We do know that autistic students suffer high levels of depression, anxiety, and social isolation. We also know that their difficulties can affect their academic performance. (Group projects can be hard.) They have to cope with these problems without the protection of an IEP, since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not apply to higher education. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provide for certain accommodations (for instance, extra time for tests), but the student has to seek them. According to Jane Brown Thierfeld, co-director of an organization of professionals who assist autistic students, for every student receiving special services, there are one or two on that same campus who have not come forward.Back in May, Noel Murray wrote at Vox about the challenges facing autistic college students and their families:
The exact number of men and women on the spectrum attending college today is hard to pin down, because there are few incentives at the moment for those students to register with disability services. Circa 2008, autism researchers estimated that anywhere from 1 to 2 percent of the university population had autism, Asperger's, or some pervasive developmental disorder. Autism spectrum diagnoses have only risen since then.
Jane Brown, co-director of the organization College Autism Spectrum, described the big problem with how students on the autism spectrum transition from high school to college: "Up through high school, parents are advocates and CEO of their child's education."
But not only are universities not inclined to allow parents to stay in that driver's seat, they're legally bound in some cases to shut parents out. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, once students turn 18, they become the stewards of their own records, from grades to whatever special learning tools and accommodations they might request.
In high school, the laws are geared toward making sure that all children, regardless of any disability, have a right to "a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment." Colleges are under no such obligation to make sure students learn and thrive. They have to provide certain resources for people on the autistic spectrum, but it's not their responsibility to make sure those resources get used.
In Dubuque, KCRG-TV reports:
Loras College is starting to take student applications for next fall for the new Connections Academy Program. That’s a four year program that keeps students with autism in a college classroom with other students. But, the program helps these students to be able to handle the social and academic sides of college life.
Faculty at Loras say they wanted to start the program because there has been an increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism.
A 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control shows that one in 68 children have autism. The number of children and teens with developmental disorders like autism is up 17 percent since the mid-1990s.
“Years ago students who have Autism were told they weren’t college material,” Lynn Gallagher, Connections Academy Director, said.
Starting next fall, students in the Connections Academy will be assigned a peer mentor and a faculty advisor.