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Common Needs for Autistic College Students

At a Glance

In this post, we'll cover the most common needs that autistic students have while in college.

You or the individual you're working with may or may not have these needs, but perhaps they can provide some insight on how the college experience is for autistic college students. 

A lot of college programs are organized based on neurotypical social norms, so we're shifting the framing here to be more student-centered.

In attempting to explain the very real problem of why many autistic students do not complete college, many studies hone in on and even attribute the issue to student deficits

This framing puts the onus of addressing gaps in the college experience for autistic students on the students themselves, rather than schools to ensure their environments are conducive to more than just neurotypical students. 

While autonomy and personal agency are big parts of the college experience, students should not face undue burdens in seeking out all of the benefits that college has to offer.

A more helpful framing in our opinion is that a wide range of students can express a wide range of reasonable needs, and schools should be able to accommodate them. 

When it comes to autistic students, this might include autism-specific support programs or ensuring that autistic students are able to benefit from the more generalized resources the school has to offer. 

The following list of common needs may need to be addressed by the student themselves or their support network, but that does not minimize the importance of any given college’s role in making sure they are met.

Belief in the Individual and Their Goals

While this is the type of need most anyone could agree is important, the reality is that belief is not a simple binary and that not all gatekeepers or decision makers will believe in autistic students to a degree that reflects the goals of those students. 

Many neurotypical people make the mistake of thinking that they can effectively judge a neurodivergent person’s limitations. 

The perceptions that educators have of neurodivergent students can make an outsize difference in that student’s educational outcome. This story from a neurodivergent college graduate, for example, cites the introduction of an instructor who believed in her as a pivotal point in her educational journey.

Those who wish to help address this need should be prepared to listen when it comes to a given individual’s goals and to advocate and encourage when it comes to finding ways to help reach those goals. While it is true that none of us achieve all of our goals 100% of the time, many of us take for granted the fact that we can decide on our own when a particular goal is actually over our heads. Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people deserve the opportunity to make that choice for themselves too.

A Sense of Belonging in the Community

Autistic college students often find themselves in an environment where they are weighing the pros and cons of disclosing their identity. It is not surprising that some autistic students would struggle to feel a sense of belonging in a community where they don’t feel fully comfortable being themselves. 

A study on the topic of autistic students and disclosure found that the students interviewed most wanted to be seen and accepted as their true selves despite some tendency toward choosing not to disclose. 

Another study focusing on predictors of life satisfaction for autistic college students found both that peer connectedness is a major predictor of life satisfaction and that autistic students feel less of each than the general student population. 

Given how much of college is built on creating community spaces, students who feel welcome in those spaces will best be able to take advantage of what they have to offer.

Individualized Services

One great frustration for many autistic students who may already worry about not being seen as unique individuals is being subjected to one-size-fits-all solutions that may or may not solve their problems. 

Autistic students regularly point to the value of individualized services in settings postsecondary education.

A Place to Call Home

The same study cited above ranked “a place to call home” as another resource highly valued by autistic college students. In this context, “a place to call home” can mean but does not have to mean your personal living space.

It can instead mean any space in which you feel comfortable working and socially engaging. Some students cited the ability to be surrounded by “others who understand autistic culture” and a component of being able to call a place home.

Supports Outside of the Program

The same study as in the last section noted the value of supports offered by colleges that aren’t directly under the umbrella of an autism-specific program. 

Autistic students are not the only students who may need support during the course of college and should be able to access these more generalized services without any undue burden.

Mental Health Support

Many autistic students are already familiar with the challenges of finding mental health support professionals whose backgrounds match their needs, and college does not necessarily make that process easier. 

For those who are relying on services provided by the college, the pool of available professionals and resources may or may not represent the right fit. 

Yet mental health support can be crucial for many autistic students, be it for an issue related to autism or because of an issue related to another co-occurring condition.

Support Around Preparing for Demands of Postsecondary Education

While it is important that we move away from framing the college experience of autistic students in terms of deficits, it is reasonable to say that college represents a shift from the demands of high school and some students may feel more comfortable having an opportunity to prepare in a safe setting. 

While we are not thrilled with some of the deficit framing in this study, its autistic participants identified “interpersonal competence” and “instrumental independence”  as some of their greatest areas of need. 

If autistic prospective students feel it necessary to practice a particular skill to feel prepared for the demands of postsecondary education then they should have an outlet to do so!

Autism Support Programs (ASPs)

ASPs are programs specifically designed with autistic college students in mind and have been growing in number since 2016. 

Just 2.2% of college programs overall are ASPs and they are built specifically with the needs of autistic students in mind. 

For some students, a dedicated program may be key to addressing a wide range of needs despite the relatively few programs that are currently on offer. 

The linked study notes that the number of ASPs has approximately doubled since 2016 but withholds judgment as to whether such rapid expansion is being accompanied by best practices and actually suited to meeting student needs.

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