Falling off a Cliff: High School Students on the Autism Spectrum Must Have Proper Transition Planning for College

April 9, 2019
Distressed student who needs transition planning
Roughly 3.6 million students are expected to graduate from high school this year. It is estimated that 1 in 59 children in the United States have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”), and of those children, 35% of students will continue to college. But many are not ready for life on campus.

While students with ASD are often academically prepared for a college or university setting, we find that they are not well-equipped for social challenges. For the first time in their lives, parents are not around to help them dissect and manage confusing social interactions. Further, the students no longer have the protections afforded by an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a team of teachers skilled in understanding social differences. Sadly, many college students with ASD find themselves facing disciplinary proceedings that could have been avoided with proper transitional planning in high school.

Transition planning for special education students in Ohio and most other states begins at age 14. Unfortunately, most plans are skills-based and ignore important discussions about sex, drugs and alcohol that would be given to typical students. Young adults on the spectrum are generally naïve and less mature socially and emotionally than their classmates, so they struggle when immersed in a college environment where they have unfettered freedom.

Our practice has navigated complex cases with ASD students facing campus misconduct proceedings or, worse, criminal prosecution involving issues such as chronic masturbation, internet contact with minors and sexual harassment. It is not uncommon for a simple crush to be perceived by a neurotypical student as harassment. Many cases have involved allegations that our clients did not pick up on non-verbal social cues and, as a result, caused typical peers to feel stalked or sexually harassed. Proper transition planning may have helped these students avoid legal trouble or student discipline on campus.

Rachel Loftin, a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally-recognized autism consultant, shared insight into the education and training students with ASD need before attending college or entering the workforce. Dr. Loftin suggests the following tips to families with students on the spectrum:

  • Add a Sex Ed Goal to the IEP. Consider including an Individualized Education Plan or transition plan goal for sexuality education instruction. Generally academic or environmental in nature, even an IEP or 504 with behavioral goals would not account for Sex Ed. Parents can request that this important element is included in the student’s plan.
  • Set Rules for Online Time & Content. From pre-school to pre-teen, a child requires very clear and strict limits around internet usage. As they age, children can become increasingly independent as they demonstrate appropriate use. However, some young adults with ASD continue to benefit from controls that protect them from risks, such as making online purchases or entering into problematic chat rooms. A great resource for families is the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines and toolkit for making a media plan.
  • Participate in a Structured Skills Group. A small, supportive group that covers information about intimate relationships and dating can be extremely helpful. Non-judgmental discussions and peer modeling can be very valuable for learning these key skills. One manualized approach is the PEERS for Young Adults model.
  • Essential Elements in the Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP). Sometimes, problem behaviors are related to sexual or relationship concerns, such as inappropriate communication with peers (often stalking or stalking-like behavior) or unsolicited touching of peers or adults. It is crucial that the BIP include social skills and sexual knowledge instruction, in addition to a plan for what consequences will be given for problem behavior. For example, the BIP for students who have difficulty learning not to masturbate in public spaces can be challenging. In these cases, it is helpful to identify a time and a place where “private” time is allowed. Thus, autistic students require a goal for each behavior that needs to be normalized.
  • Students & Parents Benefit – Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). When problem behaviors occur at home or when skill development is needed, it can be helpful for students with ASD to get support from an agency that provides behavior consultation. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the most common format. Parents tend to associate ABA with early childhood, but it is a broad theoretical orientation that has applications throughout the lifespan. ABA practitioners can teach self-help skills to promote positive behavior, develop plans for preventing and responding to problem behaviors, and teach positive replacement behaviors. Caregiver instruction comprises a significant component of hours in the home, and parents who are well-trained can follow through on the behavior plan, even when the therapist is not present. These proactive elements greatly increase the potency of the treatment.

Talking about sex with any child may be uncomfortable. However, modern conversations about sex must go beyond the importance of contraception. We must also consider the pressures of living in an always-connected, technology-driven world, with a heightened political climate and growing reports of sexual misconduct. Just like neurotypical students, students on the spectrum also benefit from an informed, practical approach to sex education. But to truly be effective, this education must be delivered prior to entering college, address problem behaviors and, most importantly, be custom-designed for those who learn differently.

For more information, reach out to Student & Athlete Defense Partners Susan Stone at scs@kjk.com or 216.736.7220, or Kristina Supler at kws@kjk.com or 216.736.7217.