Applying to College

As services and support for K-12 students on the autism spectrum have improved, so have opportunities and expectations for attending college. High school students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – and their parents – have many of the same aspirations as anyone: find a great college full of amazing learning and social opportunities, get a degree, and begin a career and independent life.

It’s a reasonable set of aspirations, and certainly what colleges sell to potential applicants and their families.

But there is a critical difference between high school and college, and much of it can be traced to the federal legislation that dictates what an institution must do on behalf of students with disabilities (see the US Dept. of Education’s transition guide). High schools are guided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA requires schools to do all they can to assure student success, regardless of cost (most of which are borne by the school system and local funding sources). In contrast, colleges and universities answer to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that institutions provide access to opportunities that might otherwise be impossible for a person with a disability to take advantage of independently. Students must demonstrate that they are otherwise qualified to meet the institution’s academic and behavioral requirements in order for the institution to provide the appropriate reasonable accommodations. Those italicized words are the subject of both federal mandates and negotiations between institutions and families.

Thus, the services students feel they qualify for, and the services colleges believe are reasonable accommodations, should never be assumed to be commonly agreed upon.

Too often, though, families anticipate a level of support for their students that exceeds the obligations of the ADA (for example, a personal care assistant to help a student with activities of daily living is not provided by a college, even if it might be of great value to a student in getting to class and completing assignments). During the college search process, students’ families may often ask general questions about disability services. In return, they either receive vague or overly-optimistic answers. Keep in mind that the admissions professionals at the front door of the institution don’t always have full depth of knowledge about the disability services provided by the institution, let alone the variability of student needs. The resulting misunderstanding can lead to students’ frustration and disappointment in the first year of college enrollment. But when all parties are well informed and straightforward in their communications, students and institutions can establish positive relationships, set clear expectations, and lay the foundation for a successful college experience.

Having spent 25 years as an administrator in higher education, I’m happy to join the College Autism Network (CAN) and look forward to sharing the perspective of a student affairs administrator with colleagues, students, families, and others interested in better understanding the intersection of higher education and ASD. Over the next few months, we will post resources on this website to help families better understand the college search process and how students with ASD might successfully navigate that process.

Let the College Autism Network be a resource as you prepare for the transition to college. You can stay up to date with CAN’s newest resources by liking us on Facebook (, following us on Twitter (, or signing up for our periodic emails (

Lee Burdette Williams

Lee Burdette Williams

Director of Higher Education Training and Development

Personal website