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  • Writer's pictureMarie Guarnieri

5 Challenges Autistic Students Face in College (and How to Prepare While in High School)

Updated: Feb 12

The leap from high school to college can be daunting for any young adult, but for autistic learners, adapting to new environments, expectations, pace, responsibilities, and social landscape poses unique challenges that require thoughtful preparation. As the parent of a college-bound autistic teen, you want to set your child up to thrive during this major life transition.



In this post we’ll share strategies on how to help prepare your high school student to navigate some of the challenges they may face in college. With some planning and partnership, your autistic student can gain necessary tools to navigate this exciting next chapter.


1. Social Isolation

Leaving behind a close-knit circle of friends and navigating a sea of unfamiliar faces can be incredibly isolating for autistic students. The intricate dance of social cues and the rapid-fire conversations of campus life can feel like a foreign language, leaving them feeling excluded and lonely. This is where fostering connections based on shared interests becomes crucial. Encourage your child to research clubs, gaming groups, or disability ally programs that cater to their passions at their intended college, so that they have a plan for where they can meet likeminded peers on campus. While in high school, you can role play introductions and practice asking open-ended questions to bridge the gap between wanting to connect and knowing how. Remember, finding even a few kindred spirits can combat isolation and make college feel less overwhelming.


2. Adjusting to Self-Directed Learning

Unlike the structured environment of high school, college demands a significant shift towards independent learning. Students need to estimate how long assignments will take, manage their time effectively, and advocate for themselves when they need help. The key to preparing for this autonomy lies in empowering your teen to take the driver's seat in high school. Have them time block study time, tracking how long coursework, reading, and studying actually take. This builds realistic expectations and helps them practice prioritizing tasks and setting self-deadlines. Encourage them to communicate with teachers proactively, asking for clarification or requesting additional support when needed. This fosters the self-advocacy skills and confidence they'll need to navigate the independent learning landscape of college.


3. Bureaucracy Navigation

While colleges are legally obligated to provide accommodations for disabled students, accessing these resources is not always easy and parents are no longer allowed to take the lead. In order to get access to accommodations, you student needs to be proactive. Building strong self-advocacy skills early on is essential. Practice roleplaying scenarios where your child confidently requests specific accommodations they need. Help them understand their IEP or 504 plans and have them participate in the meetings in high school so that they are aware of their accommodations and can contribute to the discussion about what is helpful for them.


4. Sensory Overload  

The sensory symphony of college, with bustling crowds, piercing alarms, and bright lights, can deplete an autistic student's cognitive reserves and impact their focus. To counter this, high schoolers can embark on campus reconnaissance missions, finding quiet refuges and experiencing the sensory landscape firsthand. Building a personalized toolkit with noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, sunglasses, and calming snacks empowers them to self-regulate. Practicing managing sensory challenges at home and during college visits hones their coping mechanisms and builds confidence. By being proactive about sensory management and embracing their unique needs, autistic students can transform the sensory buffet of college into a springboard for success and growth.


5. Social Stigma

Unfortunately, even well-intentioned peers and professors can unintentionally marginalize autistic students due to misconceptions, stereotypes, or a lack of understanding. Jokes about social awkwardness, denying accommodation requests because "everyone deals with stress," or assuming disengagement is arrogance rather than a disability struggle are common experiences. This subtle discrimination can make students feel ostracized and erode their sense of belonging, impacting their academic performance. While educating an entire campus may seem impossible, equipping your child with knowledge about autism is essential. Help them learn how to translate their strengths and weaknesses into terms understandable to a neurotypical audience, empowering them to advocate for themselves and educate others about their needs. Building connections with campus neurodiversity groups provides a safe haven of acceptance and community, offering the vital support needed to navigate the social landscape of college.


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Remember, every autistic student's journey is unique. Celebrate their victories, big and small, and be their unwavering ally as they prepare for their college journey.

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