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Autism Spectrum Disorder and College Students

Many colleges are in full swing of the fall semester, which can bring anxiety levels to an all-time high. Despite the adequate cognitive ability to succeed in college, many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can find themselves riddled with added anxiety during the transition as they struggle to find their place.

ASD is a complex group of developmental disorders with a cluster of symptoms which include the inability to communicate or effectively socialize with others, repetitive behaviors. An estimated one percent of the world’s population has ASD, and in the United States 1 in 68 children have been identified with ASD according to the estimates from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, and while there are no exact statistics, experts at George Washington University estimate that college students with ASD compromise .7%-1.9% of the college population.

Students with ASD are many times accepted into college without ever being identified as suffering from ASD, leaving their sensory, social, learning styles and organizational challenges going unnoticed by professors and staff. Students with ASD will often excel in a particular area of study but will have more issues with the core curriculum. They do bring many positive attributes to the college environment and enrich group activities through their unique perspective of topics.

Colleges are helping ASD students by using the BASICS College Curriculum. This practical series was designed to give a hands-on approach to help students with ASD as they make the transition into their next phase of life. Written by Michelle Rigler, Amy Rutherford, and Emily Quinn, the book series focuses on the transition into college, developing academic skills, navigating college socialization, and living away from home. Using valuable information and advice, diagrams, exercises, and workbook components, students learn how to identify their unique skill sets, write effective resumes, build a network of contacts, prepare for interviews, and secure internships. Through the identification of strengths and weaknesses, students develop self-awareness and social understanding that enables them to transition from education into employment.

In addition to the specialized curriculum, there are college programs designed to support the needs of students with ASD, such as Mosaic, a multi-faceted program at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC). Developed in 2008 from a request from students with ASD, Mosaic is recognized as one of the most comprehensive programs in the country. The Mosaic program is made up of four primary components, each working together to provide a comprehensive program.

  • Credit-Bearing Curriculum: Four yearlong courses dedicated to the development of the social skills needed to navigate through a college career, with each year building on the skills developed the previous year.
  • Academic/Life Coaching: Each week Mosaic participants meet with a coach to develop solid academic and social skills, with each session focusing on the individual needs of each student at the time of the meeting. Discussions can include course requirements for other classes, time management difficulties, grade accountability, roommate difficulties, communication problems, confusion about requirements, etc.  Grades are also checked frequently to help monitor academic progress throughout the semester.
  • Peer/Faculty Mentoring: During the first two years of the program, students partner with a trained peer mentor with leadership and social understanding skills, and have a have either a desire to learn about ASD or have an existing knowledge about ASD.  During the junior and senior year, mentoring shifts to faculty members serving the role of networking and professional guides in the designated major of study.
  • Required supervised study sessions: Participants are required to complete no less than four hours of study sessions in the Disability Resource Center per week. Students report study hours of what they will be studying during that time frame, followed by what they did do at the end of the study session, allowing coaches to decide if good study habits are being used, or if there are distractions interfering.

Program administrators continue to develop best practices for the Mosaic program by researching and visiting other colleges with the program to offer a comprehensive support structure to ASD college students. Due to the success of the Mosaic program at UTC, other programs are also reaching out to find best practices for their schools.

Pasadena Villa is one treatment center that works in close cooperation with local college and university offices (with client permission) to ensure that a resident’s college experience is as smooth as possible. In addition to working directly with the schools, we help residents learn how to develop effective study and time management skills, and they are given help in completing assignments as well as offer transportation to and from classes. Pasadena Villa Program Director, Desiree Andes, says, “Many of our residents have either had to take a medical leave from college due to their mental illness or are starting college for the first time and have a very realistic goal to complete at least a few semesters while in treatment at Pasadena Villa. Our program has helped some residents graduate with not only associates and bachelor’s degrees, but graduate degrees as well.”

Unfortunately, many adults diagnosed with ASD have discovered that services are lacking once they turn 18. This is where Pasadena Villa can help. In combination with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Pasadena Villa’s Social Integration ModelTM gives individuals on the autism spectrum and their loved ones with education and relief in symptomology. Residents practice social skills in real-life situations – grocery shopping, the gym, amusement parks, etc. – in the presence of trained clinicians. These social conditions allow them to process emotions and behaviors at the moment, as well as continue to learn new social, independent living and emotional regulation skills in private group and individual therapy sessions.  Also,  in Pasadena Villa’s Living on the Spectrum group, residents receive support and can normalize their experiences while being educated on social norms and the latest research and news centered around ASD.

While there is no single best treatment for ASD, medication is often prescribed to treat some of the symptoms of ASD, including hormone secretin, risperidone, and aripiprazole. However, the efficacy of these and other medications are minimal, and the side effects often outweigh the benefits. Instead, intervention behavior therapy has proven to be the most effective method for addressing the symptomology associated with ASD.

With only about one-third of those diagnosed with ASD attending college as young adults, resources such as the BASICS College Curriculum, Mosaic, treatment programs like Pasadena Villa, and medication are vital for future success. Additional resources such as the Postsecondary Educational Opportunities Guide is available through Autism Speaks and is designed to navigate the different opportunities for and learning environments individuals with ASD after they leave high school. In addition to the guide, additional resources to help with the college transition are available in the Autism Speaks Resource Library.

Pasadena Villa is here to help if you or a loved one has questions regarding Autism Spectrum Disorder or other mental health conditions. Call us at 877-845-5235 or complete our contact form to help with the next steps. Pasadena Villa currently offers treatment at two residential locations in both Orlando, Florida and Knoxville, Tennessee, and outpatient services in Raleigh, North Carolina.

If you think that you or a loved one may be struggling with a mental health disorder, Pasadena Villa can help. We are here to answer questions and connect to care. Pasadena Villa currently offers treatment at two residential locations in both Orlando, Florida and Knoxville, Tennessee, and outpatient services in Cary, North Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina. To learn more about our program, call us at
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