Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with autism on their path towards and during college with College Autism Network?

There are more and more students with autism attending college each year, and colleges and universities need to provide more training and support for the staff and faculty working with these students to help improve their chances of success. The College Autism Network brings together people doing this work to share resources with one another, offers campus trainings and consultations to improve their internal support infrastructure, and provides information and resources to families and students with autism to help them make more informed choices about college. We began our work informally in 2014 and became a nonprofit organization about a year later.

What do you tell students with autism who don't believe they can attend college?

If you are willing to work hard, and have been successful in high school, then you have a good chance of succeeding in college. There are many ways to go to college, and it might take some effort to find the right path and the right institution. However, many people with autism graduate each year and go on to successful careers or further education in graduate school.

What are some common misconceptions about disabilities and education?

One common misconception is that because support for people with disabilities is federally mandated, every college and university does it well. That is not the case. Some are much more adept at supporting students with disabilities. Unfortunately, this is not true at every school.

Another common misconception is that people with disabilities will experience discrimination if they are honest about their challenges. Most colleges and universities are very invested in student success and will do a lot to help students who have learning differences. However, they have to learn about these differences from a student before they can address them.

Should students be up-front with universities about their autism during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university?

Students should always be up front with an institution they are applying to when it comes to disabilities. The institution needs some lead time to have meaningful and productive conversations with students and their families about possible accommodations. If an institution discriminates, even quietly, against a person with a disability, then it is likely not a good institution to attend. Yes, they are required by law to make certain accommodations, but students with disabilities should not settle for a school doing only what they are required to do by law. Instead, they should seek institutions that are committed to getting better at serving students and that want them to succeed as much as other student. In other words, schools that take pride in serving students with autism.

If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their autism with universities during the application process?

Many people involved in the admissions process do not know very much about autism. We encourage students who are interested in a particular college or university to ask the admissions office to refer them to the appropriate person on campus to discuss the environment for students with autism. This might be the disability services office or the counseling center.

Don't wait until after an offer of admission has been made to begin having these conversations. Be honest and say, “I have autism and some of this impacts my [fill in the blank]. I want to come to XYZ University, and wonder if there is someone I can talk to who can help me figure out if this is the right fit for me.”

If you could give one piece of advice to students with autism applying to college, what would it be?

Be honest with peers and faculty. Just saying “I have autism and this means I sometimes have challenges with [fill in the blank]” will likely cause people to adjust their expectations in a good way and grow in their understanding of unexpected behavior.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with autism should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

Some schools are very supportive of students on the spectrum. They have dedicated programs or services for students with autism. Some schools do okay at this, while others don't do well at all. Research the institution and look for a dedicated program or at least someone in the disability services office who is familiar with autism. Many disability professionals have a lot of knowledge about other disabilities, like mobility impairments or learning disabilities, but know very little about autism. This is a problem!

This office should be your go-to advocate when something is not working. Don't just assume they will help you, because they might not know enough themselves. Ask hard questions and look for specialized programs. Don't be so determined to go to a particular school that you ignore warning signs about how they treat students with disabilities or autism.

If a student does a campus tour, what features should they be looking for? What are some questions they should consider asking the university?

You might ask about the general campus climate for disabilities, and then ask more specific questions. But a tour guide is not going to know that much, so just take the tour and then ask for directions to the disabilities services office. Even better -- make an appointment to meet with someone in that office the same day you are taking a tour.

What responsibilities do high schools and universities have to help and prepare students with autism through the transition from high school to college?

This depends on the school. They are all supposed to help with transition planning, but it has only been in recent years that transition planning for students with disabilities has included college. It usually means work, or independent living. If your high school has a college counselor, that person should help students with autism find a good college, assuming the student has the potential to succeed in college. But the college counselor might not know anything about schools with specialized programs, so a student and family should do their own research. You can start with the list of institutional initiatives on the College Autism Network website.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

The biggest challenge is the complicated social environment of a college campus. Without the daily supports that some students have had throughout high school, college life can be overwhelming. It is a chaotic, unsupervised environment full of students who are experiencing freedom and opportunity for the first time. A student with autism needs to figure out how to find the right space within the environment -- the right support system -- in order to thrive.

Where can students seek advice if an issue does arise?

Hopefully, the disability services office will be the first place to seek help. But it's important to develop that relationship before there is a crisis. Also, on a residential campus, it helps to have a professional staff member, like a resident director, who knows you and will intervene if there's a problem with another student. But again, that relationship should start before there is a problem to solve.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with disabilities on a college campus?

When you disclose that you have autism, some of your peers may not understand what that means. Sometimes saying things like, “it's like Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory” helps them understand some of the quirkiness that goes along with having autism. There are still stigmas associated with many disabilities. The only way that changes is if people who have disabilities show that they are proud and capable and have a lot to contribute to campus. Neurodiversity belongs on campus!

Any final thoughts for us?

Find a support network online, like Wrong Planet or Autism Self-Advocacy Network. When things are hard on campus, and you feel like you're all alone, it's really helpful to reach out to people around the world who understand your challenges and will accept you for yourself.

Lee Burdette Williams

College Autism Network

Lee Burdette Williams has worked in higher education and student affairs for almost three decades. Most recently, she served as the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Wheaton College, and prior to that was Dean of Students at the University of Connecticut. Lee's professional interests include mental health services, academic partnerships, learning communities and student culture. She has written extensively on these and other topics and is a frequent speaker and presenter on contemporary issues in higher education. Lee's current work is with the College Autism Network where she works with colleges and universities to improve their services to students with learning differences. Lee received her Ph.D. in college student personnel administration from the University of Maryland, her M.Ed. in counseling from Salem State University, and her B.A. from Gordon College.