How can we help our daughter transition to college?

“How can we help our daughter, who has autism, transition to college? In high school, she’s in a special classroom and receives 20 hours of additional help per week.”

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is from psychologist Joan Gunther, PsyD, of the University of California-Davis MIND Institute. Dr. Gunther is part of a research team that is developing a college-orientation and socialization program for students with autism, with the support of a grant from Autism Speaks.

Preparing teenagers for their transition to college is a demanding process for most parents and even more challenging when your child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although the complexities are significant, they’re not insurmountable.

To start, consider taking an inventory of the tasks that still require your assistance – but that your daughter will need to take care of independently at college. Keep in mind that learning these skills takes time. Ideally, you want to start teaching them in middle-school and early high-school years. Also keep in mind that skills are best learned in an environment similar to that where the skills will be used. For example, I suggest teaching hygiene tasks at the appropriate times – say when your teen is getting ready for school or bed. The following questions can help you focus on the skills you’ll need to help her master.

  • Does your daughter set an alarm without reminders and independently get out of bed when it rings?
  • Is she able to keep her living space functional? Does your daughter know how to create environments that are optimal for study and those that help her calm?  
  • Does she know how to fix simple meals? Would she eat nutritious meals if you didn’t remind her to come to the table? 
  • Does she know how to keep her body, clothes and possessions clean? 
  • Does she understand the basics of health maintenance and medication management? 
  • Can she handle daily finances including keeping track of cash, managing a checking account, and paying small bills? 
  • Does your child understand how to recognize “unsafe” situations and how to respond so to avoid being taken advantage of?
  • Does your child know how to find and participate in enjoyable social situations such as school clubs?
  • Does your child know how to ask for academic, personal and financial help if difficulties arise?
  • Has your child learned basic study skills, including how to break down assignments into manageable parts and where to study?
  • Have you provided information and skills related to sex, drugs and alcohol?  

Imagine a day at college

Using the questions above as a starting point, imagine a day at college from the perspective of what your daughter will need to do for herself. Start with that alarm ringing and continue through dressing, going to the cafeteria or kitchen, gathering class materials, etc. through bedtime.

From this, create a list of skills she’ll need to learn. Follow the same principles as you have in the past to teach her new skills. Break each task into small steps and gradually teach towards independence.

Teaching self-advocacy

Keep in mind the autonomy required of college students. Encourage your daughter to begin advocating for herself. For instance, help her to take an increasingly active role in her Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings during high school. These meetings are ripe with opportunities to increase self-awareness and develop self-advocacy skills.

Also important: Your teen’s ability to describe her strengths, explain strategies that address her challenges and share her dreams. Along these lines, let her take part in identifying the kind of college accommodations she’ll need - and then negotiating them when the time comes. The more actively involved she is before leaving home, the more capable she’ll feel when she’s on her own.

Explore post-secondary options

Start exploring post-secondary options with online searches. Define your search by considering admission requirements, financial resources, your teen’s interests and abilities and her current classroom environment and outside supports.

Options range from junior colleges to large universities. Consider colleges offering associate degrees, four-year degrees or trade-school certificates. In terms of accommodations, some colleges have no more than a disability office. Other colleges are designed for students with autism and other disabilities.

Some employ a counselor familiar with autism. And some offer programs that address social skills, adaptive life-skills, organizational strategies, transition courses, special living arrangements and recreational opportunities designed for students with special needs.

Conduct your online research carefully as the availability, quality, and cost of services vary widely. This is particularly true for schools designed for students with autism. Importantly, consider what environment will help your teen feel most comfortable while providing the level of support she’s likely to need.

For some teens, it helps to start by visiting a nearby college. There she can become familiar with a campus atmosphere. Include time for lunch in the cafeteria. Most colleges offer tours.

More information is a good source of information on postsecondary education for students with developmental disabilities. I also like the Navigating College, a handbook by the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. It’s written by individuals with autism for college students with autism. It contains a wealth of information.

Here on the Autism Speaks website, you can find a number of helpful resources: The Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit has a section on post-secondary education. So does the Autism Speaks Resource Library, here. You can also search for transition resources in your area using the Autism Speaks Resource Guide.

I recently asked a university student with autism if he had any words of advice to share with the parents of teens on the spectrum. After a thoughtful moment of silence he said, “Yes, tell them that life only gets better!”

Dr. Gunther is also a member of the research team of Leonard Abbeduto, Ph.D., currently studying the language development of adolescents and young adults with autism and of those with fragile X syndrome.