College Transition Support for Students on the Autism Spectrum or with Learning Differences

CIP College Transition Resource for Students with Autism

There is much more to college preparedness than having a backpack full of supplies and a map to class.

Transitions can be especially difficult for students on the Autism spectrum or with learning differences, but there are many different types of supports you can utilize to get started on the right track.

A Step-by-Step Approach

Motivation can be achieved by setting goals. The smaller the goals get, the more achievable they are. Achieving goals promotes individual confidence and momentum.

For example: In order to get a job, I will need a degree. In order to get a degree, I will need be successful this term.

Ask yourself: What does success in college look like for me?


  1. I wake up every day on time.

  2. I eat regularly, sleep regularly, medicate regularly, and clean myself and my space daily.

  3. I make an academic plan for the day and enter it into my schedule.

    1. Example: Do 10 math problems from 2-3pm

  4. Reflect on the plan.

    1. Example: I was only able to complete 5 problems because I did not understand 2 of them and felt defeated. So I stopped.

  5. Make a new plan.

    1. Example: I will do 5 problems from 2-3pm. If that goes well I, will do 5 more. I will work near the math lab so I can get help if I need it.

Although sometimes frustrating, it is important that students are allowed to (respectively) set their own pace. Students should start slowly and then ease into a more rigorous (more classes or more intense -- not both) course load. If they are balancing work, home, social and other personal experiences and goals, they will need to further extend their timeline.

In addition, the students will need more help with classes that are not in their realm of special interest because it is likely to be challenging to push through the things they don’t want to do in order to obtain long term goals. Even after a student understands how to break assignments down, if they are experiencing stress, they still may need assistance to meet the requirements of assignments. As most people have experienced at one time or another, careful, rational thought leaves us when balance is not achieved. However, we are able to move forward with support and encouragement.

Social and Executive Skills Support

The type of supports needed depends on the student’s specific needs and experiences. Students who have received support services at an early age will be more prepared for a college experience. They are willing to accept their autism or LD diagnosis, who they are, and adapt themselves to societies expectations earlier. In addition, students who have received intensive social skills instruction and practice in the environment for which it is to take place, tend to have a more positive and successful experience in college.

For students with ASD and LD who have never received these types of supports, consider starting in a school that allows students to take one class that is smaller in size and works well with student services. This will allow time for the student to become proficient with social and executive skills, rather than focus solely on academic content.

Important Areas to Consider

  1. Communicating with Professors - While some struggle to initiate contact, others may contact too frequently.  For example, when a teacher tells the student to ask questions if they need clarification, they do not mean that it is okay to ask for more details ten to fifteen times during class.  Students should consult with a coach to help them to follow through with speaking to a disability services counselor to assist with teacher communications.

  2. Staying Organized - It is important for students to maintain a binder, plan ahead, and be able to break down and track their assignments.  They can also do this electronically by syncing their email calendar with their phone calendars. Some colleges offer services to show students how to get and stay organized.  Some tutoring and coaching services can help with this too.

  3. Accountability - Many students struggle to follow through with assignments or attending classes (and appointments), which may look like they don’t care. It is important for the student to have a coach to help them figure out why as well as provide support to coach them through to completion.  For example, when a student says phrases like, “I hate this”, “I’m done with this”, “I’ll do it later”, “I’ll just skip this one”, “I forgot”, what they are really saying is, “This is hard and I need help breaking it down into small bits.”  

  4. Tracking - Students need help developing habits to check and track homework online. They can do this with a tutor on a regular basis. They can also use it as a tool to communicate what is going on in their class to parents and coaches. Some online tracking systems, like CANVAS, can be synced with their phone.

Utilizing College Support Services

These various kinds of supports specialize in working with students on your campus. They are free and available to all students:

  • Learning disability supports such as tutors, un-timed and additional time testing, note-takers and academic advising
  • Counseling services
  • Internship or Employment Services
  • Medical Services
  • Nutritional Services
  • Peer mentors, tutors and counselors

Using college support services is a skill acquired over time. Many students require assistance to understand, obtain, and follow through with using the supports offered by the college, even after they have been instructed by college staff and have had practice using them. This is because changes in a student’s environment may affect how they make decisions.

The college experience can be a motivator for self-discovery. For some students with ASD and LD it happens right away, while others are not ready until much later. Back-to-school time is exciting because the students get to be out on their own, running their own lives and making their own decisions. But it can also be stressful for some because they are concerned that they may not make the right choices, which could lead to different consequences. It is through these experiences that students learn what to do differently in order to get a better outcome.

Check out more of CIP's resources for students with Autism and LD

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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.