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Transition Tips for Parents of Young Adults with High Functioning Autism Heading Off to College

Updated on February 21, 2016
tdalexander profile image

Toni helps autistic teens and adults reach their employment and relationship goals. She is the author of the book Autism Translated.


As an autism consultant, one of the biggest requests I receive from parents is information on how their teenager can transition successfully into adulthood. It can be a scary and overwhelming time and there are scanty resources at best to support families undergoing this process. The good news is that there are some simple yet effective steps that you can take to make this transition easier for everyone involved. (This particular article focuses on transitioning to college but these steps can be adapted for any major life change such as getting a job, moving into an apartment, or dealing with a parent's divorce).

Step #1: Start Early

Young people on the spectrum are typically going to need much more time and exposure to new environments and ideas to adapt successfully. This means that preparing for college can and should start as early as possible.

Why? It just takes longer for many individuals on the spectrum to prepare and adjust to new circumstances because

  • they may have to cope with overwhelming sensory input,
  • they may experience anxiety, and
  • they may have difficulty "generalizing".

A person who has difficulty generalizing may not be able to categorize information in their brain according to helpful groups. For example, they may not see the similarities between all college buildings. Instead, their brains may interpret each and every building as distinct and different from all other images of all other buildings stored in their brain. And this means they may have to relearn skills or tasks like walking down the hall or finding the restroom when exposed to each of these new buildings.

So step one is simple. Don't wait until their senior year in high school. Start preparing early. You can begin developing necessary skills like asking for help and having reciprocal conversations when your child is four or five and it's not too early to start preparing for college when your student is a freshman in high school if they are considering it as an option after graduation.

Diana's World: Campus Tour Example

Step #2: Break it Down

As a support person, you can lay out the specific steps of simple college tasks such as: living in a dorm, eating in a cafeteria, having a different class schedule each day, sharing space with a roommate. All aspects of college life can be broken down into small achievable steps.

For example, You might pull out a campus map and say "Now in high school, you go to all of your classes in the same building. In college you will have your English class in this building (point on the map or drive or walk by the actual building) and your math class in a different building here (point on the map or drive or walk by) You will eat in this building which is the cafeteria and you will sleep in the dorms here.

When it comes to choosing an actual college or university to attend, provide them with the support necessary to visit the schools they are interested in as soon as possible so they can talk to the faculty and advisers and actually see if that particular school is a good fit for them. It's also a good idea to support your student to talk with other students who are or have attended the specific college they are interested in early on. Some schools offer specific features such as smaller class size, online academic support, tutoring rooms or exceptional programs for students with special needs. Students with HFA may need extra time to process this information and utilize it to make the best decision.

Think of all the possible things that might cause anxiety for a new college student who has high functioning autism and have conversations about how to handle each of these things that are of concern in their particular case. The following list can get you started but don't limit your conversations to these topics.

  • How do I pick the right school?
  • Will I have enough time to get to each of my classes without being late?
  • How do I get to each of my classes? Do I drive, ride the bus, walk?
  • Where are the restrooms?
  • How do I pick a roommate?
  • What if my roommate is too ________( insert any of the following noisy, annoying, doesn't like me)?
  • What if I sleep in and miss a class?
  • Will I be able to pay for everything?
  • What if I don't understand something? How do I get help?
  • What are my dating/social boundaries?
  • How do I protect myself against identity theft?
  • How do I balance my checkbook?
  • How do I shop for groceries?

Late night study break
Late night study break

Step #3: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!

A student with HFA may need to drive by the campus once a month (if this is possible) starting when they are a freshman in high school and visit the building five or six times before they enroll, just to familiarize themselves with the new place and ease some of the anxiety.

Don't forget to ask specifically what concerns your student has and if they initiate conversations about a particular subject over and over again, keep in mind that this may be their way to rehearse or prepare for issues they see as important. So be patient and let them process as many times as they need to. If they mention that they need to set their alarm at 6:45 every day and be at the cafeteria before it closes, 5, 50 or even 100 times (yes, 100 times is NOT a typo), this repetition helps them understand and get used to new concepts or situations so be willing to have that conversation with them as many times as they need.

Some students on the spectrum are motivated enough to spend extra time during the summer taking practice tests or auditing classes to give them the extra exposure to concepts they struggle with. Many professors are happy to support students who want this extra practice.

Official and informal peer mentors are also often available to help students who need extra help.

Help students who are able to take college prep classes or actual college courses in high school get access to these resources.

Most universities require minimum scores on the ACT or SAT. So encourage your student to take the free practice entrance exams on-line or offered at some schools as many times as they need to feel comfortable.

Don't forget to use visual supports as part of this process. Calendars, to do lists, maps and labelled pictures are especially helpful during times of transition.

If You Worry About Your Son or Daughter's Chances For Employment After College- Then Watch This:

Step #4: Recognize and Utilize "Autistic" Strengths

Some of the very characteristics that made life especially challenging for families when a child was younger may actually benefit individuals with autism as teens and adults. For example, the same determination to run away in parking lots or flip light switches off and on can often be channeled into determination to complete homework and pay the bills.

And while many college students are spending a lot of time trying to fit in and be cool, the person with autism is often less likely to give into unhealthy peer pressure because they may not be as concerned with fitting in as everyone else and much more committed to their goal to get through school successfully.

Make a list of all the strengths that you recognize in your soon-to-be college student. Then make a list of how these positive attributes will help them be successful and talk with your student about them. Don't skip this step. Chances are, if someone is on the autism spectrum, people have spent a lot of time focusing on the "problem behaviors" and trying to "fix" them. Helping them harness their strengths and utilize them may be the most important thing you can do to help them succeed!

Step #5: Acknowledge the Adult

Although a college student with autism may need extra support to be successful, it is important to acknowledge that they are adults and allow them to explore this new stage of their lives by making their own decisions. A college student no longer living in their parent's home should be able to decide how to arrange their own room, what to eat and how to style their own hair even if they decide to dye it pink or get a mohawk.

Do you have other transition tips? Share them here with other readers:

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    • tdalexander profile imageAUTHOR

      Toni Boucher 

      3 years ago

      Kylyssa, So you rely on many different cues all together and make a process out of identification! This is a great example of how much behind the scenes work may need to be done for something that NT's take for granted as easy and instantaneous. I'm glad that you brought up the fact that there are certain clues like eyeglasses, that you have learned the hard way not to rely on. It still floors me how many people think that just because someone is on the spectrum they can't learn. You have obviously learned through a process of elimination to come up with a system that works for you. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      Voices change less, so I usually wait for a person to speak before I use the name of the person he or she seems most likely to be. I use lots of physical cues such as the way a person moves, his or her language use and accent, and mode of dress. I also compare limb proportions to my memories because limb proportions don't seem to change in adults. Unfortunately, I can only clearly see limb proportions when the person is wearing thin, relatively close-fitting clothing so it seldom works in the winter.

      I only use distinguishing marks if they are likely to be permanent. For instance, I won't expect someone to still have a sunburn the next time I see her, but I can be fairly sure she'll still have a mole.

      I seldom use hairstyles, facial hair, eyeglasses, accessories, or medical appliances as clues because all of those can change quickly and radically. I got into trouble using eyeglasses to identify my uncle when I was a preteen. I got in trouble with each of the criteria I no longer use, each in it's own unique and horribly embarrassing situation.

      Often, I just get stuck with the awkward situations and people often take it as a slight when I don't recognize them. Visual recognition of cues can be tricky when people change so much and, in Michigan, bundle up for a third of the year. I do very well with voices, but background noise can make it difficult as I have unilateral deafness. I deal with the errors by apologizing a lot.

      I compensate for not recognizing people by walking on eggshells around people until I'm sure who they are. I don't say much anyway, unless I'm with people I know and trust, so people just seem to assume it's shyness. Some people just assume I'm retarded and don't talk to me in the first place anyway.

    • tdalexander profile imageAUTHOR

      Toni Boucher 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for sharing the fact that faces can also be a challenge. I am very curious if there are some characteristic or essence about a person that is consistent and above the question of identity that you rely on to avoid confusion or awkward situations? Or ways that you manage to compensate for not recognizing?

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      "Instead, their brains may interpret each and every building as distinct and different from all other images of all other buildings stored in their brain."--- That is some serious insight, readers. It's something I have to get through to most NTs I know before we can have comfortable relationships. It's the same reason as why faces drive me bonkers; faces change and it's hard to tell what percentage of difference puts a person's identity in question and what percentage doesn't.


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