Achieving Success in College: Strategies for Students on the Autism Spectrum

When students with autism and learning differences start college, they are considered adults for everything except residency and tuition. Since they are no longer high school students, they are expected to ask for help, track their grades, plan out assignments, follow through with work, and make decisions on how to complete assignments.

Our young adults may not be prepared for such a high level of independence quite yet due to their social, emotional, and executive functioning needs, however, there are many practical and valuable things you can do at home to support them in their growth.


Assess the student’s developmental need 

All young adults are at different stages in their development, but there is often a larger discrepancy with young adults who have learning differences. This needs to be considered when planning a timeline to complete college and deciding who would be best to support your young adult.


At the College Internship Program (CIP), we work with hundreds of young adults each year helping to prepare them for college, employment, and independent living. Consider CIP’s Continuum of Growth and answer the following:




How well do they know their learning difference and how it impacts them? 



Do they have the self-knowledge to accept that there is a need for reasonable accommodations? 

Example: “I read the book and do the homework, but when I’m tested, I still get stuff wrong. Maybe I need help.” 



How hard are they willing to work? How open are they to change if the path isn’t working?

It is a continuum, and while this kind of progress may not occur in perfect order, generally it does.


College-age students with learning differences may be stronger in some areas than in others. For example, I once had a student with severe dyslexia that was very determined to achieve a certificate in college. He was aware of his challenges and had adapted his learning to include assistive technology that enabled him to hear what was read.


In addition, he developed a strategy to memorize what he heard because he was unable to reference what he saw. In college, he chose a certificate program that involved hands on learning to supplement what he read. In addition, he explained to his teacher what he needed to support his learning style and his professor was happy to oblige.


As a result of his self-understanding, willingness to advocate and determination to do whatever it took, this young adult was able to achieve a College Credit Certificate. However, his self-understanding of how he affected others when he did not get what he wanted right away affected his success in relationships. So coping with delayed gratification was the area of focus for improvement.


In contrast, I have a student that is able to understand some of her challenges and is determined to get a college degree. However, she is unaware of how her poor performance and lack of self-awareness affects her and those around her.


She is still learning basic skills like tracking assignments, calculating grades, reading critically and meeting teacher expectations. Also, at times she is unwilling to do quality work independently. She will require coaching to help her build these skills. This coaching consists of an objective approach to help her stay accountable to her goals. If families are unable to remain objective, it is important to find people who can.


Who can provide academic support? 

Once admission to college is achieved, and the students are accessing these support services independently, they are now practicing an effective interdependent lifestyle. While the need to utilize these services may vary, supports services should remain available, regardless of success.

An environmental change may cause a backslide and the student will need support to help them return to their personal best. In addition, connections with these people could provide social connections and job opportunities as well as educational experiences.


These services could include, but are not limited to:


  • Therapist: To provide emotional support and guidance

  • Clergy: For spiritual guidance and internal wellbeing

  • Occupational Therapist: To develop strategies to deal with environmental factors

  • Peer Mentor: To provide support accessing college services and making social connections

  • Tutor: To assist with content based skills

  • Academic/Study Skills Coach: To build study skills and check in times to verify completion of quality work. 

  • Life Coach: To build life skills that impact academic work and to add an element of accountability

  • Campus Disability Support Office: To provide a level playing ground for learning. For example, extra time on tests, preferential seating, recording lessons, use of assistive technology, etc.

  • Professor: To provide clarification, advice, tutoring and career guidance


How do we help students access support services and for how long?

Many of these services are intended to help the students build skills and access further services that ensure their success in college. Unfortunately, we often find that students do not take advantage of these services. We can help them access services as needed and gradually withdraw our support when not needed.  


  • Fear of failure: Students may need assistance visualizing what success and failure looks like. We can help them by breaking down their fears. For example, I have had students say to me on more than one occasion,“What if my professor fails me, I flunk out of college and my parents disown me?”


  • Fear of success: Students may be overwhelmed at the idea of the future that success may bring. We can help by allowing them to weigh out the good things that come out of success and help them create a timeline that matches their pace.


  • Need for skill building: Students may need help scripting what to say. They may also require help with non-verbal communication such as tone, proxemics and facial expression.


  • Need for understanding: Student may not know how their performance impacts class grades and overall GPA.


  • Need for self-care: Students may possess skills, display independence and have motivation, but show inconsistency. This could be due to unresolved mental health issues or not planning enough time for self-care and relaxation. 


How can you assist students with accessing support services?

  • Script the interaction. What might be said? Ex: “I missed class because I wasn’t feeling well, can I have a copy of the notes please?”

  • Practice different scenarios such as what might be done if something goes wrong.

  • Model similar interactions and discuss what went right and wrong. Discuss what you were thinking during the interaction. Ex:’ I forgot to introduce myself. How do you think I could have done that differently?”

  • Plan times for interactions. You can go along in the beginning, but make a plan to fade supports and prompts. Ex: I’ll go in with you this time, but next time I will sit in the hall and after that I’ll be in the car.

  • Reflect on how it went. Did they receive the outcome they were expecting.

  • Revise the plan. Refer back to why students don’t access support and address the underlying problem. Have the student come up with a scenario in which they arrive at a better outcome. Do they need to:

    • Add supports

    • Reduce intensity

    • Lengthen timeline


Continue to support, reflect and revise

So often I see that students will consistently use the skills learned and then all of the sudden they stop. I had a student complete his Associate’s Degree and continue on to the university in order to complete his Bachelor’s. He was an A student and became active there, participating in clubs and even assisted his professors with research.


A personal event in his life sent him into an emotional tailspin. He was no longer able to do work and was in desperate need of support, which he could not access because of his therapeutic need. Because he was so successful before, the people who assisted him in accessing services had all but faded away. It was time for them to come back into the picture to help him get over this set-back by leading him to the services that could best support him.


In this case that was a therapist and a life coach. It was discovered that he was in need of medication and therapy to help him regulate his mood. It was agreed that focusing on mental health should be at the forefront. Therefore, the intensity of his college work should be reduced. In the final step, the family supported him in slowing the time it would take to get his degree.


They accepted the fact that intellect is only one piece of the puzzle. That even though he was taking one step forward and two steps back, no matter how frustrating it was, he would eventually grow to live a healthy interdependent life. They knew that although it was important to push him out of his comfort zone, too big of a push could lead to a him reverting to old habits, shutting down or rebelling and deciding to no longer pursue that goal. 


By building a strong support team we can develop realistic expectations and reduce frustration. We can feel confident that as we fade away, our young adults will continue to move forward. They will adapt and overcome the many challenges they face in order to become productive members of society.

About the Author: Ryan Therriault

Ryan Therriault, MA is the Lead Academic Coordinator at CIP Brevard. From the University of Central Florida, she received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a minor in Cultural Anthropology and a Master of Arts in Social Science Education. She appreciates the opportunity to train, develop projects and facilitate communication with the Academic Coordinators at all CIP Centers.