Should Young People with Special Needs Go to College?

Last week, my sons (ages 14 and 16) attended a camp on the campus of a nearby university. They were there to learn about work and educational opportunities available to them after high school, get a feel for campus life, and become familiar with one specific program offered by this university.


That doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary, does it? Maybe your kids have enjoyed a similar experience, or you know someone who has.


Except I omitted a few important details: My sons were diagnosed with autism at age two, and this college happens to offer a program specifically geared to students with “intellectual disabilities”.


The idea of students with special needs on a college campus is nothing new, exactly. When I was in college, I remember a few classmates who used wheelchairs or other types of mobility assistance. In one class, we had a sign language interpreter because a student needed that accommodation. A few others recorded lectures or needed someone to take notes for them.


But those students had disabilities related to physical movement or their senses (vision or hearing, specifically). I don’t recall students with intellectual challenges, because that’s not what college is for, right?


Well, wait. What is college for?


Few people would answer simply, “college is for intellectually gifted people”. We all recognize that yes, “smart” people tend to go to college. But culturally, we view college as much more than that. It’s a stepping stone from your parents’ house to the real world. It’s a place to gain experience, not just academically but also socially and emotionally. College is where we learn how to be independent, hold a job, and grow from our mistakes.


Do you think a person with autism or Down Syndrome or some other intellectual disability doesn’t need to learn those things?


What exactly do you think happens to them after high school? I bet you never thought about that. I didn’t either, until a few years ago, when it suddenly hit me that my sons wouldn’t be little kids forever.


So, what happens to them?


Some “retire”, living at home with their parents, until their parents die and they are moved to live with a sibling or another family member.


Some are placed in institutions.


Some, considered the “lucky” ones these days, live in a group home and spend their days in a sheltered workshop. They perform menial tasks for less than minimum wage. This is legal! Because of their disability, someone decided their time and labor is worth less than the minimum standards set for everyone else.


That’s often the “best” option… And it is unacceptable.


Still, you might think it’s odd that college programs, designed specifically for those with intellectual disabilities, are popping up all over the country. Why would a person with one of those conditions ever need to go to college?


The answer: For the same reasons we listed above.


To answer your first question: No, they aren’t pursuing the same four-year degree path as everyone else in that school. They audit classes (but do participate and do learn from them).


Dorm life provides a supportive environment in which they can learn independent living skills. As with other young people, it’s a stepping stone from Mom and Dad’s house to an apartment or house of their own.


College campuses provide an array of part-time work opportunities, so young people can learn different skills. If the bustling dining hall is overwhelming, maybe the library is a better fit. At the end of their week at this camp, I viewed a video of my older son enthusiastically scanning books in the library. If you think a person with autism can’t check out library books or organize and reshelve them, I would suggest you learn a bit more about autism! His organizational skills are top notch. 


And what better way to learn social and communication skills, than by spending your days with people in your age group?


Here’s an interesting statistic: Ninety percent of this program’s graduates are now gainfully employed. 


Have you ever wondered – or worse, complained about – how much it costs to support people with disabilities? And yet, they can work. And they can live on their own. This program’s graduates have proven that fact, time and again. So why shouldn’t they go to college and learn these skills?


College campuses provide the perfect environment for these students to learn the skills they need to live and work. It’s an environment that would cost an insane amount of money to replicate, and why should we? It already exists.


As I said, more and more universities are offering programs for students with intellectual disabilities. But, they are currently very small, work on shoestring budgets, and are limited to just a handful of students per year. Our university receives five to ten times as many applications each year, as they can accept. My sons might face more competition getting into college than yours will!


They have already fought an uphill battle most of their lives. But on the ride home yesterday, they excitedly told me they can live in a dorm with their friends one day. They had compiled lists of jobs that interest them. They want to “earn incomes”, as my younger son said, so that they can live in their own homes one day.  Two weeks ago, they faced an unclear future. Now, they have plans.

From the “roadmap” assignment my son completed at camp – by himself, in a campus computer lab.

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1 Comment

  1. Nancy on July 23, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    This warms my heart, as a mother with a son on the spectrum (although the DSM whatever said Asperger’s is no longer on the spectrum), and as a friend of the writer, who HAS DONE AN EXCELLENT, HECK, AMAZING, job raising her children. I knew this would be the outcome. Those boys are smart and they love their family!

    I almost wish Emily were MY mom. Boy, that would be weird.

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