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.
Sean Culkin, an autistic student from Rockville Centre, NY, struggled in college. Candice Ferrette reports at Newsday that he had greater success at Adelphi, which has academic, career, and social support services that boast a 96 percent retention rate.
About one-third of students on the autism spectrum go on to more schooling after high school, but about 80 percent drop out of their postsecondary education, said Dave Kearon of Hauppauge, director of adult services at Manhattan-based Autism Speaks, one of the largest autism advocacy organizations in the nation.
“There’s a very big difference in the services and support you receive in K to 12 and what’s offered in college,” said Kearon, referring to an individualized education program, commonly known as an IEP, that is developed for students in elementary and secondary schools. With an IEP, mandated by federal law, parents work with educators to provide special support to their students in the school.
“There is none of that kind of personal approach in college,” Kearon said. “The other thing is, it totally depends on the individual in college to self-advocate. That’s a huge burden, because by the definition of autism many people struggle with communication and social interaction and aren’t strong advocates for their own needs.”
Kearon said transition planning during the high school years to prepare for college is critical.
In addition to Adelphi, a handful of colleges across the country routinely show up on college ranking lists as being rated the best for students with autism, including Syracuse University; Defiance College and Kent State University, both in Ohio; Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey; Drexel University in Philadelphia; the University of Michigan; and the University of Connecticut.