May 18, 2012

Leaving The Nest: Tips For Transitioning Into Higher Education

Rebecca Hansen is the Program Coordinator for the College Program for Students with Asperger's Disorder, sponsered by the West Virginia Autism Training Center and located at Marshall University. The college program has been in existance since 2002 and has experienced tremendous success in supporting students with ASD as they earn a college degree.


“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”
~Alan Lakein

Everyone has their own, unique comfort zone, and that comfort zone can come in a variety of forms: a cozy couch, a weighted blanket, a computer screen, or the presence of a friend. Transitioning out of one’s comfort zone, and out of the routines one has established into another activity or stage of life is challenging for everyone. It can be especially challenging for students with Asperger’s Syndrome.

New teachers, new routines and new expectations can bring increased anxiety and stress. And although one can’t plan for all contingencies or anticipate all possibilities, plan we must. A plan – and practical, repetitive practice carrying out that plan – can serve as a strong foundation for when uncertainty and stress enter the picture.
The College Program for Students with Asperger’s Syndrome at Marshall University has been helping rising high school seniors with autism spectrum disorders plan their transition out of high school. For the past five years this 5-week summer program has supported students as they learn to navigate the new lifestyle of higher education, and provides them with an invaluable experience that ultimately eases the transition into college.  Participants learn to effectively manage stress, live more independently, balance free time, advocate for their needs, develop new friendships, and begin building an academic and social reputation necessary for a successful college experience. 
For the past ten years, The College Program for Students with Asperger’s Syndrome has been supporting students as they work towards earning a college degree.  A full-time college lifestyle brings its own challenges of time management, organization, independent living skill development, and decision making.  Having a team of mentors who understand and appreciate culture and needs of individuals on the spectrum can provide a comfortable nest in which students with Asperger’s Syndrome can thrive. Having a mentor to help organize activities and deadlines into a workable plan, be an emotional support for inevitable challenges, help explain unpredictable events and teach  skills necessary to live and work in today’s changing society is an important relationship to establish and maintain during the transition into adulthood. 
Everyone needs support from others.  Leaving the nest is scary. But knowing what to expect, and having a plan in place for when things don’t go according to schedule, can help students with Asperger’s Syndrome be better equipped to live a more independent life.

Below is a list of tips that may be useful during times of transition:
Tips on how to prepare for the transition from high school into college:
1. Begin taking your medication independently.
2. Learn how to use a cell phone and send text messages.
3. Use an online planner to schedule important deadlines/appointments.
4. Organize your bedroom into a dorm-like setting, having a laundry bin, etc.
5. Visit family in other states to learn how to travel independently.
6. Take more responsibility in family chores such as helping plan for and prepare meals.
7. Learn how to balance a checkbook and manage money.
8. Visit several universities and meet with disability support staff to see what resources are available.
9. Take the ACT/SAT with accommodations.
10. Contact your local Division of Rehabilitation Services to see what financial supports are available to support your transition into higher education.
11. Apply for financial aid and seek out scholarship opportunities.
12. Visit your family physician or psychiatrist for medication refills and maintenance.
13. Take ownership of your goals for life after high school and set a plan to reach them.

Tips on how to prepare for the transition into adulthood:
1. Begin volunteering in your community.
2. Try to balance your schedule by incorporating time to have a part-time job.
3. Establish relationships with individuals in your chosen career field to make connections for future employment.
4. Start a professional wardrobe to have ready for job interviews.
5. Meet with career counselors to build a professional resume.
6. Participate in mock interview sessions.
7. Take career assessment tests.
8. Learn and practice effective communication skills to establish good relationships with co-workers and administration.
9. Identify and practice healthy ways to manage stress and learn how to respond to personal set-backs.
The motto of the College Program is “The Sky’s The Limit,” and with effective planning, and proper supports, it truly is.