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Programs That Support Students on the Spectrum: What to Look For

Becky Bogoslavsky, MA

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A young man entered my class one fall with a diagnosis that allowed him extra time for tests and other accommodations. This student would show up early for class every day to ask if there would be a pop quiz so he could start on it before class; I found that amazing because I only had one pop quiz a semester, so it was not something students usually worried about. However, this student was ready for any possible problem and went out of his way to make sure his accommodations were easily honored.

I knew this student grew up in a school system that coached its special needs students extensively in self-advocacy — that ability to recognize his needs and get them filled. However, he is the only student I have had in 18 years of teaching who had such a developed ability to manage his accommodations.

Most students come into college needing quite a bit of guidance, which is where support programs come into play.

There has been a lot of press given to the students with autism “falling off a cliff” once they get to college. Accommodations are given out during high school, arrangements made, all legally spelled out with an eye toward helping your student succeed. When that student leaves high school, that support shifts noticeably.

No longer is accommodation just there; paperwork must be resubmitted to professors by the student every semester. The student must make arrangements for tests, follow up on notes, and monitor what they need. 

Any student with a diagnosed disability can self-identify to a disability support office and receive accommodations. However, those accommodations may not fill all of a student’s needs. What about help navigating social interactions? Extra prompts for keeping up with work? Guidance for using campus resources?

The past few decades have seen a rise in programs on college campuses to help students with autism navigate and thrive. Those programs take different forms and fill different needs. The most important thing is to know your child, and acknowledge what level of support your child needs to succeed.

Many programs offer some of the same things, but on a sliding scale. Some of the more advanced programs offer a set program of instruction, while others offer options for the student. Some things to consider:

1. Cost

Many programs cost extra, usually $3,000 to $6,000 more a semester on top of tuition and other expenses. These programs tend to be highly developed with a separate office, full-time dedicated staff and other perks.

If your student needs that additional support, these are great options, and many times grants or Vocational Rehabilitation offer funds that lessen the financial impact of these programs. You can discuss this with the individual institutions and programs.

Other students who are more self-directed and do not need such extensive help may be able to thrive in other programs, some with a nominal fee or even free.

2. Academic Help

Is your student good at studying? This means more than making good grades in high school. Is your student able to prioritize, sort through information, create study guides and understand assignments?

If not, then you might want a program with embedded tutoring. Some programs will have students report regularly to a study lab or study tables with guided help. Other programs offer access to tutors, and yet others will meet with students regularly to assess academic standing in classes and help direct them to academic resources.

There are also programs that will offer separate classes for those with autism to help them adjust and learn the resources available on campus. If you have a good idea what your student might need, you can look specifically for that.

3. Social Skills

Will your student have any social support? Is there family or friends on campus who can help them form social connections? Does your student care? I actually had a student once tell me that he was happy with the friend he had on campus and wanted no other social connections, then he politely asked me not to suggest other social outlets.

Some students have all the social interaction they want; others need to be prompted. Some programs offer a social group for students on the spectrum. Others offer social skills courses and regular social role playing activities. A lot of research supports the use of mentors to help students socially acclimate to campus. Assess what your student wants and the best way to get there.

4. Housing

Does your student need someone in the dorm keeping an eye on their daily hygiene and social life? Some programs will have adult staff living in dorm communities comprised of students with autism. They offer guidance and help with daily living skills. As an accommodation, students can usually get a single-occupancy room if quiet is needed and the stress of a roommate is too much. 

5. Stress

Anxiety is always a problem on college campuses. Does your student need constant monitoring and support? Or would occasional counseling be sufficient? Some programs will offer regular access to counselors. Others have periodic “boot camps” or group meetings that provide an outlet and some emotional support.

Your campus should have mental health services, but accessibility can be variable. Most programs will give a student better and more regular access. In any case, some sort of mental health care should already be in place for your student in case of any emergency.

6. Internships

The ultimate goal is for your student to find a job. Some programs will help your young adult find internships, which makes the job search after graduation that much easier.

7. A Separate Office

It needs to be said — if your student needs extensive support, then you want a program with dedicated staff and its own office. They will give your student more complete support, more around-the-clock monitoring and help, because they have the resources and staff. If your child just needs a friendly face to check in with, some guidance on day-to-day activities, then you may not need the expensive programs. It all boils down to individual needs.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are also programs that include options like reports to parents, early move-in, and fitness programs, to name just a few. Parents also usually want a school close to home, and others will be concerned with the size of the institution. Researching all the various programs will take time. 

A final note is needed to point out that these offices are not a cure-all. The faculty and staff who work for your student will go above and beyond to help your student succeed, but even then there may be issues. Remember that, much like faculty are not legally responsible for making sure students pass their classes, these programs are not legally responsible for making sure your young adult succeeds (as much as they might like it to happen). Instead, they are there to  give your child the best chance to thrive.

Consider carefully what your child needs and what you can afford, visit the offices and get to know the staff. Then you will have a better idea of what program will be best for your young adult. 

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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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