Elena was looking forward to studying marine biology at a liberal arts college. Midway through her first semester she became overwhelmed by the social and academic demands, stopped attending class and moved back home in a state of depression. The only job she has held since then is volunteering at an animal shelter. 

Marcus was able to complete a bachelor’s degree in European history and had a steady girlfriend in college; however, after graduation, he moved back in with his parents as well and has been working a minimum-wage job in a clothing store for the past ten years. What do these bright, yet underemployed young adults have in common? They are both on the autism spectrum. 

Every year, 50,000 autistic students graduate high school in the U.S., and at least a third of them go on to college (Shattuck, et al., 2012; Wei, et al., 2015). However, they have strikingly low rates of graduation and subsequent employment (Newman, et al., 2011). In order to succeed, they need to develop college readiness skills and receive adequate supports and services. Simply being able to get accepted into college is not enough. Fortunately, high school and independent counselors can play a key role in helping students fashion a plan for developing college readiness.

Emotional Readiness

Let’s start with mental health. Most autistic students are likely to suffer from one or more other conditions such as anxiety or depression (Belardinelli, Raza & Taneli, 2016). For a successful transition to college, students should:

  • Know what conditions they have that might “flare up”  under stress, such as substance abuse, OCD or eating disorders. 
  • Be able to spot the early signs of relapse, such as missing classes, excessive gaming or urges to self-harm.
  • Have “go-to” strategies to manage these conditions, such as exercise, meditation or journaling.
  • Be familiar with–and access–appropriate resources such as on-campus or off-site counseling, support groups or medication prescribers.

Executive Function Readiness

Likewise, many of these students have difficulty with executive functioning skills, such as planning, organization and time management. If they have been relying on parents, teachers or other professionals to help them manage in high school, they will need to come up with a plan to address these areas in college as well. That plan could include a combination of:

  • Beginning to do these tasks independently (e.g., making their own doctor’s appointments). 
  • Planning for a gap year after high school, and attending a college readiness program during this time–or at the very least, during the summer before college.
  • Hiring professionals to provide academic coaching while in college.
  • Selecting higher ed institutions with comprehensive support programs.

Accommodations in College

Students who receive accommodations in high school such as extra time on tests should review with their counselors whether they expect to need similar accommodations in college. If so, it will be important for them to:

  • Confirm that the colleges they’re interested in can provide these accommodations.
  • Ensure that they have the proper documentation required by the colleges.
  • Be prepared to self-advocate for these accommodations with the accessibility services office and their future professors.
  • Consider what additional accommodations in college might be beneficial, such as a single room in the residence hall. 

Autism Supports in College

The range of supports and services available varies greatly between colleges. Counselors should work with families to determine what level of support students are likely to need, and to encourage students to access these supports. 

Related: List of Autism-Friendly Colleges

  • A basic level of support includes disability accommodations (provided at all colleges by federal law) as well as free peer tutoring, a writing center and a counseling center with free group and/or individual services available. Students with excellent self-advocacy skills and the ability to socialize and manage their studies independently may find this level of support sufficient.
  • A moderate level of support would include the above plus individual academic coaching for study skills (e.g., time management). Coaching may or may not involve an additional fee. Students who have significant executive function challenges but adequate social skills may be a good match for colleges with this level of support.
  • A comprehensive support program would include the above services in a coordinated way, plus social events, individual coaching or group workshops for social/academic/life skills and autism-specific career services. While virtually all colleges offer career services, students on the autism spectrum often benefit from specialized services in this area, particularly around interviewing skills; they generally benefit from social skills workshops and events as well. While some institutions charge no additional fee for comprehensive programs, others charge as much as $10-15,000 per year. Initial results from these programs are very promising (Hillier, et al., 2017; Rowe, Charles & Dubose, 2020), though long-term data on their effectiveness is limited (Nachman, 2020).

Autistic teens can thrive in college whether they master the necessary skills in high school, while in college or during a gap year. Counselors working with the student in high school should determine which additional readiness skills the student needs to acquire, then formulate a plan for the student to develop these skills and obtain the necessary services in college. This approach can pave the way to college graduation and a successful career beyond.

For further guidance, contact Top College Consultants.


Bardinelli, C., Raza, M.,  & Taneli, T. (2016). Comorbid behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Childhood & Developmental Disorders, 2:11.doi: 10.4172/2472-1786.100019

Hillier, A., Goldstein, J., Murphy, D., Trietsch, R., Keeves, J., Mendes, E., & Queenan, A. (2017). Supporting university students with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 22(1), 20-28.

Nachman, B. R. (2020). Enhancing transition programming for college students with autism: A systematic literature review. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 33(1), 81-95.

Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A-M., Marder, C., Nagle, K., Shaver, D., & Wei, X. (2011). A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011–3005) Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.  

Rowe, T., Charles, T. Dubose, H. (2020). Supporting students with ASD on campus: What students may need to be successful. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 33(1), 97-101.

Shattuck, P.T., Narendorf, S. C., Cooper, B., Sterzing, P. R., Wagner, M., & Taylor, J. L. (2012). Postsecondary education and employment among youth with an autism spectrum disorder. Pediatrics, 129(6), 1042-1049. 

Wei, X., Christiano, E. R., Yu, J. W., Blackorby, J., Shattuck, P., & Newman, L. A. (2014). Postsecondary pathways and persistence for STEM versus non-STEM majors: Among college students with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44 (5), 1159-1167.

This article was originally published in LINK for Counselors