Prepping Your Teen for College


All contents of this resource were created for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, therapist, or other qualified health providers with any questions or concerns you may have.

Yes, college is a real possibility for many with autism. My daughter is a senior in high school this year and we’ve just begun the hunt for schools and scholarships. First word of advice? Start when your child is in 10th grade! Get to know the school guidance counselors and find out when the deadlines are for tests, clubs (like National Honor Society) and all the other things that makes a child look “well-rounded” on their college applications. Most of the same stuff you’d need for a child without ASD is the same stuff you will need for a child with ASD – grades, letters of recommendations, SAT and ACT results, admissions essays, clubs and leadership experience and money – lots of money!

SAT and ACT tests are necessary for most colleges in the US today but if your child has either an IEP or 504 plan that state he or she can have extra time for test taking in school, you can apply for extended time for the SAT or ACT. Each company has an application and information online to explain the process. Know that just having a diagnosis is NOT enough to qualify. ACT and SAT are not under IDEA so your child has to meet the much stricter criteria of ADA laws – Does your child need accommodations to ACCESS the test? Longer test times to get a higher score are not the same thing. Their criteria is meant only to allow the test taker access to take the test, regardless of their score.

For us, we decided to move to the college that my daughter would be attending since while she was able to do the academic work, her Asperger’s Syndrome left her with deficits in social and self-care issues that would very likely hinder her ability to keep up with the academics. But as a single parent of two kids with ASD, I had to weigh colleges not just for their programs, but also the state services for my more affected child who was 2 years younger.

We began assessing her abilities and what fields she would likely excel in given her strengths. She took a number of “vocational aptitude” tests and they all said the same thing – engineering. At least we had a place to start. She then enrolled in several classes in 11th grade that would give her a feel for basic engineering programs. She excelled in those classes, getting top grades, which was great. I sat down with her teachers alone after each semester and had a frank discussion with them to ask “Is she really geared for this field?” “What else might she be geared for, given what you’ve seen when working with her?” And “What classes should she take next if this is the right field for her?”

I feel she was fortunate to have these teachers who understood her disability in the way it presented itself in the classroom, and her 504 plan compelled the teachers to have weekly contact with me so that I could make sure she was on task. As an aside, I’d like to tell parents that a 504 plan is only as good as its enforcement. Making sure the teachers do their part is equally as important as your child doing their part in completing their work, and your job is to make sure everyone else is doing their part!

Here is a tidbit of information you will need – high school guidance counselors have access to a program that contains details about every college in the USA, all searchable and sortable by major, program, state, co-op and a gazillion other criteria that will make your college search much easier!

College Co-Op Programs

Since many ASD kids learn better doing than reading, there is a program called a Cooperative Jobs Program that you may want to look into. About 500 colleges and universities in this country now offer co-op programs, involving 300,000 students in real-world job experiences. Generally beginning in the sophomore year, students work part-time and go to school part-time. Participating colleges will have a program office to help students find and secure in-field co-op jobs, and the hours they work count as credits toward their degree. The student maintains full-time status benefits, gets paid and gains invaluable real-world work experience in their field. Because the student also gets paid, unlike a post-graduation internship, that money can be used to pay tuition – helping the student leave college in less debt, or debt-free.

“The average co-op student graduates with 18 months of experience from time spent in five to seven paid positions. That’s more than impressive to potential employers, and it’s the reason why more than 60 percent of co-op students nationally accept permanent jobs from their co-op employers. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 95 percent of co-op students find jobs immediately upon graduation.” National Commission for Cooperative Education

A Note About SSI and Co-op Earnings

If the co-op job is considered “substantial gainful activity,” your child may not be approved for SSI. The case could be made that a co-op position is not sustainable, at least during college, because you have to quit it when the semester ends. However if the person is already getting SSI at the time she starts the co-op job, whether that work is “SGA” is not material. Therefore, the person must be getting SSI prior to the co-op job starting. Since the eligibility criteria are different for SSI than it is for Medicaid or school-based services, the child may not even be medically eligible for SSI.

Job Shadowing

Not all kids know what they want to be when they grow up, I know I still don’t! One helpful, free, way to help find out is called job shadowing. Your high school guidance office should have someone on staff to help you find opportunities, but I found most of the ones my daughter did just by searching online and even found some by walking around town. And more often, one job shadowing led us to another one, referred by one of the people she just shadowed so that’s always an important thing to ask before you leave.

Basically, I just called up companies and asked for their Human Resources department, or with small companies, I asked for the owner. I explained that my daughter was interested in engineering but with so many fields of engineering, we needed to narrow them down to make an informed decision. I asked if she could come and spend an hour or two with each type of engineer they had at their firm to see what they do. Most engineers spent about 1-2 hours with my daughter, showing her the projects they were working on, samples of what they normally do, what systems they use, and one even took her out to see several current projects in the field. For larger companies, she spent a full day there and shadowed 4-6 types of engineers throughout the day. For smaller companies, she only shadowed 2-3 engineers over 2-3 hours. While she was there, she used the questionnaire we created below for every type of engineer:

Shadowing Questionnaire

  • Name of occupation
  • What are your duties and responsibilities?
  • What are the responsibilities of your department?
  • How are computers used in this career?
  • What type of training or education will I need to get a job in this career?
  • Why did you decide to do this type of work?
  • What do you like most about your job?
  • What do you like least about your job?
  • Will there be many jobs like yours in the future? Why?
  • What is the typical salary range for someone in your job? Entry level; mid-level; top level
  • What are the typical benefits offered in this occupation?
  • What physical demands does this occupation require? (long periods of sitting/standing, lifting, climbing, stoop/bend/kneel regularly, regularly lift 50+ pounds, etc.)
  • What are the working conditions in this occupation? (indoor, outdoor, cold/heat, wet/humid; noisy; hazards, other)

My daughter later used this learning experience in her college essays, made valuable contacts for future internships and letters of recommendation, and even learned about a scholarship for female engineers from a female engineer she shadowed.

Please remember that these professionals, who often bill out at $100 per hour or more, took valuable time out of their day to help your child so always send thank you notes after your visit. It’s also a great idea to bring donuts if coming in the morning, or pizza if coming in the afternoon.

College Scholarships and Funding for Kids with Autism

The main places you will find autism/disability-specific college scholarships and funding are:

  • Vocational Rehabilitation is a national governmental program that can cover education and related costs.
  • SSI’s PASS Plan
  • The college your child gets accepted to will also give you a list of available scholarships based on your criteria through the financial aid office
  • Your regional autism support and referral organizations
  • Your high school guidance counselor’s office library
  • The public library
  • Some states have funding for higher education within their department of disability

Colleges with On-Campus Support for Children with Autism

More and more colleges have on-campus support or programs for children with ASD.

A word about SSI and rules about working while receiving benefits for people with ASD

SSI is not guaranteed for all people with a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s. The criteria say “If the person is able to work at “substantial gainful activity” s/he will not be able to qualify for SSI”. A medical determination that their disability prevents substantial gainful work would need to be made first.

If the person does qualify to receive SSI and is working, even part-time, there is a “student earned income exclusion” that could apply to earnings – with or without a PASS plan. A PASS plan could help if the earnings exceed the student exclusion as well. You may also consider using a Special Needs Trust to hold earnings to be exempted from SSI where possible.


PASS Plan is a temporary plan to help people get training or education to begin or go back to work. SSI’s PASS Plan is similar to an IEP in that it’s person-driven to their goals. To apply for a PASS Plan, two things must be in place – the person must be eligible for SSI and have either assets or income which will fund the PASS Plan. Basically, the PASS Plan acts as an income/asset waiver during education or training and can allow a limited time for job searching. The person’s own income or assets fund the PASS Plan while still keeping the person eligible for full SSI payments, rather than having their payments lowered or removed during the education/training.

As an example, a person with ASD who wants to go to college can use a PASS Plan to waive income earned, or assets owned, during the training or education time and possibly during the job search after training. Without a PASS Plan, the new income or assets would either disqualify or reduce the amount of SSI payments the person would receive, so the PASS Plan would waive those and the person would receive full SSI benefits during the length of the PASS Plan and use the income or assets to fund it. The PASS Plan can be used to cover the cost of transportation, living expenses, tuition and many other things related to the training or education.

Office of Vocational Rehabilitation

OVR is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration. Each state makes a matching contribution. OVR can pay for education and training programs, driving evaluations and training, therapies, job counseling and searching, assistive technology and many more programs or services as needed on an individual basis to obtain meaningful employment.

A parent and/or a person with a disability can fill out the referral form online in some states, or contact the local VR office for information on how to apply. Once your application is received, you will be given an appointment with a counselor to complete an intake interview which includes a Financial Needs Test. Individuals whose income exceeds the Financial Needs test may have to pay a small portion out of their pockets for the services rendered. If the applicant has been found disabled by the Social Security Administration, they will be “presumed” to be eligible. Services for individuals receiving Social Security disability are provided at no charge. A person-centered plan is developed to list all the things they need for them to accomplish the plan. The OVR counselor will explain what programs are available in the specific geographic area that address the person’s needs and may include many funding streams.

If the applicant is under 18 and does not have SSI and the parents income exceeds the cutoff (which varies by state), the parent would pay a fraction of the cost for OVR’s services. The cost will depend on what services are provided.

OVR is the payer of last resort, so if the applicant has insurance, any therapy would have to be billed through insurance first. It’s the same with college funding – a parent completes the FAFSA, then the state determines how much the state and federal government would pay, then the scholarships or grants would be deducted and what is left is what OVR could cover.

Eligibility criteria vary by state. Some states are called “order of selection” states and they have a higher eligibility criteria than others. In these states an applicant would need to meet 3 or more, rather than 2 or more, of the 7 eligibility criteria to receive services. You can call your local OVR office and ask if your state is an “order of selection state”.

This site lists the state programs with contact information for OVR.

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