College Admissions for Students with Special Needs

From our college admissions counselor Christine Foster:

At least one in every 150 children has some form of autism. These kids range from non-verbal toddlers lining up toy trains to talkative teenagers, whose special needs were noticed only when the organizational and social demands of adolescence began to overwhelm them. Each of them has parents who imagined a future life like their own, or even brighter, whose dreams were changed as they sat in a psychologist's office. Last fall, my husband and I were the ones in that seat. Our bright, beautiful — and yes, quirky — 5 year-old son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

In the aftermath of his diagnosis, I began to look, among other things, at what resources there were at the college level. The answer? Not many. A handful of schools are offering special programs for kids with autism spectrum disorders. Others can seek services through their school disabilities office, but many aren't equipped to deal with issues beyond academic accommodations. Need a time-extension for your tests or a note taker? Most can handle that. But for a kid with autism, who might need help organizing their school work, making connections with peers, or advocating for themselves with a professor, there isn't as much available.

I'm now inspired to take a closer look at what's out there and cast a critical eye to figure out what is working and what isn't. As part of the Anna Ivey team, I work with college applicants, and my goal is to blog more about college offerings and the admissions process for students with special needs in particular -- from autism spectrum disorders and ADD/ADHD to learning disabilities and physical disabilities. If you have a question you'd like to see answered or a suggestion for a topic, please email us.

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First, a peek at a place that is doing it right. Marshall University in West Virginia has what was likely the first specific program aimed at serving students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Begin in 2002 with a single student, the program supports 20 full-time students. And Ellison expects demand to continue to burgeon. By February 1, he expects they will have sent out more than 200 applications for next year. Admissions are tough — in 2008, they received 30 applications, interviewed 26, and accepted just 5. Families pay a premium of $3200 per semester, above and beyond Marshall's tuition to enroll their students.

Marc Ellison, the director of the program, who has worked supporting people with autism for more than 20 years, says there is definitely a sea change. "Clearly, it is a wave of 18, 19, 20 year old students unlike anything we've seen before," Ellison says.

His program is ideal because they don't offer cookie cutter services. They look at each student as an individual, assessing their strengths and needs and figuring out exactly what kind of scaffolding makes sense. Last year, one student, a music major, needed to pass a hearing in front of teachers before continuing in his field of study. But his anxiety about performing solo before that group was debilitating. Ellison's staff helped to arrange two mock performances for the student to practice, gathering as many as 30 spectators for those sessions. The desensitization did the trick, and the student was able to continue forward with his music degree.

Unlike most college disabilities offices, Marshall's program also provides support in three areas: academics, social, and independent living. The staff might, for example, help break down a larger assignment into smaller, more manageable chunks. The staff also has weekly contact with professors to see how things are going for their students. Socially, they run a social skills group where students can practice practical relationship building techniques. Students get hand-holding on balancing a check book, mapping out when bills are due, and helps some with monitoring to see that students are taking their medications. (Sounds like stuff many typically-developing students could use, too!)

So far, four students have graduated from the program. Two are working and two are in graduate school. But Ellison is quick to point out that the measures of success for these students might be different than for your average college student. Instead of graduating and getting a job, the bigger accomplishment might be staying social engaged.

Why bother, one might ask? Ellison's answer is swift: "Frankly the time is right — with 1 in 150 or 1 in 166 with some kind of ASD, there is a tremendous blow coming to society if those children are undereducated. It is in everyone's interest to recognize their strengths."