For graduating high school seniors who are entering college this fall, it is an exciting time. Possibilities have been opened! Yet now new concerns arise: Have they chosen the right college? Will they thrive?
These are hard questions for any young adult, but for those with autism, the stakes are especially high. A 2015 Autism Speaks report found that only 30 percent of high school graduates with autism ever attend a two- or four-year college, and those that do fare poorly. Research suggests that 80 percent of them never graduate. Furthermore, only 32 percent of high school graduates with autism find paying work within two years of graduating high school. This need not be. Half of all individuals with autism have average or above-average intelligence. They can do the work. The problem is not the students. It’s the colleges.
We come to this issue from an unusual perspective. One of us, Elizabeth, studies at Pasadena City College and has autism. The other, Margaret, teaches at California State University at Los Angeles, and -- in addition to being Elizabeth’s mother -- has worked with students on and off the spectrum. Together, we have seen the many ways that colleges fail students with autism.
Federal legislation, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, mandates that colleges provide reasonable accommodations for disabled students. But common accommodations, such as providing a quiet exam setting, don’t adequately address the problems faced by many students with autism.
As autism scholars Ernst VanBergeijk, Ami Klin and Fred Volkmar note, autism is a social disability. The inherent qualities of autism -- resistance to change, sensitive sensory systems, weakness at reading social cues and a tendency to take language literally -- interfere with communication and social engagement. A quiet exam room will not help students overcome those barriers. The problems students with autism face are more insidious.
Elizabeth, for example, struggles with understanding if professors are being sarcastic or rhetorical. Uncertain, she often responds too much or too little. When one professor expressed frustration at her eager hand raising, she asked privately if he would signal her when he wasn’t being serious or didn’t require a response. “No,” he said. “I don’t need to change my teaching for you, and you need to learn sarcasm.”
It would be easy to regard Elizabeth’s experience as exceptional, the product of one unsympathetic professor. Yet research out of Australia by Ru Ying Cai and Amanda L. Richdale confirms how common such experiences are. In focus groups, autistic college students told story after story about metaphorical or abstract language leading to confusion, as well as loud, active classrooms challenging their abilities to focus on learning. For many, the frustrations became too great, leading to stress, anxiety and regrettable outcomes. However, when students felt their social needs were met -- in particular when faculty members proved willing to modify their teaching style -- students had much more positive experiences.
But American professors are not required to modify their teaching style for disabled students, and colleges are not required to think about the social, communicative needs of any students, let alone those with autism. Those things are not considered reasonable accommodations. But if autism is indeed a social disability, then denying the social needs of autistic students is inherently unreasonable.
It would help if faculty members understood how autism affects learning. But professors are busy. They juggle many demands, and professional development is often low on their to-do lists. At Margaret’s university -- which houses an outstanding center for teaching and learning development -- professional development seminars are often poorly attended, especially those focused on helping students with special needs. At one seminar on working with hearing-impaired students, Margaret was one of three instructors to show up, and if our conversations with colleagues and peers are indicative, then Margaret’s experience is a common one. Even when given the opportunity to learn more about the needs of disabled students, professors turn those choices down.
Some positive changes are underway. More than 100 colleges now offer programs for students with autism, but most of them are private, expensive, residential programs. Meanwhile, research suggests that up to 80 percent of college students with autism at one point filter through community colleges, where students, often still highly dependent on family support, can live at home. Those institutions generally offer fewer resources for students with autism. If we are to meet the needs of neurodiverse students, public community colleges will need to lead the way.
In these days when most community college disability offices are underfunded -- Elizabeth’s community college does not even provide note takers -- meeting the needs of students with autism may seem daunting. But meaningful institutional changes do not need to strain budgets. For Elizabeth, the greatest support has often come from students who have chosen to act as social interpreters. A whispered word or two is often all she needs to better and more appropriately engage with her curriculum. Colleges like California State University at Fullerton already have mentorship programs that pair neurotypical and neuroatypical classmates.
We recommend expanding such programs so that peer mentors -- perhaps those offered the coveted privilege of priority registration -- work side by side with autistic students in the classroom. Of course, that brings us back to the privacy concerns voiced earlier. Peer mentors can only work with students who are willing to self-identify in the classroom as having autism, which is why autistic students themselves must also be involved in making campuses more responsive to their needs -- and that will only happen when students with autism bring neurodiversity into conversations about campus diversity.
Until that happens, faculty can do a lot to foster feelings of safety and inclusion for all students -- both with autism and without. Elizabeth advocates for simple kindness, acceptance and the understanding that some disabilities are invisible. In Margaret’s classes, she announces on day one that students registered with the school’s disability office should feel free to talk to her about not just the accommodations they may legally require but also about other things she can do to make her courses work for them. She shares -- with Elizabeth’s permission -- the struggles Elizabeth has faced in education, and she urges students to see her as someone who really wants to help them succeed.
Work by Nicholas Gelbar, Isaac Smith and Brian Reichow offers faculty members other suggestions for helping students on the spectrum: incorporate universal design into curriculum and assignments. As much as possible, use concrete language in both lectures and the syllabus. Break tasks down into more steps, provide greater organizational support, realize that group work, public speaking and active classrooms (such popular buzzwords in today’s curricular development) may offer particular challenges for students who struggle socially and who do not thrive in environments demanding rapid transitions. In other words, when dealing with students whose disability makes flexibility extremely difficult, faculty members must be the flexible ones. They must also take responsibility for educating themselves about neurodiversity, and if that seems too hard, they can do one last thing. They can defer to autistic students who do understand their own needs, and they can give those students the support they ask for.
One thing is undeniable: without significant changes, the traditional gateway to greater community inclusion and financial security will remain closed to people with autism. And that’s a tragedy, because those with autism have a lot to offer -- not just to our colleges, but also to our nation’s economy. We all win when everyone can compete and contribute.