Below you will find answers to frequently asked questions about post-secondary education. These materials were co-written by a group of autistic post-secondary students and graduates as well as The Sinneave Family Foundation.
- Amanda Benson, BA, University of Calgary
- Matt Derraugh, BA, University of Winnipeg
- Patrick Dwyer, PhD candidate, UC Davis
- Laura Gilmour, PhD candidate, University of Alberta
- Katelyn Lowe, PhD, RPsych, The Sinneave Family Foundation
- Joseph Sheppard, MSc candidate, University of Victoria
- Sarah Symonds, The Sinneave Family Foundation
- TC Waisman, PhD, University of Calgary
These materials are based on the lived experience of autistic students and every attempt was made to ensure the language in the course is respectful and age-appropriate.
Young people usually ask themselves what they should do after high school, whether they have a disability or not. When considering enrolling in a post-secondary education or training program, it is important to think about your interests as well as your personal strengths and weaknesses. Every autistic individual is unique. Some people may have excellent grades but struggle to navigate public transit alone. Some people may be ready to live on campus in residence and others may do better attending a college or university program while continuing to live at home. Some individuals on the autism spectrum may choose an apprenticeship in the trades, while others are more interested in pursuing a degree in history, engineering or computer science. If you begin a program, you need to think about how it will prepare you for a career when you finish. Consider that you may also want to continue your studies after completing an under-graduate program by applying to graduate or professional school. Many young adults, including those on the autism spectrum start in one post-secondary program and then change their mind and transfer to a different program that is a better fit for them. This is a normal part of the educational journey for most people.
There are many different programs that you can apply to after high school to continue your education or training. While going to university is one option, there are many other alternatives including certificate and diploma programs, trade and technical schools and community colleges. The advantages of some of these programs is that they are often less expensive and have smaller class sizes.
For example if you are someone that enjoys working with animals, being a veterinarian is not the only option. You could do a two-year diploma that allows you to be a veterinary technician and work alongside veterinarians providing care for animals. If you wanted to train as an electrician you may decide to attend a technical or trade school where you take some classes and write certification exams, but most of your learning in the trades will be on the job gaining your hours of experience in a hands-on way.
There are many choices and it may seem challenging to pick the right one, but this large number of options gives you a better chance of finding something that fits your own strengths.
Whether you are learning online or in-person, post-secondary settings consider you to be an adult and that you are responsible for your own learning. You likely won’t be given assigned homework every day or scolded for daydreaming! In an online setting, you will likely spend more time working independently than when you are in an in-person class, so time management is even more important. Don’t let the lack of daily assigned homework in most classes make you think there is no homework. Overall, a post-secondary environment means more hours spent working overall as the course work is more demanding than high school, but there is usually more flexibility about when you choose to get your work done.
Two skills that will help you be successful in post-secondary are self-motivation and organization skills. Being able to prioritize tasks and assignments, being able to manage your time effectively, and keeping track of notes and assignments are examples of good organizational skills.
In addition to the above skills, it is important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses and seek help when you need it.
You will also need to be a little flexible as it is hard to apply a single set of study rules that will work for all of your courses. For instance, some people say that there is a set amount of time you should spend studying that relates to the amount of time you spend in class (e.g., three hours studying for every hour of class). The reality is, this varies a lot. Some subjects may come easily to you and require less studying and some may require a lot more time than this commonly stated recommendation.
Almost all college or university campuses have support centres for disabled students, as well as individuals with accessibility needs. If you’re looking for the centre on your campus website, it may be called something with the words “accessibility”, “disability” or “student support” in it. Sometimes it is grouped under something such as the Office of the Dean of Students or Student Support Centre. The disability centre website should list some services and contact information.
Most centres provide a range of services for students with diagnosed disabilities. One common service is exam accommodations. For example, a student with a motor disability may be allowed to type long answer questions, or a student who finds it hard to concentrate around lots of people may be able to write in a room alone. Sometimes students need extra time.
Accommodations can also be provided for students in the classroom, such as a sign language interpreter for a deaf student, or note-taking for students who may find it challenging to listen and take notes at the same time.
Sometimes students can also take out equipment loans. For instance, some campuses offer wheelchair or scooter loans for students for a temporary injury such as a broken leg or flare up of a chronic condition.
These centres also offer services for all students on campus, even those without diagnosed permanent disabilities. For instance, any student could have a period of time where they struggle with anxiety, depression and this is not always lifelong. For example, temporary mental health disabilities may happen to students after dealing with a traumatic event such as the death of a relative or being an assault survivor or even academic failure. Most human beings are going to need some form of support at some point in their university career whether they are autistic or not.
During COVID with many campuses utilizing online-only or limited on campus instruction, it is often possible to access many disability services online. For instance some campuses are offering counselling in video calls for students versus coming to the centre in person.
If you or someone you know is suicidal or at risk of hurting themselves or others call the Campus Distress Centre or 9-1-1.
If someone is severely sick or injured, call 9-1-1.
If there is an active threat to your safety or you have witnessed an assault or crime, call Campus Security or 9-1-1.
In an emergency situation, it is usually best to call 9-1-1. On some campuses, there are also Campus Protective Services or Campus Security staff that are appropriate to call in circumstances where there is not an immediate threat to your safety. It may be appropriate to call Campus Security if you witness an act of vandalism (e.g. somebody spray painting a wall). You can the find the phone number for Campus Security on your institutions website, but also on bulletin boards and in bathrooms on campus.
As an undergraduate student, I witnessed somebody urinating on a campus building who was intoxicated. There was not an immediate threat to anyone’s safety but this individual’s presence on campus made me and other students uncomfortable and he was blocking a main entryway. I called campus security and not 9-1-1. Another time, when I saw somebody laying in the middle of a street who appeared injured and disoriented, I called 9-1-1 as this man looked like he needed medical attention and he was in danger of being struck by a car.
On many campuses, counselling and mental health supports are offered through the student health centre. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis you can connect with someone by phone or in-person. It is good to have this contact information with you in case you need it – keep emergency and support numbers in your phone contacts or in your backpack
If you or someone you know is thinking about committing suicide or has a plan to hurt themselves, calling 9-1-1 is best.
Any relationship, whether it is a romantic relationship or a friendship should be consensual. This means that both people involved in the relationship should agree in advance on what is acceptable behavior (affirmative consent) and communicate if they are uncomfortable with something. You always have the right to say no to something you don’t like, even if it is something that seems silly like a lab partner patting you on the back. If you say no and the person continues the behavior, it is inappropriate. The same is true of verbal comments that some people within a group are uncomfortable with, such as men making comments about female classmates’ clothing choices or bodies. If you are in this situation, ask the person to stop and explain that you find the comments or unwanted touch offensive and if it continues, report it to the professor. If it is unable to be resolved within the class, you can talk with someone at the student health centre or the office of student affairs.
In more serious instances, safety can be a concern. For instance, if somebody you just met wants you to go somewhere alone with them, especially at night, you should decline and agree instead to meet in a public place such as for a coffee in a location with other people. In addition, if somebody you just met starts making personal disclosure of past sexual experiences, or makes comments about your body or appearance, it is best to walk away from the situation and (if it occurred on campus) express concerns to campus security if it occurred on campus.
As mentioned in the examples above, if you feel there is an immediate threat to your safety, always call 9-1-1 (e.g. somebody is following you and/or threatening to harm you). In non-emergency circumstances, you should call campus security if it occurs on campus and the police non-emergency number if it occurs off campus are the best choices (e.g. if somebody stole your cellphone or car, it is not an emergency but theft of an expensive item). If you have been a victim of any kind of assault (e.g. beat up or sexually assaulted), you are best to call the police and visit an emergency room or clinic right away so a proper report and investigation can be filed. Changing your clothes or washing yourself can remove evidence that can help law enforcement and health professionals solve the crime.
Some of the main reasons people are concerned about disclosure of a diagnosis of autism to instructors and peers are fears of social stigma and being treated differently. For instance, some people may have heard negative stereotypes about autistic people and judge you before they get to know you as a person, or they might or think that your disability makes you less capable of completing the program than your peers without disabilities. On the other hand, if you choose not to disclose a disability, you may need help with something and people may not realize you need help. For instance you may struggle with figuring out when it is your turn to talk in group work and either interrupt your classmates or say nothing at all. People may perceive you as uninterested in the activity or being rude and pushy versus being a capable student who needs a small amount of prompting with group conversations. A decision to disclose depends on the situation. For instance, in some cases, students may choose to only disclose a disability to the disability support centre so accommodation letters can be provided to instructors which list the specific supports that you require.
Another thing to consider is autistic identity. For instance in the social sciences and humanities, self-identifying as a member of a visible minority when researching that group will make your research more credible than a person who is an “outsider” researching autism who has not lived as an autistic person. In addition, there are some scholarships specifically designed for diverse students, and in some campuses clubs for students with disabilities or other minorities.
In some fields, autistic traits may be considered an extreme version of expected traits in a certain profession and you may be able to pass for an enthusiastic, quirky scientist versus adopting a disability label. For instance attention to detail, ability to do repetitive tasks for hours, and unique ways of looking at things are considered key skills for many STEM fields. In a field such as computer science or engineering, some people on the spectrum may be able to identify as quirky versus choosing to identify as disabled. This is a personal choice and is dependent on both the situation and individual strengths and weaknesses whether you wish to disclose an autism diagnosis and which situations you wish to disclose your autism in.
Everyone wants different things in a friendship. You don’t have to fit the stereotype of clubbing on Fridays and excessive drinking. Lots of different interests and groups exist on a campus. For instance, if you’re part of a small group such as a research lab, you may get to know people in a small group and be able to find if they are a good friendship fit easier than at a large party. There are also several non-academic clubs on campus, both virtually and in person. You will need to explore your campus to see what is offered but many schools have things like fitness and yoga classes, games groups, cultural and interest-based groups and advocacy organizations.
A campus usually has a much larger and more diverse group of people than in a high school, and a wider variety so you are more likely to find like-minded people who share your interests. In addition, you don’t need a large crowd of friends. One or two people you become good friends with on campus is often enough.
Every university campus has their own code of conduct and expectations for behavior. You probably had a code of conduct in high school too – it might have been on your school website and possibly in your student agendas. On university campuses, this code of conduct is usually found via the institution’s website, often on the academic calendar page. Every campus has different policies on certain behaviors. For instance, some campuses say no smoking on campus and some have designated smoking areas.
It is also important to pay attention to rules surrounding plagiarism and academic honesty in the university calendar.
Class instructors may also have different rules in their classes that are not listed on the academic calendar for the whole university. For instance, some instructors may say cell phones are not allowed in classes at all, and some may say phones must be on silent.
In post-secondary, you are expected to take more responsibility for your own behaviour. If you break rules that put other students or staff at risk you may be asked to withdraw. For instance, some students have been asked to withdraw in Canadian post-secondary institutions for making jokes about weapons or sexual assault.
In most cases, if there is a medical reason for behavior or lack of rule-awareness, post-secondary institutions will do their best to help students succeed without endangering other students and staff. Rather than worrying about violations, your best course of action is to be familiar with the code of conduct so that you are less likely to have problems resulting from breaking the rules.
Did you know that plagiarism is not just taking someone else’s work and copying it word for word or having another student write a paper for you? Writing about another person’s ideas without a proper citation is also considered plagiarism. Even if it is a fact that you may have memorized such as the origin of how a certain species of animal is classified, it is still best to give credit to an official source.
In different subjects, there are different ways of referencing sources (also called citing). For instance, in psychology, you may use a format called APA format (American Psychological Association) while in English you may use MLA format (Modern Languages Association). In each course, you should get information in your syllabus about citing sources and each post-secondary institution may have writing centre or a resource on their website. If you are unsure about something, it is always better to email your instructor and ask them for advice.
It is best to have a work area with as few distractions as possible. For instance, if you are working on the computer and find you get distracted by games, you might choose – if you have two computers- to designate one for games and another for work. If you only have the one computer, you might find it useful to set up or have a separate folder for assignments with the games folder tucked far away when working. You may be able to set a timer for a certain amount of time and say you must focus on your work for the duration of the timer, and then allow yourself a timed break to do something you like to do.
A virtual environment does not necessarily mean no interaction or engagement. Platforms such as Zoom have features such as Breakout Rooms for small group discussions and for some autistic students this can be an advantage over trying to work in a group with the classroom background noise.
The best way to make the most of your time while studying is to refer to your syllabus, or more directly your major assignment calendar if you’ve set one up. You can use your calendar to look at which assignments, tests or exams are approaching and how much they’re worth in terms of a percentage of your final grade. As soon as you’ve done this, check your minor assignment calendar and see what can be done and what can be pushed back to accommodate the time you’ll need to spend to complete or prepare for your major task. If it is necessary, ask your professor for an extension on certain assignments if your load from other classes or the time needed for the major assignment at hand makes it difficult to complete everything you need to on time.
There are countless ways to study that depend on what works for you. One commonly used strategy is highlighting key points on your study material. Highlighting is something that should be done only in the preliminary stages of studying and is usually not useful for memorizing large chunks of information. Connecting various concepts in your course curriculum and/or study material can help you to solidly understand all the information at hand. Methods such as flash cards and testing with a study partner can make this even more effective, especially if you switch up your cards and questions and go beyond the concepts you are required to learn. If there’s any information that’s missing from what is given to you, either wait for it to be explained in class or ask your professor or teaching assistant about it over email.
Besides the first and foremost outlet of support in your professor or teaching assistant, there is also the disability services department which you should contact as soon as possible before, or as soon as you start classes. They, along with the student counsellors found in the student services department can serve as a personal outlet for any issues and questions you have and get you the supports and modifications you need in your classes, provided you need any. On a smaller scale, there are also tutors specific to certain departments that can help you better understand your course material and, similarly, writing centres with designated helpers that can assist you in improving your writing skills.
Yes, absolutely. It’s recommended you make an appointment with your academic advisor as quickly as possible so you know exactly what your course requirements and prerequisite (mandatory) courses are. This will prevent you from potentially not graduating in the future because you neglected to fulfill these academic obligations. They can even advise you if you haven’t chosen a specific discipline yet, giving you guidance on areas as broad as the humanities or social sciences. Given that a lot of students work with academic advisors, it would be a good idea to book an appointment with them online instead of risking a long wait at the office.
If you are living away from home, the skills you need will be different depending on whether you choose to live in residence, with a roommate, or on your own. In residence, meals may be provided for students so you may not have to cook meals. However, you will still be expected to have basic house cleaning skills such as sweeping, cleaning bathrooms, organizing your belongings, and doing laundry. If you have a roommate, you may be able to divide up household chores, such as if your roommate hates doing laundry but is better than you and scrubbing floors. However, you will also have the conflict resolution skills to work out small disputes over personal space or division of work. In addition, you will need to negotiate personal space and sharing household items.
If you live in an apartment and not a residence, takeout food can be expensive and unhealthy so you should be able to cook at least a few simple meals from varied food groups (you need some vegetables and not just ramen noodles).
If you are living on or off of campus, you should have some ability to learn to navigate new environments independently, including knowing what to do if you become lost or disoriented. If you are in a town where your family is not nearby for support you should be able to book your own appointments, manage finances, and know how to recognize and respond to emergencies.
Post-secondary expenses can vary a lot. For instance, attending a campus in a town where you live at home with your parents will cost less than if you are also paying rent for an apartment. Some students are able to access student loans, bursaries, or scholarships. Many autistic students in Canada qualify for a federal or provincial study grant for students with permanent disabilities which can help offset some costs. In addition, some students who have high academic or other achievements (e.g. dedicated community volunteers) may qualify for merit-based scholarships.
Tuition costs also vary from province to province and from campus to campus. It also makes a difference where a campus is a public (government funded) post-secondary institution or whether it is a private organization that does not receive funding so they have to charge a higher tuition due to not receiving funding to offset the costs. If you decide to go to post-secondary in another province or outside of Canada, it will cost a lot more than studying in your home province or country. When considering costs, even if living at home with your parents, you have to consider the costs of transportation to campus (e.g., driving a car or travelling on a public transit system).
Costs of food, utilities, and rent will also vary depending on your living situation, even if living home with family.
In the United States, post-secondary costs are not only generally higher than in Canada, but they also vary more from institution to institution. Expensive private colleges can charge many times more in tuition than smaller or public campuses. Due to the size and complexity of the United States, there is probably also more variability in what you will gain from an undergraduate education at different institutions from the United States than you would find in Canada, with some institutions having more resources or at least better reputations than others. This system can be extremely confusing to navigate, however, it is often true that the institution where you finish your program or degree will matter more to your eventual success than the quality of the institution where you start out. For example, you could start out at a small community college with inexpensive tuition with a plan to transfer to a university to finish your undergraduate education, and then plan to transfer to an elite institution for graduate school. Another point to think about is that you might, even as an international student, pay less tuition in some foreign countries than you would at some institutions in your home state.
If you live alone, you need to make sure you get your school work done, but you also need to keep yourself happy and healthy. It is important to eat, exercise, and have activities that relax you that aren’t work. Try not to hyper focus on your work all day while the fruit flies collect around the dishes in the sink and your dog doesn’t get his walk!
If you move to a new town, it is useful to develop a local support network of people you know who live in this area for both emotional support and to help in times of difficulty (e.g. someone to call for a ride if your car broke down, maybe a small social cohort to go for lunch or Sunday dinner.
If weather and conditions in your area allow, try to get some form of exercise daily and spend time outside if you can. Even a walk in your neighborhood is a chance to move your body and get away from screens. In addition, some non-digital home activities are good too, such as crafts, adult coloring books, reading books for pleasure such as your favorite book science fiction author, or sitting in your yard or balcony and observing some wildlife. In some cases, digital environments can also allow for creativity, such as using Photoshop or a virtual world to create a unique digital craft, or learning a skill such as coding for fun. (Coding is also very useful to know in many fields of employment!)
Keep in touch with family and friends who don’t live in town remotely via platforms such as Facetime.
Stressful life events are a natural part of life. First and foremost, it’s important to stop, acknowledge the stressful event that is happening in your life, and take stock of your current level of stress. How is this event affecting you right now? Make sure you are keeping yourself safe and not reacting to the stressful event by behaving in a way that may cause you more stress such as consuming alcohol or yelling at people around you. Stressful life events are a good opportunity to take care of yourself and your needs and learn resiliency skills.
Campuses offer a variety of student wellness supports for medical health and mental health. Approach your campus wellness centre to see a counsellor, join a peer coaching group, join a mental health educational group, or take part in free courses that teach you resilience in the face of adversity. Often, the role of peer support or counsellors is to help students develop self-awareness and build coping mechanisms that capitalize on individual strengths, and to help students realize that even if a situation seems unbearable, that they are capable of coping and getting through it.
If you have positive support networks in your life such as parents, friends, community members, this is a good time to reach out to them to help you understand what you’re going through, normalize your feelings about the stressful event, and help you make decisions if necessary. Take care of your daily needs, be aware of areas in your life that are being affected, and reach out to others for help. We all need help sometimes.
That is a challenging question for any young adult, especially in uncertain economic times. As you go through your program and take classes, don’t just think about the material in your courses but also the skills you are learning. You may be in an honour’s psychology program and doing research with a group of students and professors. You may be in a chemistry class and working alongside a lab partner. Or you may be taking an ethics class and engaging in constructive debate on hot topics like politics. In all of these examples you aren’t just learning things to put on a test, but you are also learning collaboration and teamwork skills that will help you in any job.
Working with professors and other students on projects such as signing up for a summer internship or individual study course will give you career and research experiences that you can add to a resume along with your professor’s name as a work reference. Perhaps most importantly of all, these experiences help build networks of people who can tell you more about how jobs and career trajectories work in your own field.
If you are learning in an online situation, you can find information from field experts on social media (e.g., following your favorite veterinarian on Twitter if you are interested in animal science). Engaging with these experts and asking questions will allow you to both network and learn about careers of interest. Nothing is guaranteed in this world, but your education and the skills learned from it will never go to waste.