The Panicked Phone Call

I often receive calls from parents trying to help their autistic young adults get back on their feet after failing out of college. While the specifics may be different, then general pattern is the same: the student had a successful high school career and matriculated into a competitive college; at some point during the first semester the student’s grades begin to slip and their anxiety levels begin to rise; the student comes home for winter break and, after much soul-searching, the family decides that the student should not go back to school.

The Pattern

This pattern is so common that we can even predict when it will begin – typically around 6-8 weeks into the fall semester of freshmen year. Even though the pattern is predictable, it is also preventable. For many students, focusing on improving their college readiness in high school allows them to skip this freshmen year fall out and successfully complete college.

Succeeding in college, in general, is not always so easy. Only about 60 percent of full-time undergraduates receive a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of beginning college at a four-year institution. However, it might surprise you to learn that it is MUCH harder to succeed in college if you are a student with autism. How much harder? One study based on national data suggests that less than 40 percent of autistic college students will graduate.  Let me repeat that: less than 40 percent of autistic students who attend college will graduate.


Because college isn’t just about the classes. It’s also a significant shift in independence, time management and environment.

Many autistic students lack the social, organizational, and life skills to manage the level of independence and the lack of structure they find at college. Heading to college also can mean leaving behind familiar support systems. The stress of these non-academic (and ever-present) aspects of the college experience can make it harder to focus on academics. Lack of academic focus can lead to poor grades. Poor grades can increase stress even further. Once this vicious cycle gets going it can be very difficult for students to pull themselves out of it, especially without access to familiar supports. The results can be devastating.

So how can you increase the chances that your autistic high school student will succeed in college? You can start having conversations about the unique challenges college will bring and begin to arm your student with tools and skills to meet these challenges.

Don’t know where to begin? We’ve created a conversation guide to help parents of high school students have these tough but important conversations. We also have custom College Readiness packages for high schoolers to help prevent freshman year fall out. Let’s chat and see what’s best for your student.