Autistic students may have difficulty adjusting to college life. College campuses can be large and overwhelming, and the course load heavy. Many individuals with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome have a difficult time completing courses due to executive functioning issues, sensory processing overload, and weak central coherence; however, there may be a solution. Taking college classes online can alleviate some of the obstacles that can appear in the autistic college student’s path.
Autistic individuals tend to have a powerful ability to focus intently on one subject of interest, commonly known as “special interests.” This ability to focus on details can be a huge determining factor in the student’s success, or can be a tremendous distraction because it can be difficult to avert their attention to another topic. When in a college setting the student needs to be self-motivated to shift from one subject to another either when physically switching classes or when needing to study or complete assignments. Problems arise because many autistic students have difficulty shifting activities.
Place Blindness: Always Lost
It is common to become lost during your first few weeks on campus, but for some autistic students being lost on campus can be a permanent affair. One wrong turn, walking out of a building through a different door, or parking a car in a different spot outside the school building can completely disorient an autistic person to their surroundings. This phenomenon is known as “place blindness.”When a student is experiencing place blindness their settings a once a small change like parking in a different spot leaves can leave them literally “lost.” Continually feeling lost can cause feelings of anxiety and panic, as well as, feeling strange, weird, and stupid for not being able to find your way to the classroom after many weeks at school. It can also account for multiple tardies, and missed classes making academic success difficult.
The enormity of a college campus, amount of people, and feelings of being lost can quickly become overwhelming. There is a lot of sensory stimuli coming at these students simultaneously which they do not process like neuro-typical students. By the time the student navigates through the school and arrives at the class they can already be overloaded by the stimuli in the environment making it difficult to concentrate in classes without first needing time to decompress. Live classes do not afford this much needed decompression time.
Time to Absorb Information
My mind needs time to absorb information, meaning that I need to get the information and then mull it over and process it. Sometimes this is a lengthy process, but without this much needed time it can be difficult to absorb information. Reading comprehension in particular can be affected resulting in the need to re-read class material multiple times—a frustrating, and time-consuming effort.
It can be difficult to concentrate on a subject for a sustained amount of time especially if the subject is of no interest. Interest is the key to learning for autistic students; however, to complete a college education many “uninteresting” classes need to be completed. Sustaining focus on these subjects can be difficult, and a student may do better with shorter semester lengths.
Focusing on More than One Subject at a Time
It takes approximately 40 three credit classes to complete a bachelor’s degree. If you take one class per semester in a tradition college setting (including summer semesters), you can only complete three classes per year. Completing a degree in this fashion would take more than 13 years. What can an autistic student, who has difficulty focusing on more than one subject at a time, do? These students can try to take multiple classes (some have no problem doing so) or they can find a school with shorter but more semesters per year.
Can Online College be a Solution?
An autistic student will likely have difficulty navigating social situations. When coupled with the executive functioning, place-blindness, and focus issues social interaction can become impossible. An online school would allow the student to control his/her environment, work at their own pace processing information in a way that is right for their learning style. It allows conversation between teachers and peers to be written/typed/emailed allowing for enough time to process information and formulate responses.There will be no getting lost on your way to class because all your classes can be done right from your home computer or laptop, no need to be on time or follow a difficult schedule. You can even work on a degree part time at some schools by only taking one class at a time, and it will not take 13 years to finish. Some schools, like Southern New Hampshire University, have six semesters per year in contrast to the traditional three semesters, making the semesters shorter (albeit more intense) but allowing you to focus intently on one or two subjects at a time.
Obtaining a college degree online is a lot of work, and may not be the right solution for everyone. It takes discipline, self-motivation, and a drive to succeed. However, if you are a student with some of the difficulties that are listed above finding an online school can be a good choice.