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Accessible Higher Education for Students With Autism

Billie discusses why it's necessary for colleges to face the challenges that arise from teaching students with autism and what needs to change to make education more accessible.

© Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash
The rise of autism is eye opening as the number of people diagnosed continues to increase year over year. The latest CDC autism figures show a 15 percent rise in the US in autism diagnoses between 2016 and today. 

But the numbers themselves are not isolated to the US. With 1 in 100 children diagnosed in the UK each year, the rate of Autism diagnosis’ have progressively gotten worse across the world.

With an increase of students entering higher education institutions, colleges are becoming overwhelmed with the need to provide adequate support for students with autism. 

At this time little structure is in place to transition and teach students on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in an independent collegiate setting.

This makes it necessary for colleges to face the challenges that arise from teaching students with autism and to determine which resources they can provide that can make them successful. 

Current Accommodations 

Individuals with ASD are often seen as disruptive, sometimes asking off-topic questions and interrupting the flow of college classes. This often leads professors to think they are struggling to function in a college setting, but that’s not necessarily the case.

High-functioning, college-capable individuals with autism represent 40 percent of ASD diagnoses. 

While primary and secondary educations have a government mandated procedures used for students to obtain special accommodations, the law does not extend to the university level. It’s important to recognize that there are limits to what can be expected of a university. Schools are required to provide what the believe are reasonable accommodations to students who qualify while passing on the costs to the student. 

Colleges define what is “reasonable” for themselves and on a case-by-case basis. Schools, however, are not responsible for provide accommodations that would alter the purpose or value of a program.

Higher education academic adjustments can include offering priority registration to students, swapping one class for another, reducing the overall course load, providing note takers in classes or offer video recordings of classes. 

What Needs to Change 

According to the University of Cincinnati 35 percent of young adults with autism are not able to find a job or earn a college degree. This is largely due to the intense transitions that happen when a child graduates high school and moves on to college life. 

As a whole universities must be willing to work as a collaborative unit between parents, students, faculty, therapists, advisors, and disability service personnel to understand the needs and challenges a student with ASD faces at the collegiate level. 

Autism Speaks outlines a list of educational models to help students transition to post-secondary education. Offering these models upon college sign up could help students with ASD remain enrolled at a University or Community College. The models are: 

Mixed (Hybrid), where students participate in social activities and classes with other students who don't have disabilities, while also participating in some classes with other students who do have disabilities.  This model typically provides students an employment opportunity either on the college campus or off site somewhere. 

The second model, the Substantially Separate model, has students participate in classrooms only with other students who have disabilities. They may have additional opportunities to be involved in generic college social opportunities like campus employment experience, but they spend their educational time with individuals similar to their level. 

With the Inclusive Individual Support model, the student’s career goals are the main driver for the services that are provided. These services can be an additional tutor, a note take, technology integration, etc. The focus of this method is to establish a career goal that can direct the collegiate courses and can steer students in the direction of steady employment. 

Establishing a similar procedure for post-secondary education across the world could work to integrate students with Autism into collegiate classrooms more smoothly. A similar structural model would help students both transition into college life and succeed beyond their education.

Offering these structural options to students with autism and their family at the start of their collegiate career can help make academic institutions more aware of each student’s specific cognitive disabilities and how to navigate.

This ultimately would lead to the success of more students with ASD.


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