Just one decade ago, few students with Asperger’s syndrome considered college as an option. Few people had even heard of Asperger’s. Today, students with Asperger’s are pursuing their dreams of a college education and professional career. As more high school counselors and college admission counselors learn about the specific needs and abilities of these students, and as more “Aspies” prove they can thrive on college campuses, university doors are opening wide.
What Is Asperger’s?
Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is a neurological disorder, often described as a milder version of autism. In 1944, Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger identified a group of children who struggled with nonverbal communication, empathy with their peers, and clumsiness. This collection of characteristics became the basis for classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as Asperger’s Disorder. It is estimated that Asperger’s, autism, and other autism spectrum disorders affect as many as one in 150 births in the U.S.
People with Asperger’s experience difficulties in communication and socialization that often lead to extreme stress, anxiety, and depression. Because many individuals with AS have an unusually sophisticated vocabulary at a young age, they have been called “little professors.” Despite their well-developed language skills, people with AS may use odd words or phrases, have difficulty verbalizing feelings and emotions, and have trouble initiating and sustaining conversation. They are challenged to understand social cues and body language and to respond appropriately. People with AS often are socially isolated and withdrawn, and have a hard time predicting and understanding other people’s emotions, facial expressions, gestures, and reactions.
Another defining characteristic of Asperger’s is an intense focus on specific, limited topics and interests. Individuals with AS may become absorbed with volumes of detailed information on a narrow topic such as snakes, weather, or door knobs, yet may be unable to stay focused enough to enjoy social occasions like dining out and family trips. Impaired executive functioning (the ability to plan, organize, change plans, and set goals) sometimes causes individuals with Asperger’s to maintain inflexible routines or rituals, move in repetitive ways like flapping or twisting, or fixate on parts of objects.
Getting a Head Start
Despite communication and socialization challenges, individuals with Asperger’s syndrome have normal-to-gifted IQs and can do quite well in school. Students with AS who are interested in attending college should begin taking steps toward those goals as early as possible. During high school, students should learn to manage their own medications and grow accustomed to asking questions and seeking help without the close guidance of a special education teacher or other professional. They should network with college students to learn about daily college life, common problems students face, and helpful study habits. It would be particularly beneficial to meet with a life skills coach who can teach self-advocacy skills, along with other AS students to discuss their hopes, fears, and dreams about transitioning to college.
A critical step in preparing for college is determining which careers align with the student’s specific strengths and interests. Because individuals with Asperger’s have a preoccupation with specific topics, choosing classes in those areas or a college that specializes in a particular career path may help them maintain interest and motivation in college and beyond. Students should research the acceptance rates at different schools and the GPA and test scores required so they understand their options.
While students with Asperger’s have the intelligence to thrive in whatever education or career path they choose, a lack of social skills may hinder their success. When students with AS feel like they’ve failed in their social interactions, they become embarrassed, depressed, and frequently give up on school. Prior to college, these teens need to develop a support network and seek guidance from teachers, therapists, and parents on picking up on nonverbal cues like tone of voice and communicating with eye and body movements.
The transition into college can be particularly difficult for parents of teens with AS. Students with Asperger’s should discuss with their parents the role of the family in a college student’s life. How often will the family visit? Will the parents pay the bills? Sit down as a family and explore your expectations and the various types of financial assistance available. Students with AS often have trouble staying sufficiently organized and focused to maintain a part-time job during freshman year, so they will likely need extra support early on.
Transitioning to College
The college environment is substantially different from high school. Every student who attends college must prepare to face new challenges and experiences – adjusting to living away from home for the first time, learning time management skills, adapting to new social roles and expectations, and meeting greater academic challenges. For individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, the change may be too drastic. Here are a few tips for making the transition to college easier:
- Consider a more gradual transition to college life. For example, take classes at a community college so you can adjust to the school before being completed immersed in college life. Alternatively, consider living at home or in a structured living environment and taking a reduced load of courses. As you become more comfortable and confident, you may decide to live on campus in a single room, and even with roommates later on. If possible, take a few classes online to get away from the distractions of the classroom.
- Talk to your medical professional about obtaining certification or other documentation of your Asperger’s so you can receive appropriate accommodations from disability support services. In college, students must identify themselves as having a disability to receive academic support such as increased time for test-taking and note-taking. Note that the supports offered in college are few and far between compared to high school, and they generally won’t cover emotional well-being and coping with fear, anxiety, and stress, so you may need to seek out additional services.
- Develop a support network of professionals who can help. For example, let your professors know of your AS and any special needs you have. A meeting with the career counseling office to discuss your interests and skills may help pin down a major, volunteer and internship opportunities, and a career after graduation. It’s also wise to have the number of a local counselor and medical care provider on hand in case difficult issues arise at college.
- If you are planning to live on campus, discuss your needs with the college’s administration staff. If you are particularly sensitive to light, sound, smell, or other aspects of your surroundings, you may want to request a private room in a smaller, more studious dorm.
- Make an effort to meet people with similar interests, through a social club, team, or specialized group, rather than isolating yourself. Socializing may not come naturally at first, but developing interests and social ties can be an important element of the college experience.
There have been countless success stories of individuals living with Asperger’s and accomplishing the unexpected. People with AS have joined the ranks of Nobel Prize winners, famous scientists and political leaders, and acclaimed artists and writers. With greater awareness of Asperger’s among teachers, colleges, and the public, students with AS don’t have to give up on the college dream. By taking advantage of the resources available and taking appropriate steps to prepare for the academic and social rigors of campus life, teens with Asperger’s can build a bright future.
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