Healthy Living

The Challenges of Living with Autism in College

The Challenges of Living with Autism in College

Whether the condition is becoming more common, or medical providers are just becoming more adept at spotting it, the rates of autism among Americans has been steadily rising in recent years. As the condition becomes more common, more and more research has been devoted both to understanding the origins of the disease and to developing effective treatment plans to help autistic individuals. Many treatment plans emphasize helping patients develop coping strategies when they are young.

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: college students.

Autism in college

Depending on how severe an individual’s condition is, he or she may have a variety of difficulties interacting with a neurotypical society. While some individuals who have severe symptoms such as problems with verbal communication may not be able to pursue higher academic studies, many autistic individuals are entirely capable of performing very well at the university level. While many autistic individuals don’t have cognitive impediments that would prevent them from succeeding at a university, they do face a mixture 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

Although many autistic individuals may not face cognitive or intellectual impairment that would prevent them from succeeding in a university setting, there are some academic factors that should be taken into consideration. For example, a large lecture style class could prevent a challenge to an autistic student, not so much because of the material, but perhaps more so 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 should take certain steps to make sure that autistic 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 less impeded by the academics themselves and face more challenges when it comes to adapting to a college lifestyle. Many autistic students are academically quite capable, and, as mentioned, when provided with the tools they need such as extra testing time, keep 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.

Like the symptoms an autistic student experiences, college can be a vastly different experience 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, joints a fraternity or sorority or opts out of Greek life can all drastically change the way that his or her college experience is shaped. Some of these factors can have the biggest impact on autistic college students.

For starters, just living in the college environment can present a huge challenge for any student, and especially autistic students. When they move to college, autistic students are in a new environment without the support system of a family for the first time. As opposed to high school where a student may have had parents or siblings to help manage daily tasks, in college all of those responsibilities will fall to the student. Without assistance, these responsibilities can easily become overwhelming for an autistic student and prevent them from achieving their full academic potential.

Moving to college also means living in a dorm for the first time. While dorms can be fun for many students, they can also be intimidating. Communal living requires thorough communication and often times confrontation. Additionally, students may not always share the same values or routines which can present a difficulty when it comes to things like quiet hours or keeping a room clean. While these are challenges that any student must face, for an autistic student who already faces some communicative challenges, these types of hurdles can quickly become impassible.

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. In many cases, support for these students will be crucial, but also relatively simple. 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 could 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. While early intervention is certainly important, it’s equally important that the community doesn’t forget about the unique challenges that autistic individuals may continue to face as they grow up. 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.