Achieving Success in College: Strategies for students with autism and learning differences

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 students 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? 

 In this new, post-COVID lockdown era, students are taking advantage of virtual options more often. We are finding that student’s are continuing to take on the same intensity of online college work in order to meet a timeline, without considering how taxing, time consuming and frustrating a virtual environment can be. 



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

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

When CIP’s classes became “online only”, due to COVID, we realized that there was a serious need for students to be able to take classes and test in person because the technical challenges brought on by computer testing was causing more anxiety, uncertainty and frustration.



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. This was especially true when her mental health declined as a result of the new challenges, failures and isolation she experienced with virtual learning. 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, support 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 Accessibility 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


 Although there are virtual options to access each of these supports, it is important to consider if the virtual options are creating more obstacles and contributing to the challenges students are trying to overcome. As a result, the above supports may assist the student with access to each other.  For example, a life coach may encourage a student to call the accessibility specialist in order to obtain guidance with professor communication.   


If the services are offered, why aren’t they accessing them?

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.  Here are some potential reasons why:

  • 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 (and the associated responsibility) 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: Students 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?

We can help them access services as needed and gradually withdraw our support when not needed.  However, regular check in’s with those who provide support should always occur because consistency naturally fades when things are going well.

  • Work with support specialists to help your student obtain special accommodations when working virtually.

  • 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

In my role as an Academic Coordinator at CIP Brevard,  I see that students will consistently use the skills learned, and then all of the sudden they stop. I had a student that completed her Associate’s Degree while holding a part-time job and volunteering in the community. When she transferred to a university to continue her Bachelor’s degree, she was overwhelmed by the new environment and decided to go slow by starting with one class and chose to quit her job, but continued to volunteer.  After one term, COVID hit and the nation went into lockdown. She chose to stay at her apartment alone because she was so scared to get sick. She could not manage her classes anymore as the worry about illness and loneliness consumed her. Luckily she still had some support, but she was no longer able to do academic work. Because she was so successful before, the people who assisted her in accessing services had almost faded away.  She was in desperate need of additional support, which she struggled to access because of her therapeutic need. It was time for them to come back into the picture to help her get over this setback by leading her to the services that could best support her.


In this case, she was encouraged to go home to be surrounded by family and friends, where she could attend virtual church services as well as seek guidance and reassurance from the clergy. It was also discovered that she was in need of medication and additional therapy to help her regulate her anxiety. It was agreed that focusing on mental health should be at the forefront. Therefore, the intensity of her college work had to be reduced. In the final step, the family supported her in slowing the time it would take to get her degree.


They accepted the fact that intellect is only one piece of the puzzle. That even though she was taking one step forward and two steps back, no matter how frustrating it was, she would eventually grow to live a healthy interdependent life. They knew that although it was important to push her out of her comfort zone, too big of a push could lead to her reverting to old habits, shutting down or rebelling, and deciding to no longer pursue that goal. As a result of their compassion and diligence, she was able to return to her apartment, her Bachelor’s program, and her social life with new coping strategies and the strength to move forward.


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 utilize the interdependent relationships they have developed to adapt and overcome the many challenges they face in order to become productive members of society.

Consider these added stressors and possible accommodations when students are utilizing virtual options:


Problem                                                                          Accommodation

Ask a question of a teacher and you may find that question is not answered for a few days.  By then the due date may have passed. 

Work ahead.

Instructions are not clear

Ask for multimodal instructions (ex: written and video).

Trouble navigating the site

Meet with facilitator prior class start in order to practice Comment end  using navigation tools.

Internet goes down

Obtain a way to communicate with the facilitator.

Computer breaks

Try another device like a phone, tablet or borrow one. If possible, use the college computer labs or the local library.

System is not capable of running the virtual meeting 

Ask for handouts or paper assignments that can be scanned/photographed and shared.

WiFi is not strong enough to run virtual meetings

Obtain a hardwire connection or the same as above.


About College Internship Program

The College Internship Program is a comprehensive transition program for young adults on the Autism Spectrum and with Learning Differences. Our Mission is to inspire independence and expand the foundation on which young adults with Autism, ADHD, and other Learning Differences can build happy and productive lives. For information about CIP, contact our National Admissions Office at 877-566-9247 or email


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.