This Op-Ed is the first in the series of submissions received for the Futures Of Education (FoE), a UNESCO initiative in partnership with Kidskintha.
Are colleges ready for individuals with Autism?
By early April, high school students across America, indeed the globe, will open a letter – or an email or
a post on a website portal – from one of the 25,000 or so public and private universities across the
world. There will be a swell of disappointment for some who read their bad news, and a huge, collective
sigh from those who receive news of acceptance. Conservatively, in the United States, 2% of the latter
will be individuals with autism, (or autism spectrum disorder, ASD). These students were held to the
same rigorous admissions criteria as everyone else, and will be in college as well. Are they – and we –
really ready for this moment?
Autism Friendly Colleges: Why should college professors and administrators care?
It’s the law. Once accepted, individuals with autism have the right to attend college, at least in the U.S.
This is assured by The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act or the Workforce Investment Act (504), and The Higher Education Opportunity Act
However, there is no legal mandate that faculty in higher education need to welcome these students
and become informed about how to integrate them successfully into their classrooms. One faculty
member interviewed by our team about providing support to college students on the autism spectrum
opined, “Well, it’s not fair to everyone else!” That’s one viewpoint. Fortunately, however, there are
many faculty who want to understand and be sensitive to the surge of students with autism.
And it will require some training on the part of the faculty.
“I may be autistic, but I passed well enough for a normal kid to have classes with normal kids, you know?”
Professors are in this business because, presumably, they like to learn, so at the very least they should
learn what autism is, and what they as professors can do better to meet the different, sometimes
unusual learning needs of this group of students.
While there is much that needs to be learned at the secondary school level, in terms of organizational
skills, social skills, even laundry skills, it is college-readiness around the required academic tasks that
students with autism need to be concerned about.
So, are college students with autism spectrum ready for the experience?
Students share that:
“My experiences in courses varied… I hadn’t quite gotten to the point where I really fully understood that a class did not exist purely for my own edification, so I would ask questions a little more frequently than most [students] were comfortable with.”
While there are no known statistics on this issue, it is no secret that some faculty themselves are on the
autism spectrum. They, too, will need training for the more neuro-diverse student population on our
campuses, as having the diagnosis doesn’t assure that they know how to translate that into curricular
“I knew I was going to college, but I really didn’t know what college entailed.”
Autism College Accommodations: Should students disclose?
A big issue facing students with autism in college is whether to disclose their autism. If they want faculty
to make accommodations or to recognize their challenges as well as talents, disclosure is paramount.
The key issue here is whether the disclosure came before the acceptance letter or after. If already
disclosed, these students feel more assured that their college of choice is ready and willing to accept
If not disclosed, the question is when to disclose. Generally speaking, students and faculty alike
will figure out that something is “different” about these students. With disclosure, there is often
understanding, or at least the way is paved for acknowledgment, tolerance, and eventual acceptance.
Transition Programs For Students With Autism: Are parents prepared?
In the best-case scenario, parents have college as a goal for their children by the time they are 6 or 7, as
with any neurotypical child. Regardless, by the time the college application is mailed in, parents should
realize that college for their son or daughter is a reality.
You might be interested in: Why A Special Needs Success Story Is Never A Single Person’s Story
In the U.S. parents need to be mindful of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that
prevents them from having access to their student’s records or grades once the youth is 18 years of age.
However, there are circumstances under which parents can have access to information about the
student’s performance, such as when parents still claim the youth as dependent for tax purposes, or if
the student signs a waiver providing parents access. Generally speaking, though, if parents insist on
their son or daughter signing a waiver in order to gain such access, the parents are likely not ready for
this transition. In a better scenario, parents would have an open dialogue with their youth about
college, grades, and ways that they can serve as supports.
I have been a college professor for 40 years, and over those years I have met, and taught, increasing
numbers of students on the autism spectrum. Notably, during this time, not one parent, of any student
with or without a disability, has ever contacted me about their student. This suggests that by the time a
student is admitted to the University of California, his or her parents are ready for the experience!
That’s good news.
As members of the broader community, are you ready for college students with autism?
John Robison, a well-known self-advocate for persons on the spectrum, proclaims that it is time for
autism to come out of the closet, so everyone knows who the autistic faculty are, and who our leaders
with autism are – that this attitude will bring recognition of autism and neurodiversity in general to the
Are we ready for autism in college? Get ready, because here they come, bringing with them a range of
talents and perspectives that will broaden the insights of everyone on a college campus, and in society
as a whole.