Teens with ASD: College

November 8th, 2015

The future depends on what we do in the present. - Mahatma Gandhi

Prepping your teens for college

Yes, college is a real possibility for many with ASD. My daughter is a senior in high school this year and we’ve just begun the hunt for schools and scholarships. First word of advice? Start when your child is in 10th grade! Get to know the school guidance counselors and find out when the deadlines are for tests, clubs (like National Honor Society), and all the other things that make a child look well-rounded on college applications. Most of the components you need for a child without ASD are also needed for a child with ASD – grades, letters of recommendations, SAT and ACT results, admissions essays, clubs, leadership experience, and money – lots of money!

SAT and ACT tests are necessary for most colleges in the US today; if your child’s IEP or 504 plan includes testing accommodations, you can apply for accommodations for the SAT or ACT. Each company has an application and information online to explain the process. A diagnosis alone is NOT enough to qualify. ACT and SAT are not subject to IDEA, so your child has to meet the much stricter criteria of ADA laws, i.e. does your child need accommodations to ACCESS the test? Their criteria are meant only to allow the test taker access to take the test; accommodations are not designed to allow the test taker to achieve a higher score.

We considered relocating to the area where my daughter would attend college. As a single parent of two kids with ASD, I had to weigh colleges not just for their programs, but also the state services for my more affected child who is two years younger. In the end,
my daughter spent her first two years attending a satellite campus near our home before transferring to her university’s main campus to finish her degree. While she was able to do the academic work, her Asperger’s syndrome left her with deficits in social and self-care issues that would very likely have made it difficult for her to adjust to college classes and living away from home at the same time.

To prepare for college, we assessed her abilities and considered the fields she would likely excel in given her strengths. She took a number of vocational aptitude tests and they all said the same thing – engineering. At least we had a place to start. She then enrolled in several classes in 11th grade that would give her a feel for basic engineering programs. She excelled in those classes, getting top grades, which was great. I sat down with her teachers alone after each semester and had a frank discussion with them to ask, “Is she really geared for this field?” “What else might she be geared for, given what you’ve seen when working with her?” and, “What classes should she take next if this is the right field for her?”

My daughter was fortunate to have teachers who understood her disability and the way it presented itself in the classroom, and her 504 plan compelled the teachers to have weekly contact with me so that I could make sure she was on task. As an aside, I’d like to tell parents that a 504 plan is only as good as its enforcement. Making sure the teachers do their part is as important as making sure your child does hers by completing schoolwork. Your job is to make sure everyone else is doing their part!

Here is a tidbit you will need: high school guidance counselors have access to a program that contains details about every college in the USA, all searchable and sortable by major, program, state, co-op and a gazillion other criteria that will make your college search much easier!

College co-op programs

Many ASD kids learn better by doing than by reading; if your child is one of them, consider a program called a Cooperative Jobs Program. About 500 colleges and universities in this country now offer co-op programs, involving 300,000 students in real-world job experiences. Generally beginning in the sophomore year, students work part-time and go to school part-time. Participating colleges will have a program office to help students find and secure in-field co-op jobs, and the hours they work count as credits toward their degree. The student maintains full-time status benefits, gets paid and gains invaluable real-world work experience in their field. Because the student also gets paid, unlike many internships, that money can be used to pay tuition – helping the student leave college in less debt, or debt-free.

“The average co-op student graduates with 18 months of experience from time spent in five to seven paid positions. That’s more than impressive to potential employers, and it’s the reason why more than 60 percent of co-op students nationally accept permanent jobs from their co-op employers. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 95 percent of co-op students find jobs immediately upon graduation.” National Commission for Cooperative Education

A note about SSI, co-op earnings, and working

SSI is not guaranteed for all people with a diagnosis of autism. The criteria say, “If the person is able to work at ‘substantial gainful activity’ (SGA), s/he will not be able to qualify for SSI”. A medical determination that a disability prevents substantial gainful work would need to be made first.

If the co-op job is considered SGA, your child may not be approved for SSI. The case could be made that a co-op position is not sustainable, at least during college, because the student has to quit it when the semester ends. However, if the student is already getting SSI at the time she starts the co-op job, whether that work is SGA is not material. Therefore, it is important for the student to be enrolled in SSI prior to the co-op job starting. Since the eligibility criteria are different for SSI than for Medicaid or school-based services, the child may not even be medically eligible for SSI.

If a student qualifies for SSI and works, even part-time, there is a “student earned income exclusion” that could apply to earnings. A special needs trust could also be used to hold earnings to be exempted from SSI where possible. Here is more information about Legal Planning and Special Needs Trusts.


A PASS Plan is a temporary plan to help people get training or education to begin or go back to work. SSI’s PASS Plan is similar to an IEP in that it’s driven by individual goals. To apply for a PASS Plan, two things must be in place: The person must be eligible for SSI and have either assets or income to fund the PASS Plan. Basically, the PASS Plan acts as an income/asset waiver during education or training and can allow a limited time for job searching. The person’s own income or assets are used to fund the PASS Plan, which maintains eligibility for full SSI payments, instead of reduced or eliminated payments during the education/training.

For example, a person with ASD who wants to go to college can use a PASS Plan to waive income earned, or assets owned, during the training or education time and possibly during the job search afterward. Without a PASS Plan, the new income or assets would either disqualify or reduce the amount of SSI payments to the student. With a PASS Plan, the student would receive full SSI benefits. The PASS Plan can be used to cover the cost of transportation, living expenses, tuition, and many other things related to the training or education.

Job shadowing

Not all kids know what they want to be when they grow up. I know I still don’t! One helpful, free way to help find out is through job shadowing. Your high school guidance office should have someone on staff to help you find opportunities, but I found most of the my daughter’s job shadows by searching online and even by walking around town. Often, one job shadow led us to another one, via referrals from one of the people she shadowed, so that’s always an important thing to ask before you leave.

I cold-called companies and asked for the human resources department, or with small companies, I asked for the owner. I explained that my daughter was interested in engineering, but with so many fields of engineering, we needed to narrow them down to make an informed decision. I asked if she could come and spend an hour or two with each type of engineer they had at their firm to see what they do. Most engineers spent about 1-2 hours with my daughter, showing her the projects they were working on, samples of what they normally did, and the systems they used. One even took her out to see several current projects in the field. At larger companies, she spent a full day and shadowed 4-6 types of engineers throughout the day. At smaller companies, she shadowed 2-3 engineers over 2-3 hours. While she was there, she used the questionnaire we created below for every engineer she met:

Shadowing questionnaire

  • Name of occupation
  • What are your duties and responsibilities?
  • What are the responsibilities of your department?
  • How are computers used in this career?
  • What type of training or education will I need to get a job in this career?
  • Why did you decide to do this type of work?
  • What do you like most about your job?
  • What do you like least about your job?
  • Will there be many jobs like yours in the future? Why?
  • What is the typical salary range for someone in your job? Entry level; mid-level; top level
  • What are the typical benefits offered in this occupation?
  • What physical demands does this occupation require? (long periods of sitting/standing, lifting, climbing, stoop/bend/kneel regularly, regularly lift 50+ pounds, etc.)
  • What are the working conditions in this occupation? (indoor, outdoor, cold/heat, wet/humid; noisy; hazards, other)

My daughter later used this learning experience in her college essays, made valuable contacts for future internships and letters of recommendation, and even learned about a scholarship for female engineers from a female engineer she shadowed.

Please remember that any professionals your child shadows, who often bill out at $100 per hour or more, took valuable time out of their day to help your child. Always send thank you notes after the visit. It’s also a great idea to bring donuts in the morning or pizza in the afternoon.

College scholarships and funding for kids with ASD

The main places you will find autism/disability-specific college scholarships and funding are:

  • Vocational Rehabilitation is a national governmental program that can cover education and related costs.
  • SSI's PASS Plan
  • Google and other search engines will net you the most results
  • The college your child is accepted to will also give you a list of available scholarships based on your criteria through the financial aid office
  • Your regional autism support and referral organizations
  • Your high school guidance counselor's office library
  • The public library
  • Some states have funding for higher education within their department of disability


Colleges with on-campus support for children with ASD

More colleges have on-campus support or programs for children with ASD. Please see our adults section for more information.

Office of Vocational Rehabilitation

OVR is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration. Each state makes a matching contribution. OVR can pay for education and training programs, driving evaluations, therapies, job counseling and searching, assistive technology, and many more programs or services as needed to obtain meaningful employment.

A parent and/or a person with a disability can fill out the referral form online in some states, or contact the local VR office for information on how to apply. Once the application is received, a counselor conducts an intake interview, which includes a financial needs test. Individuals whose income exceeds the financial needs limits may have to pay a small portion out of their pockets for the services rendered. If the applicant has been found disabled by the Social Security Administration, they will be presumed eligible. Services for individuals receiving social security disability are provided at no charge. A person-centered plan is developed. The OVR counselor will explain the programs available in the specific geographic area that address the person’s needs and may include many funding streams.

If the applicant is under 18 and does not have SSI and the parents’ income exceeds the cutoff (which varies by state), the parent must pay a fraction of the cost for OVR’s services. The cost depends on the services provided.

OVR is the payer of last resort, so if the applicant has insurance, any therapy would have to be billed through insurance first. It's the same with college funding - a parent completes the FAFSA, then the state determines how much the state and federal government will pay, then any scholarships or grants are deducted. The remaining amount may be covered by OVR.

Eligibility criteria vary by state. Some states are called “order of selection” states and they have higher eligibility criteria than others. In these states, an applicant needs to meet three or more, rather than two or more, of the seven eligibility criteria to receive services. You can call your local OVR office and ask if your state is an order of selection state.

This site lists the state programs with contact information for OVR.

More Reading

"Little Professors" on Campus: Planning for College With Asperger's
Going to College, A Resource for Teens with Disabilities

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