College can be an overwhelming time for anyone. If you are a student on the autism spectrum, you may feel anxious about this new chapter in your life. College is full of new experiences, and you may be wondering what you will need to know to be successful. For example, you may be wondering what daily living skills you may need to live in the dorms? Are there specific social skills that you can use to better communicate with your instructors or help you in making friends or joining groups? Which campus resources might help you adjust to college. Are there executive function skills that will help you thrive during your years at college?
This post is the beginning of a College Student Blog Series. We know moving to college is a major life transition. You are used to the supports you had in high school. Perhaps you had an IEP and special education services. Your parents were there to help advocate for you, answer questions and attend meetings with you. But now, you’re expected to suddenly be more independent. This new blog series will explore common concerns autistic youth have when transitioning to college life and give you (or your parents/teachers/friends) tips to help you make the most of your college experience.
What are the most important skills for neurodiverse college students?
Daily living skills and adaptive skills are terms that are used interchangeably. Both refer to the skills a person needs to function independently in their environment. These skills include:
- Personal hygiene (showering, brushing teeth and hair)
- Getting enough sleep
- Waking up in time for classes
- Remembering to eat meals
- Doing laundry
- Studying and turning in homework
- Throwing away garbage
- Driving or taking public transportation
- Managing bills and schedules
Daily living skills require autistic adults to use executive functioning.
Executive functioning is the brain processes that allow us to plan, prioritize tasks, remember instructions, remain focused, and work toward goals. Research indicates that adaptive living skills and executive functioning are usually significantly lower for young people on the spectrum than neurotypical peers.
Adaptive living and social skills are necessary for a successful transition to college life.
By the end of your senior year of high school, are you able to wake up in the morning for classes and do homework without your parents’ help?
When you get stressed out, do you tend to avoid things? Or, do you have a few good coping skills that you use to help you deal with your anxiety?
Do you feel comfortable reaching out to people for help? Or do you hide when you have problems?
Avoiding problems doesn’t help college students with autism
As you can probably guess, hiding from problems may feel easier. But in the long run, the problems you’re avoiding quickly grow into overwhelming problems.
I often see students on the autism spectrum leave for their freshman year in college without these adaptive living skills in place. They encounter challenges in college, as all people do. But, they lack the resources to handle those problems well. If they don’t seek out help, their problems usually grow until it negatively impacts their grades or mental health or both. Many students end up leaving during their first year of college. They weren’t prepared for the realities of living adult life and having to advocate for themselves.
What can a student with Autism do to increase daily living skills before going to college?
If a student with autism is graduating from high school and is still having difficulty with daily living skills, there are a number of things they can do to prepare for a successful transition to college life. Also, there are lots of wonderful resources available to help neurodiverse students succeed in college.
Consider taking a gap year or semester off.
Make sure the gap year or semester off is used to help you build adaptive living skills. Use the extra time to really focus on learning the daily living skills that will help you when you do attend college. Consider working with an ABA therapist and practice daily living skills. Or, consider joining our college transition group, or our college social skills group.
Attend a community college close to home
Attend a community college or vocational school and live at home for at least the first semester. This will reduce the number of transitions in life and let you practice daily living skills with reduced parental assistance. Community colleges are a great stepping stone between high school and a larger university.
Consider the college culture and size
Some students on the autism spectrum will thrive in a small college. At a smaller school, they will get more personalized attention from professors. But, other students with ASD may thrive at large and competitive colleges. At these schools, they feel like their potential is maximized. Think about what will work best for you and your personality.
Increase your social support network
Find a neurodiverse/autism support group to have a supportive community of peers that understand you. If the college you attend or the college town does not have in-person groups there are online support groups available.
Also, you should think about participating in a community of people who share your special interest/hobby. Join a club that has regular meetings so you get positive social interactions and structure in your life. Lastly, you could consider volunteering and doing something you care about deeply and that aligns with your values and allows you to meet people with similar interests and values.
Educate yourself to support your college transition
- Open Doors Therapy: Resources
- Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area: Resources for Higher-Functioning ASD Adults
- College Autism Spectrum: College Programs
- The Bay Area Adult Autism Conference 2019 talks about Transition, Employment, College and HFA.
- Thrive counseling’s autism blog
- Many students who are on the spectrum also have AttentionDeficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). In fact, research suggests that 50-70% of people with autism also have ADHD. So I wanted to include a wonderful site that provides resources for ASD and ADHD students. Click to access the ADDitude: ADHD School Directory.
Please note, many young adults on the spectrum regress if they live at home. Regardless, all students need a support network in place to be successful on their own.
Stay Connected With Open Doors Therapy
Thanks for reading this blog series. I hope you learned some useful information regarding the social skills you or your child will need as they transition to college. If you feel like this blog series applies to you or someone you know, I encourage you to join our community at Open Doors Therapy.
Here are three simple ways to stay connected with my Silicon Valley/ Bay Area autism therapy office:
- Contact Open Doors Therapy and schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation using this link.
- Connect with me on Facebook and stay informed about our autism services.
- Sign up to receive my newsletter for news and information on Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Other Autism Services at Open Doors Therapy
Our Palo Alto/Bay Area counseling clinic serves individuals with autistic traits. This includes individuals who identify as having Asperger’s, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. We are proud to offer a variety of mental health services including individual counseling, parent counseling, and group therapy for the South Bay Area’s neurodiverse community. Additionally, our therapists facilitate several different educational groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. To learn more about any of these services, contact our office and schedule a free consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice in Palo Alto, near San Francisco, CA. She specializes in social skills groups.