Twenty Truths About Autism on The College Campus: Also true for any disability

Most parents have no idea what college is really like for disabled people. College, after all, was a long way back, and they experienced college as an able person. Parents assume that colleges will support their autistic children, as public schools have done since Kindergarten. They might believe that As in special education classes are sufficient to succeed at the local community college. They assume that their kid will go to college because everyone else in the neighborhood is sending their children to college. 

I am constantly correcting misconceptions about college with parents, and even with high school teachers and staff, who are responsible for supporting these students with their transition plans. 

I’m going to be really, really blunt here, because I need to be. Too many special education college students don’t make it past the first week, and their parents don’t have a realistic Plan B. Rather than completely rule out college as an option, parents should have a complete understanding of the situation.

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10 thoughts on “Twenty Truths About Autism on The College Campus: Also true for any disability

  1. I agree with many of these comments. I question whether a student who cannot write a five paragraph essay belongs in college classes. It’s frustrating for everyone when students end up in classes over their heads. That’s part of a broader question of what the function of college is. I don’t think it’s for everyone but I don’t know who should decide who goes. I’ve taught both college and high school and the accessibility goals are VERY different.

    The absolute best way to get a note taker is to notice someone already in your class who takes good notes. The disability office may be willing to pay the note taker but there’s no efficient way for them to find a person to do the note-taking. If you provide the contact info you are much more likely to get the service.


  2. Yeah I teach at a SLAC, these are not universally true. Teachers union? What’s that? My institution has done a lot to help educate professors on these issues. I have had quite a few autistic students in my classes, along with students with all sorts of other disabilities. And yes we change up our pedagogy and our assignments to accommodate students with disabilities.


    1. I am mostly familiar with community college procedures and autism, because Ian has attended two different community colleges, so I have had EXTENSIVE conversations with administrators about accommodations and all that.

      Last week, Ian was barred from a class due to disclosure of his diagnosis without anybody even meeting him. It’s true that a big chunk of the blame lies with a new employee at his transition high school, who barged into a classroom and made demands of an overwhelmed adjunct professor. But there was plenty of blame to go around, except with Ian who never said a word.

      I talked with a dean who told me that her faculty had no obligations to attend an inclusion training sessions, because of the union.

      The autism spectrum is wide and confusing. There are definitely students who blend in easier than others. My kid is amazing at the academics and executive function skills – he’s already a week ahead in all of his online classes. If the professor dropped the entire semester of lessons, he would finish the entire class in two weeks. But I am still nervous about him interrupting a professor’s lecture to correct errors. He’s improved a lot just in the past year, so hopefully he’ll be able to take in person classes soon.

      But there are a whole of lot of autistic students who were never taught how to write and do math. Their parents also believe that they should go to college. I just think that people should all be on the same page.


  3. “I question whether a student who cannot write a five paragraph essay belongs in college classes. ”

    I’ve been pondering this proposal. I think I disagree, though, I might agree that a student who can’t write a 5 paragraph essay might not belong in *some* college courses.

    We’d all agree, in this age, that putting a big heavy block in front of the door to the college (a literal gate) and only admitting people into the sanctum who could move it aside to get in would be inappropriate gatekeeping. But, that wasn’t true, potentially, in the origins of the liberal education, with talk of sound bodies and minds.

    Back then, the field of knowledge was smaller, more verbal, and the ability to communicate information more limited to writing. So, a 5 paragraph essay wasn’t a stone, but a reasonable gate.

    Now, the field of knowledge is vast and the means of communicating information, from videos to audio books to presentations. I don’t think I want to prevent someone from taking math or programming or computer repair classes because they can’t write a 5 paragraph essay. That might be an unnecessary gate for some with disabilities but also for those with fluency in languages other than English (who might be perfectly capable of the work in those classes).

    I think disability accommodations should push us to think about which of our gates are necessary (though I fully agree that some are, and that some are for certain goals). And, yes, having a student in a math class who can’t do algebra or in a history class who can’t write a simple essay is probably a problem. And in many classes, executive functioning, distractibility, mental health issues will be a problem.


  4. Building trades apprenticeship programs don’t require applicants to write a five-paragraph essay (and that is even though tradesmen who write complicated estimates end up writing what amounts to a five paragraph essay). And technical school freshmen in other countries get to take courses exclusively in their majors, with not much if any writing for a general audience. Students with autism who excel at CS or similar disciplines would be much better served by those types of educational systems. I do not understand why entry-level programmers can’t be evaluated entirely on their programming skills (as they once were) instead of requiring a 2- or 4-year liberal arts degree.

    College, by its very nature, is not in the business of coaching its students through the fine points of studenting and dealing with bureaucracies. The idea is that HS (and life) is supposed to have gotten them to the ability to function on their own. What is sad is that the volume of bureaucracy that’s involved in enrolling, and succeeding, in college these days has become so substantial that even plenty of students without disabilities find it too challenging to master.


  5. I always knew that writing long essays and comprehending fiction was a problem for Ian. I knew he wasn’t at college level. Partially the problem is his particular brain wiring. But he also had really, really, really bad English classes with zero extra help. Special education classes are the absolute worst. It’s just babysitting with zero expectations for the kids. By the end of high school, Ian had worked his way out of all special education classes, except for English.

    I thought that Ian could go to a technical school for his computer and mechanical schools and wouldn’t have to bother with liberal arts expectations. Too bad that the few and shabby technical schools in the area are aimed at dumb jocks, not weak nerds.


  6. After you mentioned the LA test required at a CC, I took some practice exams and was surprised (the emotionally loaded, social skills heavy, fictional story in the comprehension paragraph, followed by questions about people’s intent and motivations).

    I asked a 2nd grade teacher about reading tests, and she said that it’s become a standard that using fiction to ask questions has become a measure of “critical thinking and analysis”. She didn’t think they were a good test (especially for a complicated group of 2nd graders from different countries, different home languages, and different cognitive abilities).

    I worry that outsiders have bought into a myth of education, that anyone can be taught to do anything. Thinking along those lines is dangerous because we spent so much history thinking that too many people couldn’t be taught to do anything (and, that we might benefit from keeping them in their place). I see high achieving teens suffering under this burden when their parents just don’t understand why they can’t do the same math as their classmate X (a national math olympiad champion) or the same essays as classmate Y (harder to measure, but the teachers now he’s one of the best writers they’ve seen). Eventually most of the neurotypical high achievers figure out what they are good at, but some of them have breakdowns, too.


    1. And I do think a better path is to find ways to include everyone’s talents without gates or hoops that limit people based on their weakest skill rather than their strongest.


      1. Thanks you! My normal to bright daughter with very weak math ability has been shut out of a lot of opportunties because of this.


  7. A relevant NYT editorial a couple of days ago, See Workers as Workers, Not as a College Credential

    The article takes a stand against college as a gatekeeping credential, mention that Pennsylvania just removed a requirement for college credentials for many government jobs (as had Maryland & Utah had last year).

    They see these steps in the states as arguing for a more general emphasis on skills based hiring (now bipartisan, with Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor in support)


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