College Support Programs: Going Beyond What is Required

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Congratulations! You’re preparing to graduate from high school or have already gone through this milestone. Now you are preparing for college. You might have already identified several schools you are interested in. But you (or your parents) may worry about how you will transition from high school. In high school, you may have had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan, which provided you with support to succeed both academically and socially. What supports are available in college?

It may not come as a surprise that there are fewer legally mandated supports available after high school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which applied to high school students with IEPs is not applicable to college students. Subpart E of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide for “academic adjustments,” but what if you are looking for more support or support for things other than academics?

Fortunately, there are some college support programs that are available to fill in the gaps between what is legally required (appropriate academic adaptations) and what so many college students need. Some of these programs are available to college students in general, such as tutoring in a particular subject or writing workshops, but this article focuses on supports which are specific to autistic college students.

While not every college or university provides non-mandatory Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)-specific supports to eligible students, more and more are creating new programs. In addition to support programs at individual colleges, there are also some community-based programs that are available to students within regional areas, or even ones that are provided on-line (through Skype or e-mail) regardless of where you attend college. Many of these programs – both college-specific ones and community-based ones – are included in the Resource Directory of the CAR Autism Roadmap™.

Many schools put information on-line about their programs, but you may find it helpful to speak directly to the person who oversees the program or someone in the college’s Office of Disabilities Services. Be aware that while the person you speak with may provide you with general information, you may not be able to apply to participate in a particular support program until after you have been accepted to the college or university. In some cases, you may need to be accepted to the college by a certain date in order to apply for the ASD-support program. Knowing these deadlines ahead of time can help prevent disappointment. At all schools, there are a limited number of spots available in the ASD-support programs, so applying early is always a good idea.

A formal application process is required for almost all college ASD-support programs and for some of the programs provided in the community. One reason for this is that many programs seek to match autistic students with appropriate peers in the college community. Additionally, the programs want to make sure that you, the student on the autism spectrum, are committed to the ASD-support program and that it is not just something your parents are making you do and that you don’t intend to commit to once you are at college.

Applications for college-based programs don’t usually require a fee, but the ASD-support programs themselves will be an additional charge on top of the tuition you may be paying to attend school. Community-based programs may charge a fee for the application as well as for the services if you are accepted.

Below is a summary of some of the program features that you may find when researching elective ASD-specific supports for college students. While it is unlikely that any program will have all of these elements, the list below can help you evaluate a particular school’s program to make sure that it fits your individual needs.

  • Mentoring Program: Each student within the ASD-support program will meet with someone (perhaps a psychology graduate student, peer, or teacher) on a regular basis (weekly or more often as needed) to check in and receive social, academic, and/or life skills support; students will help to set their own short and long-term goals and will create weekly or monthly To-Do lists to ensure goals are met
  • Special Seminars/Year-Long Courses: In a small group setting, autistic students will participate in interactive groups discussing social norms, self-advocacy, organization and prioritization, stress management, and other relevant topics
  • Orientation to College Programs: Programs for entering Freshman students designed to introduce students to the college campus and help transition them to college
  • Supervised Study Halls: Autistic students may be required to attend three or more study halls a week to make sure work is being completed; assistance will be available during the study hall to help with questions or organize work
  • Positive Behavior Support (PBS) Plan: Behavior plans will be designed on an individual basis to ensure that the student stays motivated to achieve set goals; Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs) provided as needed
  • Support Groups: Weekly meetings of autistic students to discuss common concerns and to share triumphs
  • Regularly Scheduled Activities: The program may organize social or learning opportunities for students in the program, such as dining together or visiting a local company to learn about hiring policies and job placement
  • Peer Social Skills Coaching: One-on-one and small group instruction on topics like developing friendships, resolving roommate issues, dating, making small talk, and personal grooming, provided by undergraduate peers or younger graduate students
  • Psychological or Counseling Services: Individual or small group sessions to explore issues related to diagnosis disclosure, self-advocacy, perspective taking, stress management, etc., or for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as needed
  • Vocational Assistance: Help with preparing for interviews, developing a resume, measuring interest and aptitude, and gaining work experience
  • Housing Accommodations: Providing special residences to program participants where monitoring and skill building can occur; preferred housing, such as a dorm closer to academic buildings, suite-style living, or a room situated near a faculty or resident advisor (who may receive training related to ASD); roommate selection assistance or allowing a student to have a private room; or allowing a student to commute to school from home, rather than live in a dorm
  • Assisting with Participation in College Clubs and Activities: Helping students in the ASD-support program identify and join activities of interest to help promote social connection, including, when necessary, helping to develop peer support within the activity
  • Liaison to Faculty, Staff, and College Departments: Helping the student to apply for and obtain academic adjustments in the classroom; Developing self-advocacy skills; Helping to educate faculty and staff about ASD
  • Point Person for Parents: Weekly or monthly communications with parents to inform them of the student’s progress at college
  • Study Abroad Programs: Support within existing study abroad opportunities within the college or specially designed trips for students within the ASD-support program

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Last Updated: May 29, 2020

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.


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