A Closer Look

Postsecondary Transition for Autistic Adults

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Did you know that transitioning to adulthood is not easy? Probably. Many will likely remember their adolescences as being filled with both excitement and confusion.

For autistic adults, this transition also poses challenges in learning the new social norms required for navigating college and career settings. 

Transition Plans

While still in high school, transition plans need to begin by age 16, at a minimum, but they also need to:

  • Include the student input, and actually use this input
  • Teach self-advocacy skills
  • Promote student self-determination.
  • Focus on skills that correspond to college and career goals.

What is self-determination? Self-determination includes three key skills: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2020). For more research and resources on assessment and intervention for self-determination, we recommend using this resource.

How to Get Help, Once You’re in College

  1. Faculty Training: Since professors can’t see autism, whether the person has disclosed it or not, at times professors have mistakenly assumed that supports are unnecessary. When this happens, they can easily fail to provide necessary accommodations. Challenges in the college setting include how to disclose, what to do with the stigma that may occur, and how to advocate for support. Given a tremendous drive to succeed, especially because of overcoming other obstacles in their education, many autistic students successfully navigate college with the right support. Faculty can increase their knowledge of applicable laws and the rights of students, and they can learn how to apply the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) in the college classroom.
  2. RA Training: Although residential advisors (RAs) are the often the first contact many students have when living in the dorm, only a small portion of RAs report feeling confident in their ability to support autistic students. As identity development is linked to well-being, RAs can create a more visible commitment to neurodiversity by promoting social activities on campus and designing inclusive on-campus living environments.
  3. Peer Networks: The fact is, the postsecondary environment underprovides social support for many young adults. Peer mentors can help students navigate the social aspects of applying for and maintaining employment (because deficient occupational social functioning results in job loss). As college is a stepping stone for meaningful employment, it’s crucial for autistic college students to get the social practice needed before leaving campus.

As school psychologists, we are trained to support students beyond pre-K–12 settings, and the preparation we can make to support transition to adulthood is essential. The support and resources we can provide to these young adults and their families is important, because college is unchartered territory with new challenges and experiences.

Selected References

Bolourian, Y., Veystman, E., Ledoux Galligan, M., & Blacher, J. (2021). Autism goes to college: A workshop for residential life advisors. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 34(2), 191–200.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860

Zeedyk, S. M., Bolourian, Y., & Blacher, J. (2019). University life with ASD: Faculty knowledge and student need. Autism, 23(3), 726–736. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318774148

About the Author

Leigh Ann Tipton-Fisler, Sasha Zeedyk, & Yasamin Bolourian
Dr. Leigh Ann Tipton-Fisler is an Associate Professor of School Psychology at Western Illinois University (WIU). She earned her PhD in School Psychology from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and completed her post-doctoral training with the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center at UCR. She also was trained at UCLA on the PEERS® for Young Adults social skills program and went on to complete her Board Certification in Behavior Analysis (BCBA). Dr. Tipton-Fisler then taught at the California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) in the School Psychology program. During this time, she worked with colleagues in Southern California to identify supports and trainings to increase the effectiveness for transition to post-secondary settings. She is now working with a team at Michigan State in developing continued supports for improving job skills for success. Dr. Sasha Zeedyk earned her B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She later started her career working with children and families as a second grade teacher. She received her Master’s in Elementary Education from The George Washington University and her Ph.D. in Special Education from UC Riverside. She completed her postdoctoral training at the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center in the UC San Diego Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Zeedyk is currently a Center Investigator at the CSUF Center for Autism. Dr. Yasamin Bolourian is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of California Riverside. After graduating Boston University with a B.A. in Sociology, Dr. Bolourian went on to earn her M.A. in Psychology from Pepperdine University and her PhD in Special Education from the University of California Riverside. She has clinical experience working with families and their children with autism in a variety of settings, including an outpatient hospital clinic, a university-based center, and a school-based program. She has served as a coach to autistic youth, as well as to their caregivers and educators, to help support positive educational and social outcomes and to help navigate school and service systems.