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Your Autistic College Student: Letting Go

One of the questions I was asked this week was how colleges should deal with autistic students who are too tethered to their parents. A college advisor explained to me that she has met too many students on the autism spectrum living on campus who rush home every weekend, and sometimes during the week, instead of making the transition to independent living.

"The parents make matters even worse. They call us, they call residential life, they call professors, and they'll even call deans. They don't trust us and they don't trust their children."

Okay, parents. Stop it! Just STOP IT. LET GO.

As your children head back to school, at all grade levels, you need to accept that your child will stumble a few times throughout the year. He or she will have to deal with stressors that are academic and social. The classroom and the campus are social settings with plenty of difficult lessons for all students.

Your job as a parent is to be a safety net, not a safety harness. Let your child, especially as he or she approaches adulthood, fail. Yes, let your child fail sometimes. Don't try to shelter your child or hide the painful realities of life. Things go wrong and we all get hurt. Until you have experienced those tough moments, you don't learn how to deal with them. And someday, parents, you won't be around every hour of every day to shield an autistic adult from pain.

The advisor told me of parents who would tell college students to not participate in intramural sports, to not go on group trips, and to not "hang out" with other students outside class. The parents had to approve all club participation and all other extracurricular activities. The student wasn't free to make any choices: good or bad.

Normal college students screw up. There's no nice way to express it. When I was in college, I experimented with all the things college students do. I know my parents are not thrilled to know I drank (but not cheap beer, which is disgusting), that I tried smoking (still hate cigarettes: they stink), and that I was a perfectly normal, stupid college kid. And that was all part of life.

My parents were available, as supportive parents are, but I went to school four hours away from home. I learned I needed to rely on campus advisors, faculty mentors, and my classmates. No, things were not easy. I made mistakes. My grades were not what they should have been many semesters because I do have problems with focus when I'm bored. And yet, I survived to complete two of my undergraduate degrees.

I did screw up in ways that still disappoint me. I didn't complete my "clear credential" for teaching K-12 because I couldn't navigate the School of Education's social maze. (It was personality-driven, no matter how good a student you were. And being male was a strike against me. A professor told me that men shouldn't teach some subjects and some grades. She retired many years ago, now.) I didn't do as much with student organizations as I should have, since my social skills were lousy. And, I worked way too many hours, but college is expensive.

For all the challenges, my undergraduate experience helped me become an independent adult. That's a large part of the college experience.

Let go. Be available. Trust the university to support your child. Or, find another academic home.

Can or should every student attend a four-year university and live on campus? Absolutely not. Many of the autistic students I have met should attend a community college and live at home. Some should attend commuter schools, not merely for the supports but because the cost of college is ridiculous. Attending a residential university is not an option for all students, including many autistics.

If a student can academically, financially, and emotionally attend a good university, then he or she should try it. If not, then don't attend the university while trying to treat the experience like attending a community college. Other students know when a peer's parents are hovering about, helicopter parents trying to plan everything. It leads to further social alienation.

Let your student have as much freedom as possible, however much that is. And you discover what is "enough" when the child does experience some failures and disappointments. That's an invaluable education: life skills.

And, while I don't teach K-12, I am a professor. Things turned out pretty well after some lousy learning experiences.


  1. I agree wiht mos tof hwa tyou say. However, parents do not need to let go of their children completely, in the sens ethat once the child t urns 18 9or 21) they are not involved with them anymore. Mine told me, when I wa sin a mental crisis requiring hospitalization, they wouldn't drive me to the hospital because I was the one "choosing" to screw up.

    1. My students tend to have parents unable to let them "grow up" without too much assistance. I believe it might be because the students I have are overachievers, with demanding parents. The students and their families all have high expectations. Perfectionism can be paralyzing.

      Parents have to balance being supportive and outright interfering in their young adults' lives. That's not easy for most parents, but especially difficult for the families I meet. They have the financial means to do anything, and some do way too much for their sons and daughters. Financial aid is great, but taking your child home every weekend? Not so great. Developing independence means letting your child be "alone" (with friends) at the university. We have plenty of staff, faculty, and other students around.

      But, that is not the same as the situation you describe, and you describe something equally important for families to consider.

  2. Ha! I am a professor too, but academics were an area of special interest for me. My son...I do worry too much! Sigh! Not even going to start, because my travails and angst around letting him fail just the right amount in ninth grade will take over the computer ...
    Thanks and love,
    Full Spectrum Mama


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