Building a Future: Autism and Postsecondary Education Explained

Unlocking opportunities: Autism and postsecondary education demystified. Discover resources, support services, and strategies for success.

Published on
May 20, 2024

Building a Future: Autism and Postsecondary Education Explained

Understanding Postsecondary Education

When it comes to postsecondary education for individuals on the autism spectrum, there are specific considerations and resources available to support their unique needs. Understanding these resources and the process of transition planning is essential for a successful educational journey.

Resources for Autistic Students

Post-high school planning for autistic students involves accessing various resources that cater to their specific needs. While the specific details or content of these resources are not provided, it's important to be aware that resources exist to support autistic students in their postsecondary education journey. These resources may include guidance on college selection, financial aid, and support services that cater to the needs of autistic individuals.

Transition Planning

Transition planning plays a crucial role in the successful navigation of postsecondary education for individuals on the autism spectrum. This planning process typically starts in schools when students are around the age of 14, but thinking about college even earlier can be helpful. Transition planning involves a collaborative effort between students, families, and educational professionals to develop a comprehensive plan for life after high school.

The goal of transition planning is to help individuals with autism gain the necessary skills and experiences for adult life. It involves exploring postsecondary education options, vocational training, employment opportunities, and independent living skills. Through transition planning, individuals with autism can develop self-advocacy skills and learn how to navigate the postsecondary education system effectively.

Postsecondary education opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum have significantly expanded in recent years. Many universities, community colleges, vocational schools, and other institutions now offer autism-specific support programs, making education more accessible and tailored to the needs of autistic students. These programs often provide individualized accommodations, counseling services, peer support, and mentorship opportunities.

By utilizing available resources and engaging in comprehensive transition planning, individuals on the autism spectrum can embark on a postsecondary education journey that supports their unique needs and sets them up for success. It is important to start exploring these options early and to advocate for the necessary supports and accommodations to ensure a smooth transition into postsecondary education.

Support Services for Autistic Students

When it comes to postsecondary education, autistic students may require additional support to ensure a successful and inclusive experience. This section explores some of the support services available to help autistic students navigate their educational journey.

College Autism Network

The College Autism Network (CAN) is an organization dedicated to improving access, experiences, and outcomes for postsecondary students with autism. CAN offers resources to various stakeholders involved in supporting these students, including higher education professionals, self-advocates, family members, employers, researchers, and educators. By leveraging evidence-guided efforts, CAN aims to enhance the inclusivity and success of autistic students in postsecondary settings.

Individualized Accommodations

Supporting autistic students in postsecondary education often involves providing individualized accommodations. These accommodations can help mitigate barriers and create an environment conducive to learning and participation. However, it's important to note that postsecondary education settings do not automatically provide services. Autistic students may need to disclose their autism, request accommodations, and provide documentation demonstrating the necessity of these accommodations due to a disability. This process ensures equal access and nondiscrimination, as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) from high school do not transfer to postsecondary education. Autistic students must understand the importance of self-advocacy and learn how to discuss their autism, strengths, challenges, and necessary accommodations with trusted individuals, such as disability service providers, professors, and advisors.

Legal Framework

The legal framework governing accommodations for individuals with autism in postsecondary education includes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These laws ensure equal access and protect against discrimination. However, it's important to note that while these laws provide a basis for accommodations, they do not guarantee progress or success in postsecondary education. Autistic students should familiarize themselves with their rights and the specific procedures and policies of their educational institution to ensure they receive the necessary support.

Understanding the available support services and legal framework is essential for autistic students pursuing postsecondary education. By utilizing resources like the College Autism Network, advocating for individualized accommodations, and being aware of their rights, autistic students can access the support they need to thrive academically and personally during their postsecondary journey.

Challenges Faced by Autistic Students

Navigating postsecondary education can present unique challenges for autistic students. Understanding these challenges is essential for providing the necessary support and resources to ensure their success. Here are some of the common challenges faced by autistic students:

Sensory Processing Challenges

Sensory processing challenges are common among individuals with autism. Autistic students may have heightened sensitivity or hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as touch, sound, or light. Triggers can include scratchy clothing, loud noises, or bright lights. These sensory sensitivities can make it difficult for students to focus, concentrate, or engage in their academic activities. Providing a supportive environment that takes into account their sensory needs can greatly enhance their educational experience.

Social and Emotional Struggles

Autistic students often face social and emotional struggles in a postsecondary setting. Difficulties with social communication, understanding social cues, and building relationships can make it challenging to navigate the college environment. They may struggle with initiating or maintaining conversations, interpreting nonverbal cues, or understanding the unwritten rules of social interactions. This can lead to feelings of isolation and make it harder for them to connect with their peers. Creating inclusive and supportive social opportunities can help autistic students feel more connected and engaged within the college community.

Mental and Physical Health

Autistic college students often experience poorer mental and physical health compared to their neurotypical peers, which can impact their overall success in college. Studies have shown that autistic individuals are more likely to have co-occurring psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. Dealing with chronic illnesses and managing mental health challenges can be particularly demanding in the context of college life. It's crucial for colleges and universities to provide accessible mental health support services and promote overall well-being for autistic students.

Understanding these challenges is the first step toward creating an inclusive and supportive environment for autistic students in postsecondary education. By addressing sensory processing challenges, providing social support, and prioritizing mental and physical health, colleges can help autistic students thrive academically and personally.

Strategies for Success

For autistic students pursuing postsecondary education, there are specific strategies that can aid in their success and help them navigate the college environment effectively. These strategies encompass self-advocacy, understanding unique strengths and weaknesses, and accessing academic support.


Self-advocacy is a vital skill for autistic students in college. It involves understanding one's rights, needs, and preferences, and effectively communicating them to professors, support staff, and peers. Autistic students may encounter difficulties in obtaining and utilizing accommodations and support services. Some students report challenges in persuading professors to abide by accommodations, while others feel that the accommodations provided do not address their specific needs [5].

By developing self-advocacy skills, autistic students can confidently express their needs and work collaboratively with college staff to ensure that appropriate accommodations and support are provided. This may involve engaging in open and honest conversations, requesting necessary adjustments, and seeking guidance from disability services offices on campus.

Unique Strengths and Weaknesses

Autistic college students exhibit individual characteristics and develop strategies for success that are influenced by their unique strengths and weaknesses. While these students often have high levels of self-confidence in their academic abilities, they may struggle with difficulties such as following lectures, managing time effectively, and maintaining focus while studying.

Identifying and capitalizing on their strengths can help autistic students excel academically. For example, utilizing visual aids, breaking down tasks into manageable chunks, and leveraging their exceptional attention to detail can enhance their learning experience. Recognizing and addressing weaknesses, such as developing effective time management strategies or seeking assistance from tutors or academic support services, can also contribute to their overall success.

Academic Support

Accessing academic support services is crucial for autistic students. Colleges often provide resources such as tutoring, study skills workshops, and academic coaching to help students excel in their coursework. These services can assist with organization, time management, note-taking, and test preparation. Students may also benefit from seeking out specialized support tailored to their unique needs, such as assistive technology or individualized study plans.

By utilizing academic support services, autistic students can enhance their learning experience, build confidence, and develop effective study habits. It is important for students to actively seek out and engage with these resources to maximize their academic potential.

By incorporating these strategies into their college experience, autistic students can overcome challenges, thrive academically, and make the most of their postsecondary education. With self-advocacy skills, an understanding of their unique strengths and weaknesses, and access to appropriate academic support, autistic students can create a path to success in their academic pursuits.

Navigating the College Environment

For autistic students, navigating the college environment can present unique challenges. However, with the right strategies and support, these challenges can be overcome. In this section, we will explore three key aspects of navigating the college environment for autistic students: forming relationships, obtaining accommodations, and managing time and health.

Forming Relationships

Autistic college students often struggle to navigate the new social environment and face challenges in forming new, meaningful relationships. However, college can also provide opportunities for autistic students to find like-minded peers and bond over common interests through special interest clubs and activities. Engaging in extracurricular activities and joining clubs related to their interests can help autistic students connect with others who share their passions and create a sense of belonging. Additionally, campus resources such as counseling centers or peer support groups can provide a safe space for autistic students to discuss their experiences and seek guidance.

Obtaining Accommodations

Obtaining and utilizing accommodations and support services can be a challenge for autistic college students. Some students may face difficulty in persuading professors to abide by accommodations, while others may feel that the provided accommodations do not fully address their specific needs. It is important for autistic students to familiarize themselves with the accommodations available at their college or university and to work closely with the disability services office to ensure their needs are met. This may involve providing documentation of their diagnosis and engaging in open communication with professors to ensure that accommodations are implemented effectively.

Managing Time and Health

Autistic college students often experience poorer mental and physical health compared to their neurotypical peers, which can impact their overall success in college. These students may contend with chronic illnesses and are more likely to have co-occurring psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. To manage time effectively, autistic students can benefit from creating structured schedules, utilizing time management tools, and breaking tasks into manageable chunks. Taking breaks, practicing self-care, and seeking support from campus resources like counseling services can also contribute to better overall health and well-being.

By focusing on forming relationships, obtaining accommodations, and managing time and health, autistic students can navigate the college environment more effectively. It is essential for these students to take advantage of the resources available to them, advocate for their needs, and prioritize self-care. With the right support and strategies in place, autistic students can thrive academically and personally during their postsecondary education journey.