The College Search for Students with Asperger's

College-bound students with Asperger's syndrome face special challenges. Educational psychologist Jane McClure joins us this month to discuss those challenges and how they can be met successfully. Read on for her advice about college visits, easing the transition from high school for such students and more:

You have probably heard the term “Asperger’s” since the diagnosis has become increasingly common over the last ten years.  Asperger’s syndrome (or Asperger disorder) is an autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests, according to experts James McPartland and Ami Klin. Physical clumsiness and atypical (peculiar, odd) use of language may also be present.   It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of language and cognitive development and is sometimes described as “high functioning autism.”


Many students diagnosed with Asperger’s are very bright and are eager to attend college.  But they may have struggled at various times throughout their academic careers with behavioral, social, organizational or other issues.  Some students continue to have a very rough time during high school, while others have gained an understanding by that time of how they are “different” from other students and have learned how to cope with their uniqueness. 


A popular saying about students with Asperger’s is, “If you’ve seen one student with Asperger’s, you’ve seen ONE student with Asperger’s.”  Having provided college counseling to students with Asperger’s, I would completely agree.  Professionals (teachers, counselors, therapists) working with these students need to be aware of common aspects and problems associated with the diagnosis, but also remember that each student is an individual, with a unique personality. As a result, the college search, application process, and final decision must be based upon each student’s individual needs.


It can be a challenge to find a college which has provided a positive experience for Asperger’s students in the past, which will make appropriate housing accommodations and which will provide an academic advisor who is cognizant of the needs of a student with Asperger’s Syndrome; but there are more and more colleges that fit these criteria.  I have counseled students - each quite different from the other – who have matriculated at places as disparate as Cal Tech, Lewis and Clark College and the University of Redlands.  That being said, many students with Asperger’s are very interested in fields related to technology, which is undoubtedly why institutions like Rochester Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon and Florida Institute of Technology are  institutions where these students, in my experience, can be successful and feel comfortable. 


One hallmark of Asperger’s is that social interaction is difficult: often awkward and uncomfortable, and usually exhausting.  Thus, many students when they come home from school, after a day of interacting with teachers and peers, go straight to their rooms and shut the door.  They desperately need “down time” in which they can be alone and away from other people.  While most parents have learned to respect this and to “let them be,” some don’t realize the necessity of providing comparable accommodation in college residential housing.  They understandably worry about a student’s loneliness if they have a single room, without a roommate.  But Asperger’s students often prefer a single room, where they can have respite from the constant interaction with other people that so often prevails on college campuses.  If they do choose to live in multiple-student housing, the suite style where each student has a single room but shares common living space is usually the best option.


When Asperger’s students and their families visit college campuses, preferably beginning during the junior year, it is wise to participate in all the usual activities (information session, campus tour), but also to pay a visit to the counseling center and find out what accommodations can be made for an Asperger’s student.  Do they have a group for Asperger’s students, which can help facilitate social activities for like-minded students?  Is there an experienced advisor to work with these students?  Can they provide a single room, if it is determined this is the best strategy?  Is there a support program separate from the university, but located nearby to assist these students with their special needs?  Obviously, these questions imply that students and parents feel comfortable talking about Asperger’s.  It won’t be possible for students to have their needs met if they aren’t comfortable asking for them.  This takes preparation and practice during the last two years of high school, long before their first day on a college campus. 


Many students with Asperger’s are very successful in college.  Just like most students, they blossom and make friends and figure out what kind of work they want to do.  Recognizing early on the special challenges these students face when they go away to college will facilitate an easier transition and provide a better chance of success.


Jane McClure is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605) and educational consultant whose work has focused on college counseling and psychoeducational evaluations.  McClure was a partner at San Francisco’s McClure, Mallory, Baron & Ross for more than 20 years. Previously named Educational Psychologist of the Year by the California Association of Licensed Educational Psychologists, McClure recently received the WACAC Service Award from the Western Association of College Admission Counseling. For the College Board, she has presented workshops for guidance counselors related to counseling college-bound students who have learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and worked as a consultant on issues related to services for students with disabilities.

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