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Is Your Student on the Spectrum Ready for College?

Becky Bogoslavsky, MA


Supporting Students on the Spectrum, Part 1: Sending My Daughter to College

“After I graduate, where will I go in the mornings? I go to school now, but where will I go then? What will I do?”

My daughter Abby asked these questions halfway through her senior year of high school. Staring into a future with no direction was haunting her.

I tried desperately not to think too far ahead because it made me nervous, too. My husband and I had been discussing options for after graduation with Abby, but we didn't push any decisions because, with her autism, her anxiety is so prevalent. 

Abby is on the spectrum. She has sensory issues and ADHD, but most of our issues as she grew up centered on her anxiety. I try to be judicious about when I apply pressure and about what; we were gearing up for midterms, so I was being laid back about the future. As a college faculty member who feels strongly about the value of education, that wasn’t easy to do. Her musings told me, though, that the next step was constantly on her mind whether I pushed her to talk about it or not.

Let me start by saying my story is just that — my story. Your journey may be completely different, your child different. My daughter Abby does not love school; grades do not come easily, and she shuts down when workloads get too heavy. However, she is of at least average intelligence if not a little above. She is funny and inquisitive, artistic and loving. She currently attends a community college, but that choice took a while. Since I'm a faculty member, I knew what was awaiting my child at college. I also knew my child, now a young woman.

Abby was always an “out of the blue” kind of kid. A great example was when she had to learn the multiplication tables. We spent a couple of weeks on drills, but she was not absorbing the information. I heard about a different tactic, using stories where each number is a character. I printed off the material and she begged to have the papers to herself. She ran to her room and knew all of her multiplication tables by the end of the day. 

That story is a good insight to her personality. She doesn’t do something until, one day, she does. There are no halfways. We didn’t think she would handle school well, but every time the bar was raised, she hit it. We had those meetings where teachers told us, “Next year is more demanding, and she probably won’t make it.” And yet she did, over and over again.

In eighth grade we talked to her teachers and asked about the next step; they directed us to a college-prep high school. We doubted, we questioned, and then we figured, let’s just try. She did OK. She wasn’t a superstar, but she didn’t sink, and there were some amazing moments that told us she was capable of more.

That brought us up to her senior year. We considered what we saw as options: (1) See about a job, even part time; (2) apply for help through the state; (3) try college. 

We went back to the same outlook we had always used — let’s try school. If it didn’t work, then we would reevaluate and come up with another plan. The next step was choosing the school. I didn't think she was ready to move away. She could do laundry, manage her daily hygiene, and fix simple meals, but we still had a few things to work on, like calling in prescriptions and managing doctor visits. Therefore, we knew we needed her at home for a little while longer. With that in mind, the local community college was a good choice, as was the college where I worked. 

It would have been easier to bring Abby to work with me and have her go to class on the same campus. However, I knew that she developed her self-advocacy skills much better when I wasn't available. She had to learn to manage mass transit, talk to professors, ask for help, and manage her anxiety. So I made the call and told her she needed to go to a different school, at least for now. 

After that was decided, we had to figure out what she would study. I pored over a list of possible careers suggested by Temple Grandin. The list is a little outdated but the general recommendations are helpful. With this as a starting place, I thought my artsy daughter might like one of two majors: culinary arts or digital media production. Leaving all possible study areas on the table was overwhelming, so I helped her narrow down the choices, then she had the chance to decide for herself. She was quiet and introspective for a couple of days, then came in one night and announced her decision — digital media production! 

Once Abby knew the next step, suddenly high school graduation seemed like the beginning of something instead of an end.  Transitioning into college took more planning though, which I will talk about in the next column.

What to consider if you are thinking about sending your autistic young adult to college

  1. Is your child self-aware enough to move out? This includes:
    • Managing their own medications
    • Maneuvering safely around a campus
    • Knowing how to ask for help
  1. If your child will continues to live at home, do they drive? Is there convenient transportation?
  2. Will your young adult need social coaching? 
  3. Do they need a highly structured program at college or can they function with less guidance?
  4. Will your young adult have ready access to mental health professionals on campus or, in a pinch, off campus? College counseling services are busy and it may take time to get in for an appointment.
  5. Would your student benefit from a year or two off to work and mature?
  6. Are you prepared to let your young adult take less than a full load of classes if necessary to be successful at college?
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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