Seven strategies when your child with autism leaves for college

Author: Daniel W. Driscoll ’97M.Div.

When our firstborn was very young, my wife and I knew something was different about him. Focused at a young age on the written word, Paddy had read more books by his 10th birthday than I had when I graduated from college. His photographic memory was startling.

Yet socially he was quirky. Adults enjoyed him and were impressed by his knowledge, but his peers weren’t necessarily drawn to him. He was very rules-focused, so playing games was only fun if we followed every rule exactly. He needed the security of order, which was not always easy in a family such as ours, where the fourth child was born when the first was still 3 years old.

When he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, it was a bit of a relief. It named for us some of the things we knew, and it gave us a way to approach him. It also gave us a community for support, whether face-to-face, online or through the books we were reading on autism.

When our son began looking at colleges, we again sought community wisdom by reading about college and autism, and checking with friends who had been through this before us. Midway through our son’s first semester, I am are far from claiming expert status but can offer a list of seven ways to love your children with autism into the first year they are away at college.

Believe them when they say this is the college for them. You think you know better. You think you have more insight into what they need, and it’s likely you do, but listen. It matters.

Trust them to figure out where their classrooms are, where and when to eat, how to find personal items at the local pharmacy, etc. They are capable of more than you know. Yes, they will miss classes, sleep through breakfast, run out of deodorant. That’s all part of the process.

Let them fail. It is possible this will be the first time they have complete control over every aspect of their learning. They might need to find out that adjustments are required, and nothing screams “Adjust!” like the first experience of failing.

*Introduce yourself * to the residence hall staff. You don’t necessarily need to call them during the semester, but meeting face-to-face on check-in day helps. When feeling stress later, you can take heart in the fact that your child is living on a floor with such a responsible RA.

Do the research. For a child with autism, find out what the Office of Disabilities provides. Are there accommodations that would help? Other services? Know what they are, and then be sure your child knows also.

Anticipate your child’s quirkiness. Be the one to think ahead. It didn’t occur to us that Paddy would not be able to tolerate food in the same room where he sleeps until October, when we found the very same food in the mini-fridge that we put there in August. He couldn’t ride his bike (in his reasoning) because he hadn’t yet registered it with the University. We could have foreseen these things.

Remember that you parented with love. Trust that your love outweighs your failings and your mistakes. Your child’s own mistakes might be numerous; there might be times when you feel helpless. But parents’ work is to prepare the ground for our children. Where and how they finally take root is dependent on many things, but the love that prepared the ground for them is our contribution and will be their most fertile soil.

For those whose children are not on the autism spectrum, my list of seven ways to love your child into the first year of college is the same.

Daniel W. Driscoll ’97M.Div. is co-founder and head of school at Good Shepherd Montessori School in South Bend.