Special needs

How to plan for post-secondary education when your child has autism

Making the jump from high school to college or university is especially challenging for a student on the spectrum. Here’s how to support their transition.

How to plan for post-secondary education when your child has autism

Photo: iStockphoto

As well as your child may have fared in high school, a successful college or university experience is going to require even more preparation, practice and support. Yes—just the kind of thing you already know goes hand in hand with any change of environment or structure.

One way parents can ease this transition period is by helping your child maintain peer connections. In fact, don’t just maintain—help your child make as many new connections as you can. Learn about your child’s interests and together research clubs or organizations where they can meet like-minded people, both on and off the spectrum. Relationships with peers and particularly peer mentors are going to be invaluable in a post-secondary setting and should be cultivated in as many different ways as possible—through existing friendships, neighbours, relatives, extracurricular activities, non-profit organizations and the post-secondary institution itself.

Heather Fawcett, a social worker at Emerging Minds, a multidisciplinary clinic in Ottawa, works with individuals on the spectrum who are age 16 and up. What she’d like to see parents do is pay more attention to the social side of the post-secondary equation.

“We put a lot of focus on education and academics. I am guilty of that myself,” says Fawcett, who has an adult daughter on the spectrum. “But there are only so many hours in the day, and some of the time spent trying to get an A+ could be better served focusing on social interaction—on creating more balance. The social side is going to be the foundation for success in college or university and in life.”

Fawcett also recommends parents and their children work on routines, life skills and self-advocacy. Helping them speak up for themselves and their needs will be particularly important once they are pursuing a post-secondary education. Work with them on everything from scheduling their own appointments to how to talk to professors.

“All the scripts change in college and university. There is not as much structure as they are used to or as many rules. There are very bright kids on the spectrum, but if they can’t be on time, organize their work and meet deadlines, that potential may be wasted,” Fawcett says.

If your child is about to attend a college or university, make sure to provide the institution with the necessary medical documentation and get in touch with the disability service office—all post-secondary institutions are required to have one. Better yet, have your child reach out and set up the necessary meetings themselves, advises Tanja Beck. Beck is associate director at the Office for Students with Disabilities at McGill University, and she stresses the importance of letting your child advocate on their own behalf.

Parents and students should also be aware that the Canadian Charter of Rights guarantees “post-secondary institutions…be accessible to students with disabilities.” In other words, students with autism are entitled by law to have their needs met by colleges and universities. That includes accommodations like being able to take a break during exams or, for students with sensory issues, having the exam in a different, more suitable location.


Some universities offer peer-mentoring programs that match first-year students with third- and fourth-year ones. Make sure your child knows about those programs and takes advantage of them.

This article was originally published on Oct 17, 2019

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