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College for neurodivergent (ASD) young adults

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Warning:  long and rambly.  My key questions are:
-Has anyone navigated the college process with an autistic kid?  How did it go?  What did it look like for you?
-Any specific advice for us, both in terms of schools and the financial side?

My high school sophomore is autistic.  He is academically strong in his areas of interest and will major in computer science, computer engineering, or electrical engineering most likely, or possibly another type of engineering/etc.  We live in MN. 

We had always planned to pay in state tuition kind of money towards our kids' undergrad.  We can cash flow that or pay it out of savings no problem. 

But the closer we get, the more apparent it is that DS will need some or all of the following:  small class sizes, professors who will take the time to get to know him, academic supports, supports for executive functioning, etc.  He may need support for tasks of daily living. 

Additionally, although he has very high grades in subjects that interest him (engineering, math, and physics so far) he has poor grades in other subjects (art, English).  And finally our income is quite high so I am starting to think we will be paying full sticker price and that he will not get any scholarships.  He may have trouble getting into schools that expect good essays for example (IDK what the landscape for that even is- I only applied for state schools and didn't have to write any essays for admission, just for scholarships).

Our "we'll pay in state tuition" plan was based on assuming our kids would be successful at whatever big state school we lived near, which was true for H and I.   Now we are feeling like we need a plan BD. , C, or D I think he might be successful at the University of St Thomas, for example- it is small, has engineering majors he is interested in, and is 20 minutes from our house so parents can provide some of the support he needs.  And it costs 63K a year to attend, ouch.  Or, maybe he could attend the Univ of MN Duluth- two hours away and a much smaller public school- but they don't have computer engineering which is currently his top interest.  Its 26K.  Much better.

But what if he needs more support than the typical undergrad experience?  Living at home and going to CC is fine, but he will have already maxed out CC math after his junior year of high school and will be ready for engineering classes pretty much right away.  H and I are engineers and we definitely wouldn't have been able to finish in 4 years if we started at a CC, due to the course orders, and I believe that is still true. I am not in a rush for DS to finish in 4 years, but it won't do him any good to sit in CC classes he hates because he already took the math and science ones.

One of my good friends from undergrad is autistic and has some form of anxiety disorder as well. We were doing music school, so our work was very different from normal academic subjects, but it was a music school at a small liberal arts college and that environment seemed good for him. He had especially supportive relationships with a handful of professors who helped him a lot. He finished on time in 4 years, and basically completed a minor in computer science, though didnít actually get it on a technicality.

While he wasnít especially social in the music school, we were both part of a coop organization that did him a lot of good. One year we both had leadership positions in the organization, and while the additional work was stressful, but it was a great bonding experience between us and other coop leadership people. He told me he was on the verge of taking a leave of absence spring semester of that year and just not coming back from winter break, but the coop work was what got him to come back.

Hope something from that is helpful. I donít know if I have any actionable insights, but Iíll say the liberal arts college thing is good not just because of the small college/small town vibes being very manageable, but also that liberal arts colleges tend to attract a more quirky/weird student body, where itís so much easier for people who are different to feel like they finally belong somewhere. Many of those kinds of liberal arts colleges only offer engineering in conjunction with another university (3-2 programs), though computer science should be available anywhere.

I'm basing these thoughts on my own experience as a neurodivergent person who went through a small public college without a diagnosis. In retrospect-- my college friend group was just a basket of ADHD & autistic kids who were struggling through; many of us have been diagnosed as adults. My son is diagnosed with ADHD and likely will eventually get an ASD diagnosis, but he's only 10.

I wouldn't bank on a smaller university necessarily having better supports in place than a larger one. At smaller schools, you're generally depending on the teaching faculty to provide more attention and direction, but it's not a given that they will do so. Larger universities tend to have an office that oversees accommodations-- sometimes through counseling centers, tutoring centers, the disability office, or sometimes even diversity offices-- depends on the school. I would do some digging into exactly what kind of support might be available. For example, a friend realized midway through grad school that she met all the criteria for dyslexia, got tested through the university, and was then eligible to take tests orally, allowed to record lectures, etc. I can't predict what kind of support your son would need, but I have seen time management groups, tutoring groups, writing tutors, etc. on college campuses.

I would also recommend that you look into coaching over the next two years (or more) to improve his ability to function independently in a college environment. There are psychologists, counselors, and educators who work online or in person to help ND people improve their executive functioning or social functioning. People who are neurotypical tend to downplay the role of explicit instruction in soft skills. Time management course? Just read a book or something! Social skills course? What kind of loser needs those? But for some of us, deliberately strengthening those unseen skills that many people take for granted can be a game-changer.

For executive function, I always recommend the "Smart but Scattered" books & resources, which aren't specific to ADHD but breaks down executive function into many different components (time management, emotional regulation, planning, etc) and has a lot of practical tips for developing systems of self-support.

Finally-- how lucky is your son that you're looking ahead this way and prepared to meet him where he is with supports!

Not anywhere near an expert.

"Autistic" is a very very broad term.

A friend's son is autistic.  He is non-verbal, occasionally physically combative, has Down's syndrome also.  He will never go to college.

My nephew has Asperger's.  That's technically autistic.  He has a slight lisp, a slightly odd gait, and has difficulty reading emotions.  He graduated with a degree in statistics from an Ivy League school and has a master's degree in statistics from a highly regarded university.

The comments below might be reasonable or unreasonable depending on where your son fits on the spectrum.

Most universities now have "differently abled offices" where they have support staff to help provide various accommodations to students who need them.  These vary in quality and in what they're named.  I'd suggest meeting with these offices when you go on college visits.  In the case of my youngest, I was surprised by the variety and breadth of ideas and offerings for them to deal with their misophonia.  The school came up with half a dozen ideas and options that my miso kid didn't even realize were possible and they were delighted with the support.

You can start now working with him to advocate for himself and work on developing his independence.

With any college kid, how far away from home is a pretty big factor in my experience.  Sounds like you want to focus within one direct short plane flight or a couple hour drive from home or closer.  The closer they are, the more feasible support from home is.  It may not be necessary, but it's nice to have in the arsenal.

I'd start trying to collect input from resources around your student who know him and know autism and know college.  The accommodations that might be most helpful might only partially overlap with the accommodations you think would be most helpful.  High school guidance counselors, any medical professionals (his pediatrician?), the "differently abled office" resources.  Maybe there are some books on the subject?

For ideas on schools, you might try Big Future, which is the College Board's college search tool.  I used it and liked it for my three kids when they were looking.  My middle son was looking for schools similar to your son; some options on his list that might also be worth looking into for your son would be:

1.  Rose-Hulman Institute (IN).  Hard to get into, but small and very engineering focused.  Maybe too far away.
2.  Case Western Reserve (OH).  Hard to get into, but has good engineering.  Has a broader array of degrees.  Maybe to far away.
3.  Dordt College (IA).  Small.  Religious.
4.  Kettering (MI).  Expensive.
5.  SD School of Mines (SD).  Commuter campus.  Cheap.  Good reputation.  Cold winters.  Apparently not much to do.
6.  Calvin College (MI).  Religious.
7.  Michigan Tech (MI).  On Lake Superior, so I assume very cold.
8.  U MN Duluth was also on my kids' list.

All of these are in your general area, have good S:F ratios, have engineering of some kind (my kid was looking at mechanical, electrical, and chemical).  So they might at least bear looking at online.

I'm giving you a broader number of schools because I think it is good to start broad so that when you apply your criteria, you'll still end up with several schools to apply to.  My son's process started with 54 schools that were in the ball park, narrowed to 20 just based on Big Future, visited 7, applied to three, got into one.

Nowadays you can get a lot of feel for a school online, but visits are very very good if you can at all do them.

With enough effort, you might find a school that is a very good fit.  My son got his IB diploma.  Most schools didn't really know much about the IB program, but one did.  They had an IB applicant coordinator who we met on our campus visit, who asked about his IB stuff - senior project, etc.  His application fee was waived because he was an IB candidate, and he was awarded a decent scholarship for being an IB graduate.  He also got a nice academic scholarship there.  So in addition to that being the only school that accepted him, it was actually a very good fit.

You'll know a good fit if/when you find it.  It'll either be the feel when he's on campus, or the financial aid / scholarship offer compared to other similar schools will be unusually good.

Specifically on the engineering stuff, I heartily agree with you that CC is not a good path.  Yes, it can be done, but it probably doesn't save any time or money overall for reasons you've alluded to.

He might want to look at mechanical engineering too.  It's a very broad and very marketable degree.  Very difficult to get through, though.  Out of three very intelligent and capable people in my family who considered it or tried it, none of them succeeded.  But obviously some students do it.

Financial stuff:

Your son might be able to get a National Merit scholarship.  It's too late for him to take the PSAT as a sophomore, but you might have him take several practice tests between now and next fall.  If he takes the PSAT and scores in the 99% plus range, he might make it into that program.  There are a few subsequent steps, but the junior year PSAT score is quite frankly the hardest; after that it's pretty easy.  If he gets to be a National Merit Finalist or even Semifinalist, many schools will offer automatic scholarships, all the way up to full tuition for four years.  (I have four NM Semifinalists or above in my family, including two NM Scholars which is the top final tier.)

Look for scholarships that are specific to engineering and even specific to autistic students.  They're probably out there, and your son will have a much better shot at getting those than the broad, national, open-to-everyone scholarships.  Have him continue to look at the university he attends - that's even narrower and his chances are even higher.

Scholarship essays are usually not the biggest part of getting scholarships.  Usually it's test scores, financials/FAFSA, degree path, grades.  And if an essay is required, in most cases he can and should have it read by others before submittal for grammar, spelling, content, etc.  English teachers at his high school are good resources for this.  Make him do the writing and correcting and editing part, but I think liberal feedback in multiple rounds of review is perfectly fair.  Unless for some odd reason the scholarship application rules state otherwise - something I've never seen.

If you're close to FIRE, you might be able to FIRE and have a low taxable income, which opens doors to FAFSA financial aid and FAFSA-based scholarships.  I FIREd when my younger two were in high school and this strategy helped them.

Happy to answer questions here or in PM on any of the above.

HTH.  Good luck.

Yes -- but from a Canadian perspective. For us there have been two parts to this situation: "doing" college and independent living. For our child, independent living was most important to them and they were making poor choices trying to establish that want. That's a whole other story that I won't go into, as it seems you are assuming your child will still live at home while going to post-secondary.

Like you son, our kid does very, very well in what they want to do, and often not so well in other (required) things. However, we've found with general maturity and overall buy-in to the program they've chosen, they do okay in the related electives. They go to a small college geared towards working adults. What that means is part-time program delivery, online/hybrid/F2F options, 3-hr once-a-week classes instead of M/W/F, no social/party scene etc. They also have an academic accommodation plan, organized through the school's disability services. They complete 3 courses a semester and go to school all year. School is their "job", along with looking after themselves in their little apartment. It took a couple of tries to find the right school and major. They also receive a fair bit of funding because of the autism, so this doesn't cost us much. Although they have career plans, I expect this is their life for the next 7-10 years.

Despite having been labeled "high functioning" in the past, their day-to-day has to be just-so to cope and not spiral into self-harm and substance use. I wish I had understood more about THAT and the extent of their masking when they were a teenager. "High-functioning", "Mild", "Aspergers" autism terms were comforting but misleading descriptions that supported ignorance on our part as parents to successfully support our kid. I'll suppress the rant here, but happy to talk privately about this controversial issue.

Feel free to PM if want to talk through more details or have questions.


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