The 15 Most Effective Ways to Support Autistic College Students
March 10, 2021
Approximately 4 million Americans are unable to communicate using natural speech to accomplish daily communication needs.
When I got an invitation to see my friend Jordan graduate with a BS in Computer Science from Kennesaw State University, I was ecstatic. Jordan and I first got to know each other because we shared a common interest: advocating for inclusive education.
Jordan, who is autistic, was included with his typically developing peers throughout his K-12 school career. Once he graduated from high school to college, he became interested in sharing his story with families and educators. So when my elementary school was looking for a speaker for our staff during Exceptional Children's Week, Jordan was a natural fit.
After this initial introduction, I invited him to participate in a video project in my classroom, where he would record one of my students with significant cognitive disabilities as he was included in a general education classroom. Jordan is a whiz with video editing!
While Jordan has many strengths, going to college wasn't a walk in the park. It took a great deal of effort and support from his parents (he lived at home and drove his car to and from the university), as well as Kennesaw State, to create an environment for Jordan to succeed. Along with the support of enrolling Jordan in classes, the university connected him with the campus psychologist, psychiatrist, dietician, personal trainer, and social skills support group.
How to support autistic college students
I asked Jordan what he thought was necessary support that he received at Kennesaw State that he couldn't have lived without. He mentioned Kennesaw State's Student Disability Services, where Jordan took all of his tests instead of taking them in class with everyone else. Among some of the other accommodations that the university offers its students are alternative textbooks, peer note-takers, interpreters or real-time captioning, alternative test scheduling, and relaxed attendance to classes. While Jordan didn't receive all of these accommodations, the ones he did use were made available to him because he provided the university a consent document letting them know he had a disability.
Of course, accommodations are not the only ways that universities can support autistic college students. Take, for instance, these suggestions from the Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico on how teaching staff and special services can address areas of concern.
Concern: The student has difficulty turning in assignments on time.
- Possible Support: Chunk information into manageable pieces and provide it in a visual format.
Concern: The student talks too much in class.
- Possible Support: Agree on a signal to use during the course that means it is time to stop talking and allow five minutes after class for unfinished questions or comments.
Concern: The student has a difficult time collaborating with a group.
- Possible Support: Assign roles for group members, written directions about project expectations, and allow options for individual work.
Concern: The student is not able to demonstrate what they know on written essay assignments or exams.
- Possible Support: Consider permitting the student to meet after class to orally clarify answers or provide lists of relevant facts.
Concern: The student has a difficult time with changes in instruction, assignments, or due dates.
- Possible Support: Along with giving verbal directions about the change, provide written instructions as well.
Concern: The student's self-expectations are "unrealistic" and are putting undue stress on them.
- Possible Support: A written plan to achieve specific goals with supported self-monitoring. Encourage a smaller class load (with support to preserve scholarships) as appropriate.
Concern: The student has problems with hygiene in class.
- Possible Support: Provide written information or videos about needed hygiene and establish a hygiene routine.
Concern: The student is consistently late for work or class.
- Possible Support: Agree to written expectations of class or job performance and provide reinforcement for being on time.
Concern: The student has difficulty maintaining study and sleep schedule while living with a roommate.
- Possible Support: Assist with the preferential assignment of single rooms.
Concern: The student is overwhelmed by the number of social relationships in college.
- Possible Support: Provide an opportunity to debrief about social experiences and situations with a trusted support person.
Concern: The student is not able to interpret a syllabus into a plan for work that needs to be completed or prepared for.
- Possible Support: Provide direct assistance to transfer information from syllabus to calendar or smartphone.
Something else to consider is what kind of support is available for students who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), a term that describes communication strategies that people use when speech is impossible or insufficient. A 2013 study estimated that approximately 1.3 percent of people (about 4 million Americans) are unable to communicate using natural speech to accomplish daily communication needs.
So how do you support autistic students who have communication needs? Alyssa, an autistic graduate student who uses AAC, gives the following suggestions:
- Give AAC users extra time to respond and don't try to finish their sentences for them. Most AAC users are not faster-than-average typists.
- Don't restrict access to communication systems. This is functionally equivalent to taping their mouths shut.
- Provide discussion questions ahead of time. This ties in with allowing extra time to respond. If AAC users know the questions, they can formulate a response ahead of time.
- Ask the AAC user how to be a better communication partner. They will often know the best way to support them.
For Jordan and Alyssa, their college victories were won with the support of their families, friends, and universities.
One of the most powerful ways you can support autistic college students is to ask them what is important to them.
After listening to their needs, see if you can accommodate them, even if it isn't an "official" accommodation. You may be surprised and delighted at what an autistic student can bring to your class or campus.
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