Picking Up After an Unsuccessful (Failed) College Experience

Transitioning Back to Higher Education for Students with Autism, and ADHD, and Other Learning Differences

“I have had nothing but a negative experiences when it comes to school. I went to a university, flunked out because I was struggling with depression. I didn't eat, sleep, shower, etc. So I went back to community college and failed the next semester. Went to another university, where I am at currently and I see the same pattern of me failing to attend class. I go at first, then I'll miss once, and then I'm too ashamed to go back."

Does this story sound familiar?


Failing in college as a teen or young adult with learning differences is a stressful time for the entire family. Parents have already invested countless hours obtaining a diagnose and related services, attending and advocating at IEP meetings, securing accommodations, creating transition plans, planning social time, dealing with legal matters, and much more.

The student may experience failure internally and become depressed or anxious about their future, making it more difficult to motivate them to pursue a productive path forward.


When things don't go as planned at the college level, it's a good time to...


Step Back & Look at the Alternatives

Because of the developmental delay that often coexists with a learning disability or autism spectrum diagnosis, many young people with special needs are simply not prepared to manage the transition to college, even after making great strides during high school or while living at home. To quantify this further, about 40% of students who enroll in CIP’s transition programs have come after having a failed college experience.


When young people with autism and/or learning differences experience this type of failure, it’s important to pick up the pieces as soon as possible and not allow the situation to define the individuals self-worth or long term outlook.

At CIP we continually reinforce that autistic people and those with learning differences are made for good purpose and inherently valuable - meaning that they have strengths and challenges just like everyone else and deserve opportunities to define their own lives in the way that works best for them.


The most common scenarios that cause an unsuccessful college experience for young adults with autism and related differences are:


  1. The inability to manage executive functions (such as time management, organization, and multi-step planning)
  2. Social isolation (often seen in the form of excessive video games or electronics usage)
  3. Difficulty managing ADLs (Activities of Daily Life) such as laundry, hygiene, and money management
  4. Not having the self-advocacy skills to ask for help such or the self-disclosure skills to share that they learn differently than others
  5. Mental health issues such as elevated anxiety and/or depression (often due to a combination of the above)


Do any of these sound familiar to you?


Often all these factors can occur in the first couple of months in college, and parents are surprised to find out that their academically bright student was not prepared for reality of what is required to self-manage in a new setting with completely new expectations.


Examining Expectations

The classic college experience is not for everyone. Many people with learning differences such as autism and ADHD develop special interests and/or specialized skills and talents that can serve as productive pathways to a more independent and financially sustainable lifestyle (albeit sometimes these can serve as escape routes too). Tapping into these areas of interest often generates motivation, drive, and progress.


Individuals with neurodiverse learning issues can experience great success, but this often takes trial and error, and unfortunately much of the research shows that generally lifespan outcomes for autistic people and those with learning differences are poor. Therefore, a holistic support system that works to meet the individual at their present level, understands their underlying needs, focuses on self-determination as the end goal, and provides an abundance of opportunities to facilitate mentors and friends is considered "best-practice" by many in the field of transition services.


The primary features of a productive educational program or support system often includes:

  • A setting that overall reinforces adult behavior and is flexible enough to recognize and reinforce positive behaviors and incremental gains over rules and regulations
  • An independent living setting that allows for increasingly more independence in ones living setting but has close oversight and proactively deals with common issues before they escalate
  • Access to a variety of higher education and employment pathways and encourages hands-on exploration through volunteering or internships
  • Specialized supports and programming that are individualized to the person's needs
  • A diverse yet close-knit group of participants that maintain an overall focus on growth 
  • Experienced staff members who receive a multitude of relevant training and work closely as a team


There are numerous examples of highly successful people with learning differences. (Check out this slideshow of famous people with learning differences created awhile back with the help of Judy Bass, founder of Bass Educational Services). 


Conducting Your Needs Assessment

Researching and planning for your young adult's next moves can be difficult as access to information is not generally available. Many families turn to their trusted friends and advisors or utilize the services of an educational consultant to help determine good fitting alternatives.


Many families begin to ask questions such as: Is college really the best pathway? Would vocational training be a better option? What strengths and challenges are unique to my young adult and how will they be addressed in an educational setting? Will my student be happy?


In a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 24 panelists, including adults with ASD, service providers, researchers, and parents of youth with ASD, identified 14 Key Services Needed to Support Transitioning Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. These areas should be reviewed when considering your own families needs.


Identifying Programs or Services

Once you’ve identified and priority areas that are important to your family, it’s time to start to look at your options. But before you jump in, first take a look at the variety of alternatives that exist:


Types of Programs & Services

From support programs developed at colleges to residential or gap year programs, there exist many solutions depending on who you talk to. However, the most important piece of making a well-planned transition back into college, employment, and life are to base realistic goals on an individual's dreams and aspirations.


    • Summer Programs - Shorter-term experiences in a more relaxed environment usually focusing on socialization and fun
    • Therapeutic Programs - May be especially helpful if underlying mental health issues such as anxiety or depression are larger factors
    • Vocationally-Based Programs - For families primarily looking for employment preparation or on-the-job support
    • Colleges with Support Programs - Provide support options alongside a typical college experience
    • Gap Year or PG Programs - Provide a development or enrichment year prior to moving on to a college or vocational program
    • Transition Programs - Specialized and individualized support programs that typically provide an array of social, academic, life skills, and counseling services individualized to ones needs with supported residential living setting


Conducting Your Search

Many families head to the internet, ask friends and family members, or get advice from their student's therapist, psychiatrist, or doctor. There are a few things to consider when conducting your search:

Involve Your Student
You are probably saying "easier said than done", however even the slightest involvement can go along way to involve your student in the search for a "good fitting" support option. Focusing on the specific interests of the student can be motivating for them and keep them within their comfort zone. Preplanning and going over expectations can lessen anxiety for all. Have your student come up with a few questions that they can ask in advance. Try to avoid early mornings, traffic, long periods without snacks or refreshments, and give plenty of downtime when touring or visiting
Enlist the Help of an Educational Consultant 
A person or team of people who have highly specialized knowledge of programs and services for young adults with ASD and/or LD and can guide a family through the process of identifying a great option based on the student's unique needs. (IECA provides reputable options)
Dig Deeper
While many websites offer great content and overviews, typically families will begin by having an exploratory phone call with a program, then arranging a virtual or in-person visit as a next step. These calls and visits allow families to ask important questions. Many programs suggest that the prospective student attends to visit.
Tip: Download this Shopping for a Program Checklist to help identify the various features and benefits of different programs and services as you research your options
Making the leap from adolescence into young adulthood is a critical step in ones life and sets the course for future years to come. Failure and challenges will happen and are part of being an adult. Building the knowledge, tools, and resilience to continue ones journey as a happy and productive person is the real goal for all of us and should be a priority in your journey ahead. 

About the Author: Dan McManmon, President

As President of the College Internship Program (CIP), Dan strives to achieve long-term vision and alignment with CIP’s core values and founding principles by ensuring operations, marketing, strategy, and programming are effectively implemented across the organization.