Are professors, parents and others ready for college students with autism?

By Jan Blacher, Special to CalMatters

This spring, high school students across America will open a letter — or an email or a post on a web portal — from one or more of the thousands of universities across the country. There will be swells of disappointment for some, and a collective sigh from those who receive news of acceptance.

Conservatively, 2% of the latter will be individuals with autism who were held to the same rigorous admissions criteria as everyone else. Are they — and we — really ready for this moment?

Once accepted, individuals with autism have the legal right to attend college. This is assured by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Higher Education Opportunity Act.

However, no mandate requires faculty to welcome these students or figure out how to integrate them into their classrooms. I know this firsthand, as my research team at the University of California, Riverside, has published a series of studies on this topic.

A faculty member interviewed about providing support to college students on the autism spectrum opined, “Well, it’s not fair to everyone else!”  That’s one viewpoint. Fortunately, many others recognize the influx of students with autism and want to learn to accommodate them. 

This will, of course, require some training.

Professors are in this business because, presumably, they like to learn, so at the very least they should learn what autism is, and what they can do better to meet the different, sometimes unusual, learning needs of this group of students.

For students with autism, on other hand, while there’s much to be learned in terms of organizational, social and even laundry skills, it’s college readiness around the required academic tasks and appropriate behavior in class they need to be concerned about. 

Said one student with autism: “My experiences in courses varied … I hadn’t quite gotten to the point where I really fully understood that a class did not exist purely for my own edification, so I would ask questions a little more frequently than most (students) were comfortable with.” 

The question is no longer whether to disclose an autism diagnosis but when. Students often view disclosure as a liability — “If I disclose, it will hurt my chances of getting in.” But with disclosure, there is often understanding, or at least the way is paved for acknowledgment, tolerance and eventual acceptance. 

Once at college, if students want faculty to make accommodations or recognize their challenges, disclosure is paramount. Generally, their peers and professors will figure out something is “different” about these students. Besides, when there is a crisis — and there almost always is — students may be forced to disclose. 

By the time applications are submitted, parents should consider college for their child a reality.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents parents from having access to their student’s records or grades once the youth turns 18. However, parents can access information about the student’s performance under certain circumstances, such as when they still claim the youth as dependent for tax purposes, or if the student signs a waiver granting access.

Generally speaking, though, if parents insist on their child signing a waiver, they’re likely not ready for this transition. In a better scenario, parents would have an open dialogue with their kids about college, grades and ways they might serve as supports.

In my 40 years as a college professor, I have met and taught increasing numbers of students on the spectrum. During this time, not one parent has contacted me about their student. This suggests that by the time a student is admitted to the University of California, parents are also ready for the experience. That’s good news.

As community members, are you ready for college students with autism?

Do get ready, because here they come, bringing with them a range of talents and perspectives that will broaden the insights of everyone on campus, and in society as a whole.


Jan Blacher is a distinguished professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, and director of the university’s SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center, [email protected]

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