So, your autistic child has decided to go to college. A million things must be rushing through your head.
“How do I teach them how to survive on their own?”
“What steps do I need to take to prepare them for a whole different school experience?”
These are all valid questions, and you shouldn’t be afraid of asking them. As a parent, you want the best for your child and want them to succeed, even if they may struggle with things other young adults don’t.
And that, friend, is where autistic adults come in. Many autistic people, including myself, have been to college and have a lot of experience under our belts in navigating a whole new environment as an autistic person. You may be asking yourself: “How can total strangers help me with something like this?” Well, I’ll tell you.
I asked the advice of several knowledgeable autistic people, did some research, and have come up with a list of 10 things that can help you as a parent make your child’s college experience better for you and them.
1. Support, but don’t pressure.
Kids going off to college often want to be able to experience this new stage of life as a time away from their parents, which isn’t a bad thing. As a parent of an autistic child, you may be feeling apprehensive about sending your son or daughter away from the nest to a world they may not understand yet. If your child asks you to give them space or to lay off a little on checking up on them, please, do so! Don’t pressure them to join clubs right off the bat. Let them settle in and tell them you’re there to support them no matter what. And don’t pressure them to communicate with you all the time, either.
If you’re used to taking care of them and watching out for them 24-7, it may be difficult to let go. That’s OK, and it’s understandable. Going to college is a learning experience for both parents and their kids. But nagging at them to talk to you can take their focus off of college and make them feel overwhelmed more than they should, which doesn’t help either of you.
2. Make accommodations a priority.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with needing accommodations. As an autistic person, your child may have had help in high school to study more in-depth about subjects they struggled in, or with schoolwork in general, or needed a space away from the classroom in which to function to the best of their ability. That doesn’t need to end at the high school level!
Just because your student is going to college doesn’t mean their needs end right after they graduate. Take the time to communicate with the college what your child needs to learn effectively. Whether it be with motor skills, sensory differences, social skills or coping skills, make sure that the school is fully aware and has the right accommodations to make your child’s safety in and out of the classroom a priority.
3. Discuss details of courses.
Many autistic people find it extremely important to know what’s to come and prepare in advance to avoid meltdowns and becoming overwhelmed constantly. Talking to professors as soon as your child’s college schedule is announced can help to adjust to this new routine, as well as buying their books in advance and going over the course materials. College is (obviously) harder than high school and it will take some time for your student to adjust to a new structure in a new place. Helping them adjust can make this transition easier for them, and you!
4. Make a schedule and reminders.
As stated in #3, many autistic people must rely on knowing what’s to come to avoid meltdowns, and making a schedule that lists all courses, extracurricular activities, appointments etc. can certainly help your child have a more comfortable adjustment. Also, this new experience can cause your child to disengage from taking care of themselves, as autistic people are wont to do in these situations, so making reminders and a list of things they need to do every day (i.e. brushing their teeth, when to eat, when to get enough sleep etc.) will help when life gets chaotic.
5. Let them have comfort and a safe space.
One of the most important things you can do for your autistic student is making sure they have a safe space or a space that is completely theirs. Even if that means your child has to live at home throughout their entire college career so they have something familiar to come home to at the end of a stressful day. If they do have a dorm room, make sure they know there’s nothing wrong with bringing comfort items (i.e. blankets, stuffed animals etc.) to help them regulate their emotions. No one is going to judge them for having something to comfort them in times of distress. They might even make some friends because of it!
6. Talk about living with a roommate, or not having a roommate.
If your student is living on campus, there’s a big chance they will be living with a roommate. Discuss with your child how to have healthy boundaries if they’re living with someone else for the first time, and also when it comes to making friends. Reassure them if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any way, they can reach out to professors or staff in their dorms, as they are there to help.
If your child seems unsure if they want to live on campus, or are trying to avoid moving out altogether, trust their instincts. Don’t pressure them on it, as this is a very big step, especially for someone who is autistic. You can also help them request their own dorm room as one of their educational accommodations. Starting at a new school already uncomfortable won’t help your child in the long run.
7. Encourage them to mingle.
Once your child gets a small amount of their new school experience under their feet, it may be hard for them to branch out and make new friends along the way. Encourage them to find people they can relate to in the classes they take, or join a club that includes their special interests, so they can mingle and meet new people who may become close friends.
8. Send care packages.
If your child is on campus, send them things in the mail! Whether it be their favorite foods, comfort items, school supplies or anything they might need, it can always be helpful to have something from their old normal to adjust to the new normal going on around them.
9. Let them work at their pace.
When it comes to being in college, it’s common for students to focus on their grades and get everything done at the fast pace they’ve been used to for so long. Don’t feel the need to pressure your student to be at that level, or to get the best grades of the class. Focus on letting them do the work at their own pace and get the best grades they can get, not the best grades anyone can get. Your student will get their homework done when it needs to be done, so try not to nag them about it. That can only add to the overwhelming feeling and make them disassociate from everything around them.
10. Talk about the balance.
Balancing school, extracurriculars, sports, friendships and family can be hard for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for autistic people. Discuss finding a balance with your child to help them make their college experience as beneficial as it can be. If they’re forgetting things easily or not making things a priority that need to be a priority, discuss ways to remember all that must be done in any given amount of time.
I hope these tips helped give you some insight on how best to prepare for your child as they make the transition from high school to college. I also hope you’ll take advantage of the knowledge autistic adults have in helping your child have the best time of their life. If you have any questions at all, don’t be afraid to ask!