As the school year comes to an end, parents of children with autism may find themselves anxious about their child's transition to college. In fact, you may be more anxious about it than is your child.
With years of advocating for and supporting your child, you're already a pro at finding resources, understanding accommodations, and planning the broad strokes of the transition. Rather than rehash those, let’s focus on the behavioral, social, and emotional aspects of college that can be particularly challenging for young adults, especially those with autism.
At The Menninger Clinic, we often find that struggles in the following domains can lead to a cascading spiral of anxiety and avoidance, ultimately affecting academic performance and overall well-being:
- Executive function. In high school, kids are usually on a tight schedule with lots of supervision. In college, they have more freedom, and it can be difficult for them to manage the time in between their classes. To avoid a video-games-and-chill spiral, work with your child to develop routines and structure for their days. This doesn't mean every minute needs to be scheduled. Just make sure they have a consistent waking time, time for studying, socializing, and self-care.
- Social support and connection. An important aspect of college is the social experience. In fact, it is often what we old people reminisce about (sorry, Chem Lab or Intro to Philosophy). The bigger college environment can be quite intimidating for students, especially those with social deficits. Encourage your child to find a peer group by joining clubs or organizations that interest them, which can provide opportunities to meet like-minded individuals and develop relationships. Having meaningful social relationships is protective against the difficult experiences that ultimately come our way.
- Emotional coping. Speaking of difficult experiences, please don’t wait until things get rough to have open conversations about mental health and coping strategies. Taking a proactive approach and teaching mindfulness, deep breathing techniques, or progressive muscle relaxation during less stressful times can help promote their use (and benefit) during difficult times. Staying connected with your child throughout their college years can also help ease their anxiety. Schedule regular phone calls or video chats, and plan visits to campus to stay involved in their college experience.
- Independent living. For possibly the first time, your child will have the opportunity and responsibility to manage some new things on their own, including some finances. Figuring out a food budget is one great early opportunity for a young adult to practice managing their own finances. It will be important for you to discuss the expectations you have and help your child make good decisions regarding their spending. While you can encourage healthy eating and lifestyle choices, they ultimately get to choose what they buy or prioritize.
Remember, college is a time for growth and exploration. While it's natural to feel anxious, stay involved and provide support in a way that best suits your child. By providing scaffolding and support, you can help them navigate the challenges of college and emerge as confident, capable adults. So go forth, parents of college-bound kids, and rest easier knowing that you've given your child the tools they need to succeed.
Note: This content originally appeared on Mind Matters from Menninger, our blog on PsychologyToday.com.