Is your autistic child college bound? 5 big questions to ask

Your autistic child has announced they have college in their sights. Before filling out the college application, ask yourself 5 big questions to determine if college is the right choice for your child.

Veda Collmer
Is your autistic child college bound? 5 big questions to ask

Question #1: Why does your child want to go to college?

Your child may recognize the end of an era- high school- is over.  Your child will no longer be a “student”- an identity they have had for more than a decade.  Fear of the unknown after school can make college attractive for the wrong reasons.  Using college to continue in the student role is the wrong reason to attend college.

High school graduation marks a landmark transitional period, where many students head off to college.  Your child may want to join friends at college and participate in the same milestones as peers.  Wanting to fit in is also the wrong reason to attend college.

Your child may have a murky idea about the right career path and may believe college will shed some light on the right choice.  However, college is not for career exploration.  Allowing your child to enroll in college without certainty about a career path will leave them a rudderless boat, floating aimlessly from one major to another.  This experience will erode their confidence and you will waste money on tuition.  Your child should know with some level of certainty about career choices before enrolling in college.  

College is the right choice if your child has explored career possibilities and selected a career path based on:

  • Interests.  If interests are unclear, use My Next Move’s online interest inventory to help identify interests.
  • Strengths.  If your child can’t identify their strengths, use this VIA online strengths inventory to help.
  • Careers requiring a degree.  There are many career fields that do not require a college degree.  Use My Next Move’s website to learn about different careers and related education requirements.  

Question #2: What skills does your child to get “college ready”?

Post-secondary education is a completely different animal than primary education, especially for autistic children.  You may need to view your child’s college readiness through a new lens.  Here is why:

  • The college or university will view your child as a fully functional adult, accountable for completing coursework.  You will be completely out of the loop.  Your child could be sleeping 19 hours a day and skipping all classes and you may be in the dark for the entire four years!  For more questions to ask yourself, read this blog by Occupational Therapist Dr. Davidson to learn more about the foundational skills for college life.  

  • The laws mandating the structure and supports that made your child successful in primary school do not apply in college.  The only law that protects disabled individuals after high school is the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The ADA shifts responsibility to your child to ask for accommodations and find supports.  Is your child able to take on the responsibilities of college and ask for help when necessary?  This Pacer article explains applicable laws in more detail.  Also, check out this article from the National Center for Learning Disabilities for a breakdown of the how disability rights laws operate in high school versus college.  

Question #3: Who will Help?

Nobody gets through life without resources and supports.  Success comes with learning how to find those resources and supports (friends, family, occupational therapists).  Thriving in college comes with learning how to identify and use resources and supports for college success.  

  • Your child can request reasonable accommodations for assistance with coursework and college life.  You can help your child brainstorm aspects of school that may be a barrier and develop a list of accommodations.  The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), created by the U.S. Department of Labor, is a database of reasonable accommodations that can be requested for support in college.  
  • Every college has a disability resource center.  Use the Campus Disability Resource Database to search for information specific to each college.  
  • Informal supports are also important resources.  Help your child identify friends who can help with advocacy on campus.

Question #4: Where will your child go to college?

Not all college experiences must occur on a campus far from home.  In my opinion, living in a dorm with other adolescents only seemed fun in the movies.  In reality, many college freshmen struggled to manage their new independence.  Dorm life can be stressful and may lead your child down the wrong path.  

Is your child ready to leave behind the support of family life for a new experience in a new place?  Consider a slower transition to help build skills for independence.  Perhaps, a community college for the first two years with the possibility of attending a remote campus in the future.  Or online schooling initially to help your child successfully transition to college coursework.  Read this blog from Open Doors Therapy for more information on dorm life considerations.  

Question #5: When will your child go to college?

There is no rule that every high school student must be catapulted directly into a college curriculum post-graduation.  College is expensive and complex.  Many children are now choosing to take some time between high school and college to mature a little.  After all, college survival requires accountability, self-advocacy, organizational skills, time management skills, and stress management/coping skills.  

Be flexible in the timelines for college.  Consider these questions:

  • Should enrollment be deferred to explore career possibilities?
  • Does your child need to develop more skills for independence in daily life?  
  • Should your child tackle “the real world” for a year to determine if college is the right choice?  
  • Can your child take one college course to get a feel for the workload?  

Your child can wait for as long as needed to enroll in a college curriculum. If the goal of college is to pave the way for a future meaningful to your child, then postponing enrollment may be the right approach to ensure success.


Choosing college, navigating the college curriculum, and thriving in campus life can be overwhelming.  Occupational therapists are trained to help your child by identifying strengths, resources, supports, and accommodations to enhance college success.  Occupational therapy will also teach your child how to advocate for themselves and set up the environment in a way that works for their success.  

If you have questions or need support, VedaOT can help.  Email us at  Let’s partner up for your child’s success!

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