Recent autism insights give staff, policy new outlook on what it means to be on the spectrum

autism-autistic-university As more people continue to get diagnosed with autism across the U.S., numerous supports are in place…at least in K-12. But as many of these students graduate high school and look toward post-secondary education, has anything changed in how campus staff view autism? How is the autism conversation changing in higher education?

According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) data on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), about 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism. And though ASD does not stem from one racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, autism is almost five times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189).

Despite this surge in students falling somewhere on the autism spectrum, little has changed, at least in campus support, since 1973 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that colleges and universities comply with the Act’s mandates.

However, most college departments that deal with ADA compliance prescribe ‘support’ to students with autism as they would with other students with disabilities: More time on tests, alternative test-taking spaces, and the allowance of student note-takers in class.

And while many higher-ed institutions have recently begun to offer programs that cater specifically to students with ASD, it often comes at a steep price for families.

(Next page: The cost of higher-ed special needs programs)

For example, Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y, a university which has one of the most comprehensive programs in the country, charges $2,620 per semester—on top of tuition.

Fees for Eastern Michigan University’s (EMU) Autism Collaborative Center (ACC) program, which can be very intensive, range from $4,500 to $7,500 a semester. Others are less expensive, including Colorado State University’s, which costs $1,500 a semester.

These programs offer additional services for ASD students, including services for meetings with students, accompanying them to class, planning for assignments, feeling at ease socially, and helping some students to eat and shower regularly.

“Just getting the kids to the college level can require a tremendous investment of time, money and effort, explained ACC’s program directors to Diverse Education, “and with those extra fees, poor and minority kids can be left behind. High schools in poor neighborhoods may [also] have fewer services, leaving students unprepared to go to college.”

Yet, according to Lauren Kelley, manager of First Year Experience (FYE) and former director of professional development at Owens Community College, helping students with autism, at least in class, can be as simple as trying and listening.

After helping one student in a class diagnosed with autism, she helped another, with a completely new set of challenges, just by asking them how she could help.

No student asked for ‘unreasonable’ treatment, noted Kelley, including being able to write questions down on paper, or having extra patience if a distraction occurred.

“When I am challenged or frustrated by an ASD student, I remind myself that everything is challenging for them and I should be thankful to have the opportunity to help them learn and progress,” said Kelley. “I have been so fortunate to learn about ASD, how others think and give the gift of higher education to students that may have never been afforded the opportunity,” due to what Kelley admits are “appalling lack of supports and available resources for ASD students on campuses.”

For Kelley’s case studies on her experiences with ASD students, read here.

(Next page: 8 tips for faculty and campus offices)

Suggestions for faculty teaching students with ASD

Along with Brittany Joseph, another FYE instructor at Owens, Kelley has eight suggestions for faculty and campus administration when working with ASD students in and out of the classroom.


1. Build a relationship with the ASD student on the first day. As faculty, say the Owens instructors, “we can ease their anxieties by nurturing them with warmth and acceptance on the first day of classes.

2. Regular interaction. According to the instructors, faculty should encourage the ASD student to arrive before class to review expectations and objectives for the day. Also, faculty should recommend that the ASD student stay after class to recap the outcomes and expectations for the next class meeting, including upcoming assignments and projects.

“By encouraging the student to reach out before or after class, the number of questions and concerns that arise during the class time is reduced and other students in the course are less frustrated by the number of interruptions.

3. Build a relationship with their parents. With documentation to meet the legalities of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) from the student, faculty can reach out to the parents and ask them questions.

4. Share your experience with others in your institution. “Each semester brings with it a new set of faculty members that may or not be aware of ASDs,” said the instructors. “Become an advocate for autism professional development for peers, staff, and administrators on your campus.”

For institutions:

5. The college culture and disability disclosure: Institutional policies and faculty/peer reactions to autism often are the reasons why ASD students do not self-disclose about their disability, explain Kelly and Joseph. The institution, as a whole, must be willing to work collaboratively with the parents of ASD students, faculty, advisors, therapists, disability services personnel, and student conduct personnel.

6. The office of disability service: Other accommodations can be made for students other than just the ADA, such as faculty clearly defining classroom expectations, allowing students to record their lectures, and providing students with access to their class notes. In addition, Disability Services Offices can collaborate with academic affairs and student activities departments to offer brown bag sessions, faculty development seminars, and provide a speaker series with ASD guest speakers in a diversity of career fields.

7. The offices of student affairs and student activities: Student organizations can capitalize on Autism Awareness Month. The Offices of Disability Services can also coordinate with the Offices of Student Affairs and Student Activities to provide summer transitional programs for ASD students. These offices can then establish peer support groups that provide a social network for ASD students. These offices can work together to ensure that new student orientations and first year related activities create awareness about cognitive disabilities.

8. The office of academic affairs: A director of FYE could create an FYE course with the purpose of providing assistance for ASD students transitioning into the college setting. The course objectives would include helping students learn how to cope with having ASD, to self-advocate as a student with ASD, to gain an understanding of the support services available beyond the disability services office, and to develop a personal transition plan.

For a more detailed description of recommendations and conclusions, read the report.

(Next page: Autism is a good fit for higher-ed)

Autism a good fit for higher-ed

Besides offering in-classroom support and more social campus activities, Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, believes the culture of higher education may be just the place for students with autism.

“A lot of people at colleges are aware of dealing with autism (and Asperger’s syndrome; I will refer generally to the autism spectrum) in their ‘special needs’ programs,” writes Cowen for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The more complex reality is that there is a lot more autism in higher education than most of us realize. It’s not just ‘special needs’ students but also our valedictorians, our faculty members, and yes—sometimes—our administrators.”

Cowen argues that the American university is an environment “especially conducive to autistics,” for a variety of their skills, but especially their preference for stable environments, the ability to choose their own hours and work at home, and the ability to work on focused projects for long periods of time.

“Does that sound familiar?” asks Cowen. “The modern college or university is often ideal or at least relatively good at providing those kinds of environments. While there is plenty of discrimination against autistics, most people in American universities are so blind to the notion of high-achieving autistics that one prejudice cancels out the other, to the benefit of many of the autistics in universities.”

Cowen also notes many prestigious university alumni in his article that have also been diagnosed with autism. Read the article.

“The point is not to convince you of any single profile of autistics or to replace your old stereotypes with new ones,” explains Cowen. “Rather, we keep on learning that the diversity of autistics is greater than we used to think.”

Another way of putting it, he says, is that all students are special-needs students requiring lots of help.

“The non-autistic students do not represent some ideal point that everyone is striving to attain, but rather both autistic and non-autistic students are trying to learn the specialized skills of the other group, as well as perfecting their own skills.”

For faculty and campuses interested in learning more about students with ASD, as well as what other institutions are doing to better support students with autism:

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