Postsecondary education perspectives: Autistic students dish on school life
Postsecondary education opportunities for young adults on the spectrum have grown leaps and bounds in recent years thanks in part to an increase in universities, community colleges, vocational schools and other institutions offering autism-specific support programs. Choosing which setting and school is right for you is important. That’s where our Postsecondary Educational Opportunities Guide comes in handy.
But what will life be like in your new program? To help you find out we went straight to the source: we asked five autistic people in different settings and at different stages of their postsecondary careers for tips and insight on everything from making friends and picking roommates, to study habits, adding/dropping classes and communicating with professors, and everything in between, based on their unique experiences.
Binh Nguyen, Graduate of UI REACH, a transition program for students ages 18-25 with intellectual, cognitive and learning disabilities
- Be able to read and write clear and high-quality emails.
- Be responsible with your time and studies. Create a schedule that you can stick to.
- Build a community with your peers and instructors to develop your networking and social skills.
“Some things that were meaningful to me at my time with UI REACH were the community involvement and having friendships with the teachers, as well as finding time to do the stuff that I liked to do. I would go to sporting events such as football and both women's and men's basketball games. I also would get involved in clubs or organizations like Student Council, Dance Marathon, Triathlon club, Hawkeye Fitness Club and other such things on campus!”
Heather Mangus, Recent high school graduate pursuing training in a trade
- One of the most important things you can do is learn your learning style (I.e., visual, auditory, kinesthetic).
- Understand you are not limited to the college path. College is not for everyone and that’s okay!
- Don’t let your nerves hold you back. You are capable of amazing things. You cannot live to the best of your abilities if you don’t allow yourself to overcome your fears of the future.
“I’ve always been a very hands-on person, ever since I was a kid building bird houses at summer camp. With this knowledge, as I was going into my senior year of high school, I knew college wasn’t for me. I joined a welding class my first semester of my senior year and was obsessed with the possibilities it held. One of the most meaningful parts of the class was how welcoming and helpful everyone was, considering I was a first-time student. Within my first week I immediately knew this was for me.”
Edward R., 2021 graduate of a gap year program for students ages 17 to 21+ with learning differences; Current student at Pace University
- Reach out to the professor when you have questions relating to the assignment. Don’t be afraid to talk to your supervisor or schedule a meeting with your advisor to help you schedule classes. Learn how to self-advocate for your needs calmly.
- Find methods to help yourself study and manage the time better. For example, I use the Pomodoro Technique, which is a system based on 25 minutes of focused work followed by a 5-minute break.
- Give your mind a break when feeling stressed out. Take time to hang out with your friends and have fun.
- Keep trying and practicing resilience. Self-regulation and self-reflection can help during this new journey.
“When I first came into college, I met other freshman students on campus and in class. During my first semester, I took Introduction to Communications and Spanish courses. As time went by, I made friends with a few of the students from each class. I was very nervous about sitting with them. However, I asked them and they said I could sit with them. I asked their names, and later on, I became familiar with them. Sometimes, I would sit with friends in the cafeteria, and talk about some fun topics with them.”
Emme Goldhardt, Graduate of Colorado State University Pueblo
- Do not feel pressured to go to college. There are a variety of other options. While some professions require a degree, there are many that do not.
- If you really want to go to college but are hesitant, do not be afraid to ask questions, seek support, or request accommodations.
- If you start college and find that you are really struggling, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Maybe that means dropping a class, asking for more support, taking fewer classes or even taking a semester off. Talk to people you trust to help you figure out what’s going on and what you can do about it.
“I more or less fell through the cracks in public school because I was obedient and got good grades. I was not yet diagnosed with ASD, though I did have diagnoses of general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and (incorrectly) major depressive disorder. For this reason, I did receive some accommodations from the start of college. Over the seven years it took for me to earn a BS, I had to drop classes, switch majors twice, and end more than one semester early due to health reasons (physical and mental). While I am proud of my degree and grateful for the support I had that made getting it possible, I wish I’d known that college wasn’t the only option.”
Dr. Stephen Shore, Autistic professor of special education at Adelphi University; Autism Speaks board member
- Higher education is part of the adult world, and people tend to be more mature and willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from professors, other students, a learning center or a disabilities office.
- In higher education, students are responsible for taking an active role in learning. The more effort you put into your studies, the more you will gain.
- Just like students have different learning styles, professors have different teaching styles. Try to be adaptable and engage with how the instructor is teaching by “converting” concepts into your preferred learning style. For example, you can use lecture notes or recordings to create visual cues or graphics.
“Sharing the dorm room with my friend from high school was a helpful part of transitioning into college. At first we did most things together, except for going to our classes…. Gradually our interests began to take us separate ways, and we’d spend less time together. Towards the end of the year my friend and I decided to part ways as roommates. Yet we remained friends, and still did things together at university, and we remain friends to this day.” – excerpt from Dr. Shore’s book, College for Students with Disabilites: We Do Belong