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College Options for Students on the Autism Spectrum

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Though it was first described nearly a century ago, autism spectrum disorder has been poorly understood throughout the 20th century. Autistic people have suffered from destructive myths and misconceptions that limited their ability to achieve in neurotypical-dominated environments. 

Today, while the DSM classification of “disorder” stands, many autistic self-advocates have pushed for a fuller understanding of autism as a neurological difference rather than a disability. While many autistic people struggle with independence, a more comprehensive understanding of ASD in recent years has led to a broader understanding of autistic people’s strengths. 

With our growing understanding of autism, both colleges and employers are beginning to make intentional efforts to support neurodiversity and provide autistic students and workers with the resources and accommodations they need to succeed. When only 41% of students with disabilities graduate from college, the right support is crucial.

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A Note on Language: “Autistic” vs “With Autism”

As our understanding of autism has developed, so has our understanding of autistic people. While we frequently see terms like “people with autism,” autistic self-advocates have argued for many years that autism is an identity. Just as we do not describe black people as “people with blackness” or gay people as “people with gayness,” autistic people who describe themselves almost overwhelmingly prefer “autistic” to “with autism.” 

Resources for Autistic College Students

Adult Autism Center – Autism and College: Your Comprehensive Preparation Guide

The Adult Autism Center of Lifelong Learning offers this guide to help college students achieve academic success in college, ranging from individualized academic support to social skills development.

American Autism Association – College Programs for Students with Autism

The American Autism Association offers this thorough guide to colleges that offer autism support programs, such as peer mentoring, college life skills, or a dedicated autism transitional education program.

Autism Goes to College

Autism Goes to College is a national college success program for autistic students, providing academic support services, guides for academic planning, and other autistic programs on and off the college campus.

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network – Navigating College

The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network is a leading organization dedicated to helping autistic people speak for themselves. They offer the book Navigating College as a free PDF or for sale in a print version.

Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network

The Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network provides support, advocacy, and education for women, girls, and nonbinary autistic people.

Child Mind Institute – Going to College with Autism

This article from the Child Mind Institute describes the challenges in autism education, offering resources for achievement and learning success with autism programs.

College Autism Network

The College Autism Network is a comprehensive program dedicated to encouraging autistic students to go to college, and providing the academic and social support necessary for success.

College Autism Spectrum – College Programs

The College Autism Spectrum is a valuable resource for students with autism spectrum disorders, including this comprehensive list of colleges offering an autism support program.

College Internship Program

The College Internship Program works to help autistic young adults find success in independent living, employment, and education by teaching life skills and partnering with local and regional employers.

College Living Experience

College Living Experience is a transition program that has worked to help autistic college students go to college, find work, develop social skills, and live independently since 1989.

Developmental Disabilities Network Journal – Autistic College Students and COVID-19: Anxiety, Support Needs and Responses by Specialized Programs

This research study from the Developmental Disabilities Network Journal describes the effects that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on autistic college students and suggests ways colleges can support them.

Indiana Resource Center for Autism – Academic Supports for College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Overview

This research article from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism explains how colleges can provide support for autistic students, including accommodations for sensory issues, social skills, and coping skills.

Interactive Autism Network – Autism and the College Experience; Finding a College Program for Students with Autism

These articles from the Interactive Autism Network describe the college experience for autistic students, and details resources for students and parents to make their college experience successful.

Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research – Supporting College Students on the Autism Spectrum

The Maine Autism Institute offers resources for college students on the spectrum, including fact sheets and videos.

Organization for Autism Research – Finding Your Way

This downloadable guide from the Organization for Autism Research provides information and inspiration for autistic students, including advice from autism experts and autistic students.

Pennsylvania Training & Technical Assistance Network – College Partnership

The Pennsylvania Training & Technical Assistance Network provides extensive support for autistic students in Pennsylvania, such as dedicated programs in PA colleges and universities.

Rutgers University College Support Program

The Rutgers University College Support Program offers many resources for Rutgers students with autism, such as peer mentors, social events, therapy referrals, and other assistance.

Stairway to STEM

Stairway to STEM is an organization dedicated to helping autistic students who are interested in STEM transition into college.

Think College  

The organization Think College works to help students with intellectual disabilities, including autistic students, find the resources and accommodations they need to succeed in college and in life.

Understanding the Experiences of Autistic College Students: An Exploratory Mixed-Methods Analysis

The authors of this research study conducted conversations with autistic college students to learn about their challenges and needs, and suggests programs that colleges and universities can use to improve their lives.

University of Louisville – Supporting College Students with Autism

The University of Louisville offers this site with resources for college students with autism, as well as resources for educators and institutions to make the college experience successful for autistic students.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga – Mosaic

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Mosaic program is a model program for autistic students, known for its comprehensive and holistic approach to success.

University of Texas -The Ultimate Resource Guide for STEM Students With Autism

This helpful guide from the University of Texas links to many resources for autistic students interested in STEM, including specializations like programming, engineering, and game design.

US Department of Education – Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights

This guide from the US Department of Education is designed to help autistic students and their parents understand their rights, under the ADA, and how they may advocate for their rights when they are not recognized by an institution.

Vanderbilt University – Mental Health Guide for Autistic College Students

This guide to mental health was written for autistic students at Vanderbilt University, but offers helpful information and recommendations that are applicable to autistic students anywhere in the US.

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What Challenges Do Autistic Students Face in College?

One of the biggest struggles for individuals with autism is conventional socialization. Colleges and universities are normally teeming with people. Hallways and classes are often packed with people making it difficult for a person with mild to moderate autistic tendencies to find anything they would remotely consider a safe space. Another problem for individuals with autism is loud noises. Noisy places can lead to panic attacks, causing the student to shut down and withdraw from their class.

Many autistic people also have ADHD, which is now understood to fall on a spectrum as well. In fact, some researchers have come to believe that autism and ADHD may not just be related, but actually different expressions of the same neurodivergence. As a result, though, many autistic college students also deal with other learning disabilities.

The best college for autistic students is one that offers an environment in which the student can thrive. This means access to quiet areas where they can go if they begin to get overwhelmed. It also means being in a classroom setting with fewer students. It’s also important for the student to have a mentor or advisor that is easily accessible if the student requires assistance. Ideal colleges for autistic students are those that pride themselves on smaller class sizes and a laid back, relaxed environment. A college that offers online degree programs is an excellent choice.

What are the Best College Programs for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Unfortunately, there is no universal standard, and different higher education institutions treat autistic students very differently. There are vast differences in the level of support across institutions, with challenges ranging from the college’s budget for support to issues written (or unwritten) into the school’s mission. Simply put, many colleges still do not prioritize the needs of autistic students and students with other disabilities.

So yes, all colleges and universities that accept federal aid are required to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the bare minimum is the bare minimum. Other institutions may offer more robust tutoring programs, socialization programs, autism-friendly residence halls, and more. Some will work with private sector providers to offer resources – sometimes for a fee.

In terms of the best degree programs for students with an autism spectrum disorder, autistic students can thrive in any type of degree program as long as the student has the resources and accommodations they need to complete the work. The best colleges for students with autism spectrum disorder are those that offer both online degree programs and classroom/campus programs. In some cases, a student may need to blend both types of learning options to earn their degree. By working with an autistic student, universities make it possible for the student to achieve their goals.

College programs for students with autistic spectrum disorder take many forms. Support programs designed to assist autistic students are becoming popular additions at many universities. Effective college programs for students with autism offer resources they can use to help them feel more comfortable in their surroundings. Model programs like Rochester Institute of Technology’s Spectrum Support Program and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Mosaic are designed to put the student back in control of both themselves as well as their environment.

What are the Best College Grants for Students with Autism?

College grants for students with autism can be found in a number of places. Organizations that work to research autism and the related autism spectrum disorders offer both grants and scholarships to students who have been diagnosed and are ready to move forward with their education. In many situations, the student’s medical care can limit their ability to pursue secondary education. By researching potential grants and scholarships, students with autism can find the funding they need to continue their education and earn their degrees.

Many of the grant and scholarship programs offered for students with autism and other learning disabilities are multi-year awards. Most scholarships are a one-time award which means the entire award is given at one time. Multi-year awards are divided up and provided to the student in a designated amount each year. For example, if a student is awarded $10,000, they will receive $2,500 every year for four years. This is beneficial for students with disabilities because it eliminates the stress and frustration of re-applying every year. Schools with college programs for autistic students often include scholarships or some type of assistance to help the student get the education they want to pursue their careers.

What Are the College Programs for Autistic students?

Colleges with programs for students with autism often have what are known as “support” programs. In addition to helping students with things like social skills, academics, and transitioning to a more independent lifestyle, the support programs also provide financial assistance. Depending on the school in question and the financial need of the students, awards can range from $1,000 to $5,000 a semester. These support programs receive funding from organizations that work with students with learning disabilities or special needs. Donations also come from outside sources.

Colleges with programs for autistic students work hand in hand with each student to make sure their needs are being met and they are able to complete their studies on time. Individuals who work as part of the support team make themselves available to the students at all times in case of an emergency or if the student needs assistance in some way. With the help of college support programs, students with autism and other autistic spectrum disorders can achieve their goals, earn their degrees, and make their way into the career of their choice.


Best Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities

Scholarships for Students on the Autism Spectrum

Ready to start your journey?

Ready to start your journey?