Picking Up After an Unsuccessful (Failed) College Experience

Transitioning Back to Higher Education for Students with Autism, 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 can be a stressful time for the entire family. Parents have already invested countless hours obtaining a diagnosis and related services, attending and advocating at IEP meetings, securing accommodations, creating transition plans, planning social time, dealing with legal matters, and much more.


Not only that, the young adult 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 & Consider 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, most commonly due to executive functioning challenges and social skills needs.


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 individual's self-worth or long-term outlook.


At CIP we continually reinforce (so much that we put it on our Center walls) that autistic people and those with learning differences are made for good purpose and inherently valuable - meaning that they have strengths and challenges (peaks and valleys) just like everyone else and deserve opportunities to define their own lives in the way that works best for them.


You Were Made for Good Purpose wall logo


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


  1. Difficulty managing executive functions (such as time management, organization, and multi-step planning)
  2. Social isolation (often seen in the form of excessive video games, electronics usage or defaulting to a preferred activity/special interest)
  3. Difficulty managing independent living needs such as laundry, hygiene, and money management
  4. Not having the self-advocacy skills to ask for help 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 the 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. 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 scaffolded independence in one's 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 and are person-centered (the student is coached toward the self-development of goals)
  • 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 specific to the needs of neurodivergent young adults 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 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 a clearing house of information is not readily available. Many families turn to their trusted friends and advisors or utilize the services of an experienced 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 young person 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 family's needs.


Identifying Programs or Services

Once you’ve identified 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 is 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 - This may be especially helpful if underlying mental health issues such as anxiety or depression are larger factors. These underlying needs should be addressed before pursuing programs that are more educational in nature
    • 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. Typically the student has to be motivated and organized to take advantage of these programs and often the support offerings are light-weight
    • 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 one's needs with support within community living settings


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 a long 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 or require that the prospective student attends the 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 one's 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 your journey as a happy and productive person is the real goal for all of us and should remain a priority no matter what your pursue.

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.