurotypical individuals. Among neurotypical individuals, the graduation rate is 59%, compared to just 41% among autistic individuals. So, if academics aren’t the problem, then we have to look elsewhere to pinpoint the challenges that are preventing autistics students from succeeding in college.

Similar to the experiences in grade school and high school, college is vastly different from student to student. Whether a student lives on campus or at home, attends classes part time or full time, plays a sport or joins a variety of clubs and organizations, or joints a fraternity or sorority can all dramatically change the way their college experience is shaped. Some of these factors can have the biggest impact on autistic college students.

Moving to college also means a new environment without the support system of a family for the first time. Without assistance, the responsibilities of a higher education can easily become overwhelming for an autistic student and prevent them from achieving their full academic potential. 

Making friends and socializing is another area that can be especially challenging for autistic students. Many autistic college students have reported feeling isolated and lonely because they don’t know how to break into social groups and make friends. Being gone from home for the first time and adapting to a huge set of new challenges can make the lack of a new social support system even more devastating. On top of that, recent studies have shown a clear link between autistic traits such as feelings of being a burden to others or being isolated and suicide rates. Unfortunately, the college experience with its fast paced and novel experiences can quickly become a nightmare for an autistic student and derail their academic progress.

The role of universities

Thankfully, many universities are taking note of the unique struggles that their autistic students face and are working to create programs and support systems to help make sure these students are successful. The team of Cox and South discussed the Passages Program at Utah Valley University as an example of a college working to create a space in which its autistic students can thrive. While the university does its best to provide things like extra test time and counselling or therapy, the Passages program is actually focused on much more mundane things. The program provides workshops on how to complete life tasks and organizes social events and outings like hikes. In many cases, autistic students are perfectly capable of meeting that academic demands of college head on, they just need some extra assistance adapting to the often tumultuous lifestyle associated with college.

Final thoughts

Research on treatment for autism consistently shows that early intervention is the best predictor of long term success in autistic individuals. As we work to find ways to help autistic individuals overcome the barriers of a neurotypical world, college is an important arena. Many autistic individuals are well prepared to succeed academically at the college level, but they often need some assistance adapting to some of the other challenges associated with the college lifestyle. Thankfully, treatment providers and administrators alike are taking note and working to develop programs and procedures for helping ensure autistic individuals can succeed in college and beyond. 

You can read more of Jonathan Cox and Mikle South’s report at Spectrum News.