Helping our autistic son find the right college fit

By Arthur H.

Arthur is a longtime journalist, public relations advocate and writer. He believes parents of autistic children can help them be the best advocates for themselves. Arthur and his wife, Sharon, are proud of their son Ian's development and maturity as an adult with autism. 

Ian H. wearing his cap and gown at graduation with his parents

When our autistic son Ian was a high school junior, our thoughts seriously turned to college. 

His mother, myself and Ian all knew he had the grades to get into college, after all, he was diagnosed as a high-functioning person with autism shortly before his third birthday, and now he was in a college-prep track in high school. But the same pediatrician who diagnosed Ian said he would not do well on standardized tests, and that proved true: His SAT scores were tepid. 

The question was: how do we go about researching the colleges that would best fit his needs? We searched the internet for tips and resources. The Autism Speaks website was essential during our research. We also talked to Ian’s school guidance counselors. But, like many parents in the same boat, we wondered which college would offer the best supports for our smart son, who happens to have some awkward social skills and a speech disfluency. 

From our Connecticut home, we visited three colleges: one each in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. We settled on Johnson and Wales University (JWU) in Providence, R.I. It seemed like the perfect combination of academic support, field of study and pretty campus. A big fan of travel and tourism, who learned to read by studying travel books handed down by his grandfather and parents, Ian was going to major in travel and tourism management. 

I went through the process of applying to colleges and was accepted by four of the five that I applied to.

“I went through the process of applying to colleges and was accepted by four of the five that I applied to,” said Ian. “And I chose JWU because I felt excited and optimistic about it.” 

Ian H. and his dad

But for Ian, and typical with other autistic people, things weren’t always what they seemed. We thought Ian would fit in academically, but struggle socially. But the exact opposite happened. 

Ian made tons of friends, and the number of his Facebook friends exploded. But, even with the help of a special needs advisor, his grades suffered. After his first year, his mother and I began to think of an exit strategy. Within 18 months, when his grades really sank, and his anxiety levels rose too high, we pulled the rip cord. 

Ian dropped out of JWU midsemester, and after 18 months, he enrolled in Three Rivers Community College, a public college near our home that offered two-year degrees. He majored in hospitality management, with a concentration in hotel management. 

At Three Rivers, Ian found success. He lived at home and got the support of his homework-hawking parents. He got academic support with an adviser whom Ian sought out. He took a part-time course load. He finished at the college in six years and attended his graduation ceremony to receive his degree. It was a joyous occasion, attended by friends and family. 

“I luckily found better success at Three Rivers,” Ian said, “where I picked the right areas of study, and I felt ready and determined to learn, to excel, and to graduate.” 

For my closing advice, I would tell any any parent or guardian seeking a post-secondary education for their autistic child to listen to their child's wishes. But balance that with parental knowledge and wisdom. It's okay to make the wrong choice initially just as we did, as long as you always keep the best interests of your child top of mind.  

Ian’s top 5 tips to set yourself for a successful school year 

  1. Eat a good breakfast: I always eat a good breakfast every day because I consider breakfast to be the most important meal of the day. It's important for school because it helps you learn, focus and pay attention. 
  2. If you are able to, start practicing math and reading: Personally, I think this is important because it helps you stay on track and helps with continuous learning. 
  3. Get into your morning school routine early: Autistic people and autistic students like routine. A week or two before school begins, wake up at your school time, and eat breakfast at the same time you would for school. 
  4. Get your school materials together: Do this a couple of weeks before school starts. Go to the store if you have to and make sure you have a backpack, a notebook or binder and pens and pencils ready to go. 
  5. Know how to get to school: If you are taking the bus, know your bus stop, what time the bus picks you up, and the route. If you walk to school, practice walking to school with your parent or guardian. 

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