Going to college with autism spectrum disorder (ASD):
A guide on how students can prepare for and thrive at further studying

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An introduction to attending college with autism

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Choosing the right college when you have ASD

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Preparing for college with ASD

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Thriving at college with ASD

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An introduction to attending college with autism

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Heading to college is nerve-wracking enough in itself, without having to worry about managing a developmental condition like autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But for children who are diagnosed with ASD in the US, the task becomes that little bit more challenging.

People with autism often find it harder to adapt to new situations than those who aren’t on the spectrum. And with reports suggesting as many as 60% of all college attendees experience some form of anxiety during their time away from home, it highlights the challenge faced for those with ASD.

But while it can be hard to adapt to a totally new way of life, there are steps you can take to prepare yourself for this very different world. In this guide we’re going to walk you through how to both prepare for and manage your transition to college with ASD. We’ll also look at picking the best course and accommodation for your specific needs, as you begin to think about your next chapter in life.


Most colleges offer four-year programs, which result in a bachelor’s degree if you graduate. You don’t have to declare your major straight away, which gives you time to decide what you want to specialize in and opens up multiple paths of study. Focusing on subjects you’re genuinely interested in will make this decision easier.

You can also change your major if you discover a new interest along the way. The earlier this is done, the more likely it is that you can still graduate within four years.

Choosing a subject that interests you will make it easier to find the motivation to study. As well as contact hours with a professor, you’ll have work to complete outside of class (normally two-three hours per hour spent in class), including reviewing notes, writing assignments and background reading. You may also wish to see your professor during their office hours for extra guidance.

Your college may split the academic year into four 10-week terms (the quarter system), with finals at the end of each one. Most colleges use the semester system, where there are two 15-week terms with finals at the end of each one. In both systems, you’ll sit midterms to assess your progress throughout the class.

ASD statistics

In 2021, autism spectrum disorder is no longer a subject people shy away from discussing or exploring. And it’s most likely for this reason that the number of registered people on the spectrum has seen such a large increase in recent years.

As The Autism Community in Action (TACA) reported last year, as many as one in 54 children in the US is now believed to have ASD. This continues a subtle but consistent increase in the number of cases reported across the States as a whole since the 90s.

The table below shows the rate of change for kids with ASD in America:

Birth Year Survey Year Year Reported Autism Rate
2008 2016 2020 1 in 54
2006 2014 2018 1 in 59
2004 2012 2016 1 in 69
2002 2010 2014 1 in 68
2000 2008 2012 1 in 88
1998 2006 2009 1 in 110
1996 2004 2009 1 in 125
1994 2002 2007 1 in 150
1992 2002 2007 1 in 150

Interestingly, while there appears to be a huge disparity between genders, there are no such divisions when it comes to race. The National Institute of Mental Health highlighted this in a recent report, showing how the breakdown of cases varied.

For gender:
1 in 34

boys were found to have ASD

1 in 150

girls had ASD

For race:
1 in 54

white children had ASD

1 in 55

black children had ASD

1 in 56

Asian or Pacific Islander children had ASD

1 in 60

Hispanic children had ASD

TACA would go on to show the growing need for funding for those on the spectrum, with the prediction being that as much as £1 trillion would be needed by the year 2025:

1 in 500 1 in 250 $35 BILLIONANNUAL COST 1999 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 2010 2016 2018 $137 BILLIONANNUAL COST $268 BILLIONANNUAL COST $268 BILLIONANNUAL COST 1 in 150 1 in 125 1 in 110 1 in 88 1 in 68 1 in 68 1 in 59 Project cost to society by 2025to reach $1 trillion annually

This funding certainly hasn’t gone to waste though, with a huge percentage of kids with some form of autism continuing into postsecondary education once high school ends.

In a recent study by Affordable Colleges Online, it was found that as many as 57.5% of students who had ASD were able to continue learning into higher education. This sat at roughly the midpoint of disabilities, with the total figures showing:


of people with visual impairments continued


of deaf and hard of hearing students stayed in education


of those with autism continued learning


of kids with an orthopedic disability stayed on


of those with a speech disorder remained in education


of kids with a learning disability went to college

The numbers are encouraging, and speak volumes about the growing understanding and acceptance of many of these conditions. That’s particularly good for those with ASD, as it represents the fastest growing serious developmental issue in the US.

In fact, CNN recently reported that as many as 5.4 million people in the United States had ASD – working out at 2.2% of the entire population of the country. With such a large presence on a national scale, it’s perhaps no surprise that more than half of students with ASD are getting some kind of college education.

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Different college options for those with ASD

College isn’t a black-and-white style of education anymore. In 2021, there are a variety of different school models to choose between. These can be broken down into course models, as well as more specific places of learning.

The three core models for accessible degrees in US colleges are:


In these circumstances, students with learning disabilities experience classes with both similarly able peers and students who have no diagnosed conditions. This allows for inclusivity, while also giving those with ASD and other conditions more concentrated support.

Separate model

As the name suggests, these types of courses will teach students with ASD exclusively. While some might prefer this, others aren’t as happy being separated from the bulk of their classmates. It all comes down to your personal comfort levels.

Inclusive individual support

This is an experience which will be tailored exclusively around your needs. You’ll be offered a customized range of services, usually provided by the school’s disability support office. It’s likely you’ll sit down with a member of the office first to discuss your future plans and goals, then work with the office to come up with a support network which helps you succeed.

Once you know what kind of educational model you’re after, you can start to look for which specific type of college you’d want to attend. Some of the most common options for people with ASD include:

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Four-year college

This is the most traditional style of college in the US. They’re a good option for anyone who’s high-functioning and looking to get the most authentic taste of what student life is like. They do often require you to live on campus though, which is something to keep in mind for those with additional requirements.

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Cooperative education

This option gives students the chance to both work and study simultaneously. This is great if you want to pick up necessary professional skills, but can be hard to balance if you’re someone who struggles with time management and organization. It’s also worth noting this is not a common means of study, so it might not always be available at your college.

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Community college

While you might have fewer options when it comes to what you’re studying, community colleges are often a great way to test the waters for college life. They offer something totally different to high school, without the full commitment of a four-year course. If you do find you’re enjoying things, you can easily transition to that kind of university.

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Vocational, technical and trade schools

If your focus isn’t on academia, but rather a specific career path, this could be a good option. You’ll learn important technical skills which you can use to look for employment in a certain line of work in the future. Just make sure you pick something which you are passionate about and engaged with.

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Online colleges

If you really don’t feel like leaving your own personal support bubble, online options are a great alternative to in-person classes. These will often provide you with the same level of qualification as a degree you get from a regular college, just without the face-to-face element.

Naturally, the type of college model you choose will depend on what you’re looking for in a school, as well as the course you want to pursue.

Choosing the right college when you have ASD

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A decision as important as picking the right place of study, or even the course you want to be on, might seem overwhelming at first. There are hundreds of options to choose from, all of which say they’re perfect for your needs.

In reality, no one course is “the best”. The trick is finding which one matches your specific learning needs, your general interests and your lifestyle requirements. In this section, we’ll explore every step you need to take to make sure you find a college and course you enjoy.

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Finding the right course

It may be tough to know where to begin when it comes to something like choosing your course of study. When making your decision, there are a number of factors which you need to take into account:

Understand the structure

Make sure you know exactly what the layout of the course you’re interested in is going to be. That means working out if models like hybrid or separated study are available. You’ll also want to know exactly how many modules your course has, which ones are compulsory and what kind of work is expected of you.

Speak to current students

There’s no better way to understand what a course offers than by talking to someone who is already enrolled. If you can, try to find someone with ASD to chat to about this. Reach out to the college and ask them directly if you’ll be able to discuss this with one of their students.

Hours of study

If you’re someone who struggles to balance their time, you might need to make sure the hours of study are manageable. Find out how many there are, how they’re broken down across a one or two-week schedule and what the percentage of lectures and seminars is.

Find something you’re passionate about

Most importantly of all, you need to make sure the course you’re looking at is something you can see yourself doing for a long time. You won’t want to spend two years in one subject, before suddenly realizing it’s not for you.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re going to be studying this subject for a number of years. As such, it needs to be something you actually enjoy doing, rather than a degree which you think might look good on a CV.

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Disability-friendly accommodation

Finding a place to live that’s different to the familiarity of your home might seem like a scary prospect. But don’t worry, you can manage your search by taking some of the most important aspects into account. During your decision-making process, think about things like:

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Proximity to campus

If you’re worried about getting to class on time, you’ll want to make sure the accommodation you choose makes it as easy as possible. Whether this is because of mobility issues or just to make things simpler for you, it’s a consideration you need to make.

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Specific adaptations

Some halls of residence might say they’re adapted for disabled students, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to accommodate your specific requirements. Be sure to get in touch and directly ask if your needs will be catered for.

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Student reviews

Again, there’s no better way to find out what accommodation is best for someone with specialist requirements than by asking former students. You can look for answers on forums like Quora, or by getting in touch directly with the college itself.

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While it might not be an adaptation you have to make directly because of your ASD, the cost of accommodation definitely needs to be taken into account too. Does the value of the halls, house or apartment match up to what they’re offering?

And remember, if all else fails you might be able to stay at home if your college is close enough to where your parents or guardian lives. While this is a safer option, it will limit your choices quite a bit.

Student speaking to mentor

Help and support options on campus

All colleges in the US should have a series of resources on campus which are readily available to disabled students. Some of the most important to check for at any college you’re interested in include:

The Disability Services Office (DSO) or Accessible Education Office

This is the hub for all questions, advice and support when attending college with ASD. You’ll be able to ask for things like alternative format class materials, help with homework assignments and even additional time on tests if required. Never be afraid to speak to a member of the team when you’re unsure.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re going to be studying this subject for a number of years. As such, it needs to be something you actually enjoy doing, rather than a degree which you think might look good on a CV.

Student Affairs Office

This department usually works to make sure all students receive fair representation throughout the college. This extends to race, gender, sexuality and disability.

An ADA Coordinator

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Coordinator is responsible for ensuring your needs are taken care of on and off campus. If you feel as though you’re not getting the help you need from the DSO, you need to talk to this person.

Any counseling services

Counselors are available to all students, but some colleges will offer specialist support for people with ASD and other conditions. This is also something you might want to check about before applying.

Assistive technology labs

Computers which are equipped with specialist software and hardware will most likely be made available in a number of technology labs across campus. These locations will again cater to every kind of disability.

Make sure you get directly in touch with each school and find out what provisions they have for each of these factors.

Students playing sports

Autism-friendly societies and clubs

Socializing with totally new people might be one of your biggest concerns when starting this new chapter of your life. And that’s understandable. New faces can be intimidating, especially at a time when everything else around you seems unfamiliar.

A good way to work around a problem like that is to join a club or society which focuses on something you feel passionately about. You’ll find there are a variety of club types which can help you settle in to your new life more easily:

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Neurodiversity clubs

These societies are specifically created with the intention of creating an environment to discuss factors relating to neurological conditions like ASD. They’re a safe space, where attendees can both feel supported and meet other people with similar thought processes to their own.

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Specific interest clubs

All colleges have clubs set up for students to attend and discuss a subject or activity they feel passionately about. This can be anything as broad as video games, movies or art, to very niche topics like Harry Potter, Japanese culture or comic book drawing – to give just a few random examples.

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Academic clubs

If you’re interested in progressing your academic abilities (perhaps even in a subject you’re no longer studying), these kinds of societies are a good option. Sometimes you’ll even be given the chance to compete against other colleges in organized tournaments.

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Sports clubs

If you are a talented athlete, you can join any number of sporting teams found on campus. While these are open to all skill levels, some teams will be very selective with who they choose to keep on. If you’re looking for something more casual, you’ll find options like ultimate frisbee and even quidditch available.

The type of club you choose to join really depends on what you’re looking for in your social life. Luckily, this isn’t something you have to decide straight away, as almost all clubs accept members throughout the year.

Preparing for college with ASD

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So, you’ve been accepted for a spot at college. That’s fantastic news and you should be very proud of yourself. But while you’re probably happy, there’s a chance you might also be beginning to feel a little nervous – especially as the start of term gets closer.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that’s completely normal, whether you have ASD or not. College is a big step, and almost everyone will be nervous at first (even if they don’t seem it). One trick that helps with nerves is finding out as much as you can about your school before you arrive.

In this chapter, we’ll point out some of the most useful things to know about college life before your new adventure begins.

Students with their hands up

Key differences between college and high school

You probably already know that life at college is quite a bit different to the world of high school. Depending on how your time at high school was, you might think that’s either a good or bad thing. Whatever the case, you’ll soon find that while it is different, the independence of college life has lots of benefits. Some of the key differences include:


At school, you’ll often be guided towards deadlines and given warnings when you seem like you might miss them. That same process is not repeated at college. You’re expected to manage your own workloads, do your own research and hand everything in on time. You can of course ask for help, but the key difference is it won’t be automatically offered like in high school.


Your class sizes might be huge if you’re taking part in a hybrid or entirely conventional course. Whereas you probably only had around 20 students in your high school class, you could have anywhere up to 100 at college. You’ll also be given reading material which might not be discussed in the larger classes themselves.

Educational leaders

You won’t have teachers anymore. Your new learning leaders will be professors. They take a much more hands-off approach to learning. While they’ll still help you when required, their time is more limited, as they’ll have other projects outside of teaching they’re working on. They also expect you to learn things independently of them.

And remember, if all else fails you might be able to stay at home if your college is close enough to where your parents or guardian lives. While this is a safer option, it will limit your choices quite a bit.

Applying for Disabled Student Scholarships

Having ASD means you’re eligible for a number of disabled student tuitions, scholarships and grants. Some of the allowances someone on the spectrum can apply for include:

Sunwise logo


Sunwise Capital offers a $500 grant to students with ASD who are enrolled in an accredited college. The application process is relatively easy, but does require a 600-word essay and references from your previous teachers. You also have to be a US citizen.

Mediaworks logo


This media training company has very similar requirements to Sunwise, while also offering a $500 scholarship. You’ll find that a lot of applications ask for similar things, making it quick and easy to apply for lots in a short space of time.

Iconic displays logo

Iconic Displays

Again asking for a 600-word report, Iconic Displays up the ante to $750. Iconic are a great example of how willing most companies are to help those with ASD. They have no immediate ties to any autistic causes, but still want to reach out and make things that little bit easier.

These are just a handful of examples. Students with ASD will be able to find a variety of programs to apply to. If even just one accepts you, that’s less you’ll need to pay out of your own pocket.

Student moving items

Preparing yourself for life away from home

This is probably going to be the first time you’ve been away from your family home for an extended period of time. If that’s the case, it’s only natural you’ll be pretty nervous about leaving a familiar and safe environment. You’ve probably never had to take care of yourself before.

There are many steps and considerations which you can keep in mind when you move away from your house for the first time:

Money management

There’s a good chance you’ve never had to spend money on things like food, clothing and housing in the past. It’s important to remember you aren’t a bottomless pit of cash. You need to budget for what you can and can’t afford.

Work out how much you need to spend on all your regular costs. Put these in a spreadsheet and take the total away from the amount you start each month with. This will let you know how much spare cash you have to spend on luxuries and treats.

Your diet

While it might be tempting, you can’t live on junk food for very long before your body starts to feel bad. Nobody expects you to eat perfectly every night, but it is important to make sure you get enough fruit and vegetables in your diet.

This is something you can think about before you do your regular shop. Write down a number of healthier options and work out how you can add them to your dinners.

Student eating breakfast

Health factors (taking medication and personal hygiene)

If you’re on regular medication it’s really important you don’t up or lower your dosage. If you struggle to remember how much you should be taking, make sure to write it down somewhere that’s quick and easy to access.

And while showering isn’t everyone’s favorite thing to do, it’s a necessity. Your body will thank you for taking care of it. You’ll have better energy levels, as well as far less chance of getting sick.

Chores around the house

Now these really are a burden. Nobody likes doing chores. But, unfortunately, they have to be done. While most students don’t live in perfectly clean conditions, you do need to at least make sure you aren’t attracting vermin or bugs by leaving food around, or letting areas get covered in grime and muck.

And remember, your parents, siblings or friends are always just a phone call away. If you’re feeling homesick, don’t be afraid to reach out and have a quick chat with them. It will make you feel a lot better.

Student playing sports

Setting lifestyle goals and ambitions

For some, the experience of college is just as important as getting your degree. For those with ASD, successfully navigating the entirety of your course is an achievement in itself. But if you’re not sure what you want to get out of college, or how you can thrive, think about some of the following suggested goals:

Attending a set number of social events

If you’re someone whose ASD makes it harder for them to socialize, set a goal of getting out and making it to a certain number of events every term. For some this could be easy, for others a massive struggle. Make sure to set the goal with your own social abilities in mind.

One year at a time

Even something as simple as completing your first year is a great achievement. As many as 30% of students drop out of college in their first year, ASD or not. Set your aim to be one of the 70% who continue into their second. Then, when you do, aim for the third. Keep this up and eventually you’ll have mastered the whole four years.

A certain pass mark

Just passing is a nice enough ambition in itself, but you can go one better. Aim for a certain mark and it’ll give you the incentive to work towards that grade. Who knows, you might even get more than what you were expecting.

Anything you want

Ultimately, your goals can be anything you want them to be. No matter how simple or impressive they might sound to other people, you need to make aims based around your own abilities.

By having a set list of goals in mind while you’re away, it will ensure you’re getting as much out of your college experience as possible. Remember, they can be whatever you want them to be. Your goals are your own, and you shouldn’t worry about what anyone else is trying to achieve.

Thriving at college with ASD

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The big day has arrived. It’s finally time to head off and begin an exciting new chapter of your life at college. It’s fine to be nervous, or even scared. Just as it’s also fine if you’re not worried at all. However you feel, in this section we’re going to look at what you can do to make sure the time you spend at college is the best it possibly can be.

Students as a group at the table

Developing good social skills

This is hard enough for anyone, and often even more difficult for those with ASD. Many people struggle to make friends in a new environment, and some will even try to act differently to their normal personalities because they think people won’t like them otherwise.

There’s no right or wrong way to be yourself. But there are simple tips and tricks which can help you react more positively to what’s going on around you:

Role play

This is probably something you practiced a lot when you were younger. And while you won’t need to go over the basics again, it might be useful sitting down with someone you trust to play out potential scenarios which occur in a college environment. This is particularly useful for new situations you might find yourself in, such as bigger classes, living with strangers or joining a club.

Meet like-minded people

Learning from people who’ve been in the same position as you in the past is a great way to advance your skills. They’ll be able to point out little things you’re not quite mastering, and highlight scenarios which you might not have prepared for yet.

Social skills training

If you’re really struggling, social skills training is always an option. This is particularly helpful if you’re someone who also experiences any form of anxiety, whether it’s linked to your ASD or not. They’ll run through scenarios, use corrective feedback and maybe even give you homework assignments to help you progress.

Remember, the most important thing is to always be yourself. People appreciate honesty and can often be put off by fakeness. And while not everyone will like you, a lot of people will appreciate you for who you are.

Student at laptop

Learning to organize your time efficiently

Time management isn’t a skill everyone masters straight away. At a time when you’ll be adapting to a lot of things going on around you, making sure your schedule is in order might not seem like a top priority.

In reality, this is an important part of ensuring you’re staying on top of your workload. If you feel like organization isn’t something you’re good at, here are a few simple tips to help you better manage your time:

Make a schedule and be strict

This might be harder for some than others, so don’t be afraid to ask for support with yours. It helps massively to know where you need to be and when. It can also be good to dedicate certain periods of your week to doing things like reading, or any assigned tasks.

You could even go as far as to create a schedule for the regular academic year, then another for when tests and assignments come around. This is useful, as your original schedule might not work as well when there are additional things to consider.

Don’t leave things until the last minute

Some people think leaving things to the last minute is a solution for time management. In reality this is guaranteed to result in your work being rushed, and some important deadlines potentially even being missed.

A good trick is to create a fake deadline in your head for any work you’re given which seems far off. Make it a week sooner than it’s actually due. That way, if you’re struggling, you have an entire 7 days to use as your metaphorical insurance policy.

Don’t commit to too much

If you’re worried you might not be able to manage too much going on at once, try to be more selective with the courses, clubs and social events you’re signing up for. Test the waters first with a few things, then if you know you can manage them, gradually add more to your schedule.

Ask for help

Never be afraid to ask for help with time management. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by having to manage everything yourself, speak to the DSO. They should be able to provide help with creating a personalized timetable for your needs.

What to do if you feel overwhelmed

You’re going to be thrust into quite a few new experiences, so there’s a chance you might feel overwhelmed by what’s going on around you sometimes. If that does happen, remember it’s perfectly normal – whether you’re on the spectrum or not.

If you do find yourself feeling that way, some of the best advice we can offer would be to:

Do something you enjoy

A great way to take your mind off any issues you’re facing is to do something which makes you happy. Even if this is something really simple, like playing a video game or using an item you’ve always found comforting.

Take a break from work

Work is a natural stress. If you find yourself feeling like you can’t function properly anymore, take a break. While you need to balance this around your deadlines, it doesn’t mean you have to work every single day you’re at college. You’ll probably find taking a day off is actually really good for your brain, and you might even be more productive heading forwards.

Getting help and support from your college

Never be afraid to reach out and ask for help from your college. They’ll be the first to point you in the right direction and link you up with any volunteers who might be able to manage your issues alongside you.

Try to spot and remove triggers of anxiety

This might be tough to achieve, but it could be a huge help if you’re able to figure out exactly what’s causing your stress. If you can home in on what’s triggering your anxiety, think about either removing it or, if that’s not possible, working around it.

Life is full of changes. And while that might seem daunting at first, in time you’ll discover just how incredible that can be. Keep your spirits high and try to stay positive. This is the beginning of the rest of your life.