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Here They Come Ready or Not: Supporting Students with Autism in College

By: David Morrison, Christopher Morrison, Azusa Pacific University/College Connect

This paper is a brief overview of the challenges that students with ASD face when transitioning from secondary to postsecondary education. Included is a discussion of the preliminary findings of College Connect. College Connect is a private program provider vendored through San Gabriel Pomona Regional Center (SGPRC).  The program was developed to provide comprehensive on campus support for students with autism attending college. College Connect was developed as a collaborative effort between the Citrus College Disabled Students Programs Services office, and SGPRC.

Do in part to the success of earlier interventions; students with high functioning autism (HFA) and other developmental disabilities are actively considering college as a realistic obtainable option.  Despite this positive trend, there is a growing consensus within the literature that many of these students are not sufficiently prepared to transition from high school to college (Wehman et al., 2014; Bouck, 2012; Friedman, 2013; Szidon, Ruppar, Smith, 2015). Students with autism experience low rates of college completion, employment, independent living, and life long friendships as compared to other disabilities (Wehman et al., 2014).  Adjustment to the demands of college life can be difficult for all students.  But for students with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, these challenges can be extreme and debilitating, leading to college failure.  College support programs can be overwhelmed by the complex needs of these students. Moreover, faculties in higher education frequently lack the training and expertise to meet the instructional needs of these students. In short, there is a convergence of students with autism, limited transitional assessment planning at the secondary level, and colleges with limited resources to meet these expanding needs (Friedman, Warfield and Parish, 2013).

The core deficits of autism identified as communication, social interaction, repetitive motions, and restricted interests can adversely impact the student’s ability to successfully complete their academic objectives.  However, there are additional areas of cognitive functioning frequently not well understood that impact the student’s ability to benefit from and adjust to the daily demands of college life. Focus on the core features of ASD—a categorical classification—fails to fully identify the neurodevelopmental and cognitive variations within the broader group. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), the gold standard for intensive treatment for children with autism identifies “prompt dependence” as an impediment to the overall growth and development of the child (Cooper, 2006). Conversely, being overly dependent on various educational strategies as identified through the IEP process can also create an unintended consequence of limiting the student’s ability to maximize their potential. When this dynamic occurs the student’s true abilities can be inflated or obscured, suggesting that the student is better prepared for college success when in fact, they are not. The disconnection between success at high school and failure at college can confuse both parent and student causing anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues.

It is clearly counterintuitive to suggest that the very accommodations/modifications that are necessary for success in high school could create a limiting factor when considering college. Accommodations/modifications are absolutely essential and necessary for the success of the student. However, without a sufficiently developed and well-implemented transition plan the student can be handicapped by the very supports that have been put in place to assist him/her. The student’s most optimal path for success is a path that has both accommodation and related supports as well as a comprehensive transition plan. One without the other is the problem. Success at college requires both to be in place. A core feature of behavior analysis is that the student’s behavior is under the control of the environment (external locus of control). External supports, while attractive and measureable, often do not translate to a student’s ability to generalize and internalize these strategies leading to overdependence on others.

There is consensus in the literature that transition planning at the secondary level is frequently insufficient in preparing a student with autism for higher education (Parsons, et al. 2013; Friedman, Warfield, Parish, 2013; Bouck, 2012). Osborn and Reed (2009) have identified that many students with ASD entering into higher education have limited and insufficient transition planning at the secondary level. College Connect data would suggest that for many students the insufficiency of the transition plan is directly impacting the student’s readiness for college. One such example illustrates these concerns. Student HG, diagnosed with autism and has been receiving services since the first grade has the following transition services listed on his IEP; 40 minutes yearly (group), 40 minutes yearly (individual) and 50 minutes yearly (career development). In total, HG receives approximately 2 hours yearly to implement a transition plan. HG earned A’s and B’s in high school (with accommodations) but is failing in college and is struggling to manage his emotions and behaviors. Given the comprehensive nature of autism it is a difficult to believe that two hours of “anything” provided on a yearly basis could lead to a realistic outcome of success.

Transition plans are most effective when there is interagency collaboration (Roberts, 2010; Szidon, Ruppar, Smith, 2015).  Members of the transition planning team should consider several factors, including the following: 1.Who are the people who are most involved in the student’s life? 2. What agencies may benefit the individual now and during postsecondary education? 3. Who are the people who will support the student while in postsecondary education? 4. And what supports are needed? The answers to these questions should drive any inter-agency collaboration (Szidon, Ruppar, Smith, 2015). Transition planning should provide the student both a level of knowledge as well as an opportunity to build skills. Knowing something is not the same as being able to do something. Access to support services at college requires a different set of acquired skills. Many students do not poses these skills. These skills were not sufficiently identified and practiced at the secondary level.

Other areas of concern include a breakdown in cognitive areas commonly identified as executive functioning. Poor executive functioning limits the student’s ability to manage cognitive and emotional functioning. The lack of executive functioning skills coupled with overdependence on “others” becomes a potential barrier to the well-documented need for self-determination skills, a requisite for success at the post-secondary level. 

The complexity of college requires that a student navigate many layers of support as well as the ongoing task demands of each class. For many students these support systems are sufficient. But for some, these very support systems can create a new set of challenges. College Connect is a unique and innovative collaborative care model that provides comprehensive campus support service for students with autism attending college. Comprehensive supports include the development of transitional plans, weekly individual, small and large group activities, as well as social supports. College Connect is best described as a milieu model supporting the student in their daily educational activities. College Connect support teams assist the student in the development of behavioral strategies to meet the demands of daily living.

Students with autism attending college will require collaborative efforts by educators, researchers, and clinicians to assist them on their journey into adulthood. Most research and clinical efforts have been targeted towards the secondary student. The gap between high school and college has been well documented; bridging the gap is critical if these deserving students are ever going to reach their maximum potential.



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