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Advocating for Your College Student With Autism

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As throngs of students with autism head off to institutions of higher learning, colleges and universities are faced with the task of providing support to help them succeed. The detailed Individual Education Plans (IEP) required for younger students with disabilities as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are replaced with accommodations covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 commonly referred to as Section 504 Plans.

Section 504 accommodations for college students are created with The Office of Disabilities of the college and the student after a lengthy examination of their prior needs. After age 18, a student with a disability is expected to represent themselves entirely and "outsiders" (ie: parents) are discouraged from participating. There is a long list of accommodations to choose from except one: assistance in learning to advocate for oneself after a lifetime of relying on a team of caring adults including the parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators.

My son has autism and was covered under IDEA for the entirety of his elementary and secondary education. Caring teams hammered out every detail and, thankfully, Ben graduated from high school with a standard diploma with hopes of attending college to study journalism.

While transitioning to college/work life was covered in the IEP his senior year, it really did nothing to prepare him for the expectations soon to follow as he began his first year at community college. We registered him with the Office of Disabilities and were promised grand things in the way of support. Ben received accommodation letters to give to his instructors and was told it was up to him whether or not to share his diagnosis. He chose not to because he wants to be known for his work and not his disability. Fair enough.

All went well for the majority of his first semester. I worked with Ben to organize his assignments but he was left to create and submit them on his own. I was proud to see A's and B's flowing in from his professors. His Composition I teacher, a part-time adjunct employee, assigned a comparison and contrast paper with the topic chosen by the student with his approval. As a comic book fanatic, Ben was excited to choose from the many characters he had read about and studied over the years. He chose to compare and contrast the characters of Batman and The Joker. The professor approved the assignment, Ben turned in more than double the required pages and was very excited about his work.

When the assignments were handed back, Ben was asked to stay after class. Sure he was going to be congratulated for such a wonderful paper, he was dumbfounded when the professor said "I don't believe these are your words" and asked him to rewrite the paper on a subject that was not as "dark." Confused and unable to speak because of the anxiety this caused him, Ben did not protest and defend his work. People with autism often do not react to stressful situations in similar ways as their neuro-typical counterparts and the professor, unfamiliar with autism, thought his silence was an admission of guilt.

Later, I asked Ben why he did not defend himself. "He's a teacher," he said. "I'm not supposed to question him." After so many years of teams of adults eager to see him succeed helping him with every step of his education, he was unprepared to deal with a situation which required him to defend himself on his own. With my assistance, he wrote the professor and asked him to write down in an email his reasons for accusing Ben of plagiarism and what aspects of the paper he felt were "too dark." This request for written clarification was covered under Ben's Section 504 plan (a copy of which was hand-delivered to the professor) yet the professor refused to answer Ben's emails.

I then wrote the professor myself in a very respectful message and, with Ben's permission, explained how verbal communication is sometimes hard for those with autism and would he please take a minute and write down his comments. He did not respond but I did hear from the Office of Disabilities notifying me the professor had complained about my interference. The director scolded me for contacting the professor and said Ben would need to learn to stand up for himself. Ben was confused by the whole process and was scared to go back to school. The people who were supposed to be helping him were waging a battle with his family.

While I understand Ben will need to learn to handle these situations eventually, expecting him to overcome the communication challenges of autism automatically upon registering for college is ludicrous. He still needs help with many things and, if his professors and other support personnel at college will not honor his requests, who is he to turn to but his parents? The law says he is an adult and has to do this on his own but I think colleges are interpreting this too literally. A parent, or any other caring advocate the student wishes to have, should have the right to stand up for a student when necessary without retribution from officials of the school.

Transitioning to a self-advocating adult takes time for any child. To expect students with autism to miraculously and suddenly be able to do this without extra support will guarantee the failure of many. I believe a series of support programs should be introduced as part of the college curriculum giving students with disabilities the time and guidance they need to fully prepare for self-advocacy. With time, practice, and a helpful hand, students with disabilities can not only learn to speak up for themselves but learn how to appropriately handle difficult situations they may encounter in life.