Accommodating Emotional and Learning Differences in College

Sometimes when high school students have depression, anxiety, ADHD, LD or autism, they obtain special accommodations such as extra time on tests. These conditions may be part of an IEP, 504 plan or other arrangement with the local school district. In other cases, students are able to do sufficiently well without such accommodations. While in high school, students may also request additional time on the ACT or SAT, though in this case the request must go through the College Board.

College policies tend to be rather different, and since the academic demands are typically much greater than in high school, it’s wise to seek accommodations well in advance. There are no guarantees of special treatment in college, so the more a student can learn to manage without accommodations in high school, the better. (See the Americans with Disabilities Act to understand your legal rights.) Common requests for a college may include:

  • Allowing use of technology such as tape recorders
  • Use of a dictionary or spell checker on exams
  • Alternate test formats (e.g., oral vs. written)
  • Extended time on tests
  • Having someone read the test questions or write down answers the student dictates
  • Administering tests in a separate (quieter) room
  • Course substitutions
  • A single dorm room (e.g., if a student needs additional quiet or privacy vs. a double room)

Most schools have a department of disability support services. It is up to the student to contact them and request any needed accommodations. Once the department provides approval, the student must give this information to individual professors to obtain the accommodations in each course.

TCC can help guide students through this process and provide documentation needed to justify accommodations.

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Autism Goes to College

Long before starting to select a list of colleges, it’s important to assess whether a student is ready to go to college in the first place. Students who continue to live at home and attend a vocational school or community college will have a less abrupt transition, though they may still be faced with greater demands than they experienced in high school.

Students who plan to move away for college, however, should have mastered as many of the following skills as possible:

Financial – Be able to use a debit and/or credit card. Know how to write a check. Track account balances to avoid overdraft charges and bounced checks. Have an idea about how much things cost. Know how to save money and be a smart shopper.

Emotional – Be able to cope with disappointment, frustration, homesickness and uncertainty. 

Social – Know how to meet people and make friends. Have the confidence to approach a professor to ask questions and acquire a mentor. Know when someone is not a good candidate for friendship.

Health – Be able to schedule and attend medical appointments independently (including filling out paperwork and paying copayments). 

Academic – Have a system for keeping track of assignments. Consistently meet deadlines. Know how to write a research paper.

Daily Living – Be able to get up in the morning without assistance, select appropriate clothes, maintain hygiene and eat the right amount.

Landmark College has published A Guide to Assessing College Readiness. While designed for students with learning disabilities or ADHD, it can be a useful starting point for assessing the needs of autistic students as well. 

What if a student lacks some of the necessary college readiness skills?

There are a few options:

  • Take a gap year. Use the time wisely to learn and develop.
  • Stay at home and take classes online or at a local school (e.g., community college or vocational school) and transfer to a more distant 4-year college later.
  • Attend a program to help build college readiness, such as Next Step, the College Internship ProgramAIM and others.

While a third of autistic students go to college, less than 20% of those who go straight to a four-year college succeed. The majority of them receive disability accommodations in high school (e.g., extra time on tests) but do not disclose their diagnosis in college and do not receive accommodations there. In high school, the school is expected to provide services and ensure the student’s progress; in college, it is up to the student to seek out services (if needed) and make a plan for success. (See our article about accommodations in college.)

The increased level of independence and amount of homework can be daunting for any college freshman, but for autistic students, it is sometimes insurmountable without help.

Many colleges now offer programs specifically designed to help autistic students succeed; these schools include:

Adelphi University (NY)

Bellevue College (WA)

Drexel University (PA)

Landmark College (VT)

Marshall University (WV)

Nova Southeastern University (FL)

Rochester Institute of Technology (NY)

Rutgers University (NJ)

Wright State University (OH)

TCC can help determine whether your child is ready for college, find pre-college programs, seek disability accommodations, manage the stress of the application process and find the best fit for your child. Dr. Endlich, TCC’s founder, is an experienced psychologist who has raised an autistic child, led Asperger’s support groups, co-written a book on autistic adults and presented widely on autism. Contact us today!

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