Recruit & Retain (Nova Southeastern University)

Opening Doors

Making college accessible to students with autism.

It seems like every year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce the results of a new study finding increasing numbers of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). No longer is autism a low-incidence disorder. With a prevalence rate of 1:50, it has become quite common.

This almost guarantees that every school has children with autism in attendance. The current figures, based on parents’ reports of autism in their school-aged children aged 6-17 years, show a marked increase from a similar survey done in 2007. The earlier survey found that 1.16 percent of children had an ASD, while the 2011-2012 survey found that two percent of children had an ASD.

Because the majority of individuals with ASD are under the age of 20, autism is often portrayed as a childhood disease. There’s a good reason for that: early intervention and education are effective therapies for building skills and reducing some challenging behaviors. But this ignores the majority of a lifespan: adulthood.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are growing up. Approximately 50,000 individuals with ASD turn 18 each year in the United States. Their challenges won’t end at high school graduation; they’ll become more demanding, difficult and costly. According to Autism Speaks, the estimated lifetime cost of ASD can reach $1.4-$2.3 million, in part because of the failure of adults with ASD to reach independence.

Over the next decade, more students with ASD are expected to enroll in America’s universities than ever before. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that in 2007-2008, 4,544 students with autism graduated with a regular high school diploma and in 2008-2009 that number jumped to 6,374. Their success hinges on how institutions accommodate this growing population.

Recognizing that there is a lack of programs for young adults with ASD who have strong academic skills, Nova Southeastern University (NSU) joins the handful of U.S. colleges and universities offering specialized support to students with ASD.

This fall, NSU implemented Access Plus, which provides college students who are admitted to the university the support in independent living, campus life, social interaction and organization of academic demands that students with ASD often need to be successful on college campuses.

Parents of children with autism are often fearful of letting their children go away to college. Often, they have taken responsibility for their children to an extent that their children have not had the opportunity to become independent. Many adolescents and young adults with autism have not had the same experiences that other students entering college have had: holding a summer or after-school job, driving a car, organizing their own social life and extracurricular activities. Parents may have provided constant reminders to take a shower, clean a room or do homework, so that their children have not developed these skills before heading off to college. Learning to navigate the physical environment of a college campus, which is much larger than a high school, can create its own challenges.

Access Plus provides a peer mentor to assist each student to enter into campus life by joining campus organizations or participating in social activities, organizing class assignments over the course of a semester, and making sure students meet their obligations. Weekly psycho-educational groups discuss topics of value to their students including budgeting, handling final exams, making assignment timelines, interacting appropriately with faculty and other students, and interviewing for a campus job.

The original intent of the program was to accept freshman students and lessen support as the students became comfortable with college life. But since the announcement of the program, we have found that many individuals lived at home and attended community college for two years and now want to live away from home for the rest of their college experience. Other applicants failed at their first attempt at a four-year college and are now looking for a program with extensive support.

There are many individuals who have been successful academically at colleges and universities, but who graduate lacking social skills, organizational skills or the ability to navigate the world independently. Specialized college support programs can address these goals so that individuals with autism spectrum disorder can reach their full potential and lead satisfying lives.

Autism is a lifetime issue — it doesn’t magically disappear after adolescence. Young adults are increasingly growing out of their school-age services and finding themselves in communities with limited or no support. We must continue to develop new programs to meet the changing needs of individuals on the autism spectrum — no matter what their age.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management November 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Susan Kabot, Ed.D., is is executive director of Nova Southeastern University's Autism Institute in Fort Lauderdale.