Autism Goes to College

Autism is a disorder that affects how a person processes information, communicates, and interacts with others. 1 in 36 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), also simply known as autism. People with autism may have trouble understanding social cues and can be sensitive to their environment, such as harsh lighting and loud noises (National Autism Association, 2024). It’s  the fastest growing developmental disorder making it important to consider the impact it can have on a person’s academic experience post high school. Being more aware of how autism affects students is a start, as well as connecting students with resources available to them.

Autism and Education

Nationally, 74% of individuals who receive special education services under the autism category in high school graduate. In Arizona, that percentage is nearly 91% (National Autism Data Center, 2024).  As of today, there are 20 million college students across America. Of these students, it is estimated that 2% — over 400,000 students attending college– have autism (, 2024).

As Figure 1 shows, we don’t all have the same history and background which means our individual needs for education success are just as varied. Unmet needs become barriers.

We still don’t know a lot about the needs and experiences of students with autism who go on to attend college.  Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker confirms this by writing “the transition of youth with ASD, ages 16 to 21 years, into postsecondary education has received sparse attention, and the mental health literature has done little to understand and address the considerable needs of this collegebound population” (2014). Students who have autism are intellectually capable of college success. They are also more likely to experience the challenges of making new friends, living independently, and communicating their needs.

Awareness of College-Specific Challenges

College brings on an array of new learning and living experiences. These experiences are stressful to navigate for any college student but can be particularly hard for students with autism. In high school students with autism receive support through special education services, such as an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In college, while accommodation is available, these are often not as coordinated, and the responsibility is put on the student to access them. This can be challenging for students with autism who may struggle with social interactions and communication.

This challenge also extends to interactions with peers. In addition to making new friends, college students often live in on-campus housing consisting of one or more roommates. This can lead to differences in noise preferences, differing definitions of cleanliness and organization, and varying ideas of “house rules”.  It is important for students with autism to learn to navigate these new experiences.

Some universities are seeking to fill this gap in supportive services by creating add-on programs. The West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University was the first to open such a program. Now other universities are striving to create similar programs for students to receive extra support via mentoring, tutoring, and counseling services, while increasing their skills sets in the areas of independent living, self-advocacy, and social awareness (Sarris, M. 2024). Although they are often available at an additional fee, they are a step in the right direction.

College Preparation and Resources

Here are a few resources to help high school students with autism as they prepare for college:

  1. Best Buddies
    • Best Buddies is a non-profit organization that focuses largely on one-to-one friendships for people with various disabilities. Since there are many chapters on both high school and college campuses across the nation, this is one community that may lessen the stress of making new friends and decrease feelings of loneliness. 
  2. Navigating College
    • Navigating College: A Handbook on Self Advocacy is a book written for autistic students by autistic adults. Through this book, they share their experiences and advice they wish that they’d have known prior to going to college. This resource is available through various sources and offered in different formats.
  3. Autism Goes to College Website
    • is a free website. One particularly powerful aspect is their blogs and podcasts highlighting the voices of several students with autism who share their first-hand learning experiences with college and offer tips and advice. This website offers a sense of community from the very first click!

Written by:

Caitlin Alfonso, LMSW

About College Bound AZ

Established in 2010, College Bound AZ has been steadily advancing as the premier nonprofit community resource, guiding aspiring underrepresented students on their journey to college through mentoring, guidance, and support.  Operating in the Greater Metropolitan Phoenix Area, College Bound AZ delivers indispensable assistance to students through its high school and college programs. College Bound AZ is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit charitable organization and a Certified Autism Center.  

For more information, visit

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