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From Parent to Coach: Getting Your Student on the Spectrum Through College

Becky Bogoslavsky, MA


I returned to my faculty office one day a few weeks into a new semester and a phone slip was waiting for me. It noted a name and number I didn't recognize with a request to call, so I did. 

The woman who answered was warm and kind as she explained that her daughter was in my class; this mother wanted to know if her daughter was showing up. I should note that the student was neurotypical, not a student on the spectrum.

I explained that I couldn't tell her who was in my class, and that she would be better off communicating with her daughter. The woman went on to say that her daughter insisted everything was fine. However, she knew her daughter, and the young woman had a hard time getting up for school, so this mother believed her daughter might be missing class.

I repeated that I couldn't have this discussion with her, redirecting her again to her daughter.

With my “faculty hat" on, I was thinking, “Inform her of the law and then hang up!” However my “mom hat” says, “I get it.” All parents worry when their children go off to college. Even parents of neurotypical kids are anxious, as this story shows, but I would argue that we parents of students on the spectrum feel it more intensely.

Parents of autistic children know the pitfalls.

Our kids have a higher chance of being bullied, of depression, of suicide, of falling through the cracks. We're used to hovering because that’s how our children have gotten to the point of college in the first place. We care. We help. We support.

But this new life — college life — requires a different style of parenting. You, as a parent, are still needed, but in different ways.

What did life look like as a parent with a high school student on the spectrum? 

  • We were more involved with teachers. We knew their names, and many times we had at least one conversation with them at the beginning of the year. We tried to have our child do all communications, but we also knew we could step in and email if things became confusing or if there was a problem.
  • We were probably more involved with social life. We knew who our child was hanging out with, if our child had friends, what activities they were involved in. We prompted them to try new activities and often transported them to events. Even if they weren’t getting out much, we were their social circle, so they were interacting with others daily.
  • We kept an eye on their academics. In high school, grades are typically posted in an online portal that parents can access, so we could help guide our child’s attention to the classes where they needed to step up their effort. We helped them set priorities. 

Now our child goes to college, which is a great halfway point for young adults. They usually don’t have to cook, or take care of bills like electricity and gas, insurance, or other adult responsibilities.

However, they do have to get to class on time and complete class work; they have to manage hygiene and their living space; and they have to create a life outside of the home where their parents live.

It’s a lot. The new goal is not just to make good grades, but to be able to function in a life of their own creation. 

Our old way of parenting won’t work

So what does parenting look like now that our child is in college? How do we make the shift?

  • Have your student self-identify with the campus disability office. Students often want to skip this step until they think they need accommodations. By then, it’s often too late. Campuses are full of stories about students who self-identified the last week of classes, when a grade couldn’t be salvaged. Don’t skip this step!
  • Find a program to offer support if possible. Many colleges offer some support, especially to freshmen on the spectrum. Those programs can offer a variety of services, but the most important thing they offer is someone to help monitor your students and keep them on track. The more your student can depend on that program, the less they have to rely on you. That’s the goal.
  • Set up some ground rules, especially if your student isn’t part of a program. In my experience, many students on the spectrum will follow the “rules”: they go to class, they do the assignments. However, when things are optional — like using campus resources — they often will not do them. Require your student to touch base with someone (even if that has to be you), and require them to use resources. 
  • Try to help them think through what they need. When I meet regularly with a student, I ask about upcoming class work and guide the student to set up a study schedule. I ask about resources that might help them. For you as a parent, as much as possible, ask questions and let your student guide the conversation. Even if they just need to buy laundry soap, help them formulate a plan (when to go to the store, how to get there) and require them to follow through. 
  • Encourage communication. In college, parents can not email or call professors; the student must handle communication. If your child is anxious, talk through the email or the conversation with them. You can role-play conversations so they feel more comfortable about going to meet the instructor. It will also help  if you require your child to go visit the professor during office hours early in the semester so they will feel more comfortable when other conversations are necessary.
  • Coach academic awareness. Because of FERPA, you won't see your students’ grades unless they permit you that access. Encourage your student to monitor their own progress. Make sure they know when/where grades will be posted or made available. If they don't know, prompt them to look at the syllabus.
  • Let them start making choices. Instead of telling them what classes you think they should take, direct your student to the advising center. All freshmen are putting together their schedules, and they all have to figure it out. Your student has a golden opportunity to connect with other students and learn about campus resources. 
  • Let your student focus on now. I had a freshman show up riddled with anxiety because his parents were coaching him on how to get into grad school. Let your student take it one day (week, month, year!) at a time. 

For 18 years, we gave our students the gift of our parenting. We were there for them through it all. Now, the greatest gift we can give is to hand their lives back to them, for them to craft.

They may need to make adjustments — take a lighter class load, live alone, take online classes — but that is how they craft a life they can handle. Let’s help them do it.

Becky Bogoslavsky, MA, heads up the University of Central Arkansas’s Autism Advocacy Program, which offers academic and social support to UCA students on the spectrum, and she teaches writing, literacy, and academic success classes. Becky has two college-aged children — one on the spectrum — and a husband who is the calm one in the family.

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