Around one-third of young people with autism now attend college. This is a far cry from just a decade ago, when postsecondary education for young adults on the spectrum was widely considered unattainable. But it is still out of reach for too many people who could benefit from further academic or vocational instruction.
The good news is that every year, universities, community colleges, vocational schools and other institutions are offering autism-specific supports to attract more students on the spectrum. It is crucial that we work to create greater opportunities in postsecondary education for people across the spectrum.
This guide can help you and your family explore the different opportunities and learning environments after leaving high school.
We want to offer the best possible resources on this topic to help you explore all of the various options available to you. Use this guide to help navigate through your high school years and the years following graduation.
A roadmap to learning beyond high school
Planning for life after high school can be a daunting but exciting task. It is important that you know that your education does not need to end after graduation. We are all lifelong learners. Regardless of your level of need, there are options that can help you gain skills and experiences that will empower you to live an adult life that is as fulfilling as possible. This brief roadmap is designed to help you get started.
Step 1: Preparing for Postsecondary Education
It is never too early to start planning for the future! Ask to meet with your guidance counselor to begin to explore all available options. You might be able to try out some of these options while you’re still in high school or over the summer. Take advantage of career exploration classes and campus tours to help you prepare for what is expected at different settings. If you are planning to go to a traditional college, keep in mind that you will need to obtain a high school diploma or a General Education Diploma (GED).
Understand the Law
Your Individualized Education Program (IEP) will not transfer with you from high school to postsecondary education. The laws that govern accommodations after high school include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These laws ensure equal access and non-discrimination, but there is no guarantee of progress or success.
Services will not be provided automatically. In order to receive services or accommodations going forward, you may need to disclose your autism to schools or employers, request accommodations that can help you, and provide documentation showing that the accommodations are necessary because of a disability. To prepare for this, it’s a good idea to practice discussing your autism and strengths and challenges with people you trust. You should also be able to name types of accommodations that have helped you in the past. This practice with self-advocacy will be critical in college and adult life.
Step 2: Choosing Your Path
There are many different options for postsecondary education. Remember that not everyone has the same path, and that’s ok. Start by exploring some of the following possibilities:
- 4-year Colleges and Universities
- Some offer autism-specific support programs, but all have disability services offices or student support services.
- 2-year Technical Schools or Community Colleges
- Cooperative Education Programs
- These integrate classroom learning and hands-on practical experiences (i.e. work experiences).
- Certificate or Trade School Programs (typically 1-2 years)
- Life Skills Programs or Comprehensive Independent Living Programs
For a better understanding of these different program options and what might be a good fit for your needs, download the Postsecondary Educational Opportunities Guide.
Step 3: Ask the Important Questions
- What are my goals? Is it a 4-year degree? To learn to live as independently as possible? To get a good-paying job?
- How will I pay for this? Can my family afford to pay privately? Can I apply for scholarships or financial aid? Could my state’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency help pay my tuition?
- Do I want to stay close to home? Or do I want to study away from home? How far away? What are my transportation needs?
- What about the size of the schools and the programs? Do I want large classes or small? A sprawling campus or one that’s easier to navigate? Do I want to be in a big city, a rural setting, or something different?
- What supports are offered by each program? What are the supports that I think I will need to succeed? Do I need academic supports and accommodations? What about social supports or help with organization, managing my money, or taking care of my health?
Remember, not everyone has the same path after high school. And for many people, our paths may change more than once. That's ok! Stay positive and keep your end goal in mind.