Change can be challenging for autistic people and, as we know, the move to college is difficult even for those who do not have the condition.
However, autistic people often face additional challenges and concerns around making the transition to third level education.
Common concerns and challenges for those moving from school to college/university are:
Socialising: For those who find socialising difficult, college can present challenges in getting to know people and also in no longer seeing old school friends and acquaintances on a day-to-day basis, who perhaps a student has become comfortable with over their time in their previous school.
Size and Environment: Schools become familiar and easy to navigate for autistic students. It can be challenging for students on the spectrum to navigate and feel comfortable on much larger campuses. This may also present challenges in terms of sensory processing, for example they may be noisier or more crowded.
Organisation: While in school, with increased parent and teacher input and a more structured regime, it can be a lot easier for autistic people, who find organisational skills such as timetabling, deadlines and note-taking challenging, to stay on top of things. It can be a tough adjustment moving to the independent learning systems which most colleges and universities have in place.
Finding Help: Many autistic students build up trust and positive relationships with people over a long period of time, therefore it can be difficult to leave behind SNAs, Teachers and other support services which the school had provided.
When things get tough in college, it is important that the “safety net” which was provided by these figures in secondary education is replicated by the often excellent college support services.
From the point of view of teachers and SNAs helping in this transition period, here are some useful tips and insights for when you are providing information, advice and guidance to those on the spectrum who are selecting a college to attend:
Register for DARE: Make sure students on the spectrum apply for the Disability Access Route to Education scheme, through the CAO. Their acceptance into this scheme might not only help them in terms of the reduced points entry requirements the scheme offers, but also make the transition to third level smoother in terms of pre-registering with the Access Office in the university/college of their choice and so ensuring whatever support that university has available is offered to them.
Visit colleges and consider size: Before settling on any one university/college, encourage the student to visit, meet with the access officer and consider if the size and regime of the university is suitable for them.
Consider supports: Encourage the student to be mindful of their needs and consider which university/college has the most to offer them in terms of practical supports.
Consider change: Be mindful of the impact and demands of transitioning from school to third level will be for a particular autistic student. Consider, and encourage them to do so too, the factors which could create further challenges such as distance from home, change in structure, change in access to teachers/lecturers etc. when making their choice.
Mind over matter: This is crucial. The worry and anxiety around change for autistic people can be enormous. It is important to remind them that college WILL NOT be their making or breaking. Encourage them to discuss their concerns and also to consider other options such as PLCs or a gap year if they do not feel ready to make the transition to university/college yet.