Autism Spectrum and Online College

by Bobby Rich

Updated September 7, 2021 • 6 min read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Online colleges provides a viable alternative to the traditional college experience for students on the autism spectrum whose learning needs and abilities can take many forms. Many high-functioning students go on to great success in college and in careers. However, the traditional, on-campus college experience can present a number of challenges unique to those on the autism spectrum. For individuals who struggle with attributes such as sensitivity to sensory stimuli, social anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder, the traditional college atmosphere can create unneeded learning obstacles.

Online college provides a viable alternative to the traditional college experience, one that allows students to earn an online degree in virtually any field from a familiar and controlled environment. And with advancements in legislation for students with disabilities, the learning accommodations and resources available to online college students are greater and more advanced than ever. This result is a host of new and accessible learning opportunities for students on the autism spectrum. The following article identifies key accommodations that can provide students with the best online college experience possible.

Advocacy groups and support resources are available for students with all types of disabilities, both general and specific. To learn more, check out Learning Accommodation Resources and Advocacy Groups

And for more on how disability legislation can impact your student experience, check out Key Legislation Impacting Students with Disabilities.

Or read on for a closer look at the new and exciting ways that learning accommodations and assistive technologies are creating learning opportunities for students on the autism spectrum:


Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, disability accommodations have become increasingly commonplace in public setting. But these accommodations aren’t limited to on-campus students. Most accredited online colleges also provide a full selection of accommodations and benefits in accordance with the law, including:.

1. Additional time

Additional time is a commonly-issued accommodation for students both online and on-campus. Everyone learns differently, and everyone tests differently too. While the time limit on an exam may be a non-issue for some, the resulting pressure and testing conditions may pose a real problem for some on the autism spectrum. Depending on how you learn and process information, a given time limit may prevent an exam from accurately measuring your understanding of a subject. Fortunately, additional time for exams is a common accommodation, which many professors are happy to provide after once you’ve made an official request through the disability resource center at your college or university.

2. Advanced notice and early access

Some professors may give you all course materials and a complete schedule of exams and assignments at the beginning of the semester. However, not all professors do this. If you feel you need or could benefit from advanced notice or access to materials, many professors are fine to offer this, provided you have a documented request and that doing so does not fundamentally alter the curriculum.

3. Alternative completion options

Because of differences in how some students on the autism spectrum learn and process information, some assignment formats may not be ideal for demonstrating subject comprehension. Class presentations, for example, can be especially problematic if you are prone to sensory overload or social anxiety. Alternative completions options are often available. Just be sure to discuss these options with your professor early on in the semester.

4. Counseling and therapy services

Adjusting to the demands and workload of full-time college enrollment can be an anxiety-filled experience. Fortunately, many colleges offer free counseling services for students that address a wide array of concerns and issues. If your college does not offer its own counseling services, they will likely offer partnered services through an external counseling office.

5. Disability resource center

If your spectrum-related conditions are likely to impact your learning or college experience, start with a visit to your college’s disability resource center. With proper documentation, you can identify your condition and work with counselors to lock the proper learning accommodations into place. Disability resource centers can also connect you with support communities and networks, scholarships and grants, and counselors who can act as advocates for your rights as a student.

6. Online library services

Online library services are a great resource for students who prefer the comfort and control of working and researching remotely. Here, you can set up an online chat or video call with a research librarian who can guide you through the archives and databases. If you need to access a book that is in the library, you can request digital document delivery and have it scanned and sent to you as a PDF (which can be very useful when combined with text-to-speech software). If your library doesn’t have what you need, you can request an inter-library loan, which can give you access to books all over the world from your own home.

7. Online tutoring services

Everyone needs help sometimes; it’s okay to ask for it. Online colleges offer online tutoring services in a wide range of subjects, as well as writing assistance. If you need help studying or developing a plan, or if you’re not feeling confident in your writing skills, online tutoring services can help you through chat or video conference options.

Support Groups and Resources

Your college isn’t the only place you should look for assistance. There are numerous national groups dedicated to making sure your needs are met and your rights are respected. Below are a few.

  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network
    Founded in 2006 to counteract the lack of autistic voices in autism advocacy, ASAN champions autonomy and empowerment. It provides numerous resources designed to enable autistic individuals to advocate for themselves, including books, videos, reports, and advocacy projects.
  • National Center for College Students with Disabilities
    For college students, by college students, the National Center for College Students with Disabilities meets the needs of those pursuing higher education while facing unique challenges. The NCCSD provides resources and advocacy services, as well as a national community of students in similar settings, many of whom are dealing with similar issues.
  • College Autism Spectrum
    College Autism Spectrum provides numerous services designed to aid students on the autism spectrum in the pursuit of education. In particular, the group provides college counseling for help with picking a college and making the transition from high school, as well as support services like education in time management, developing social skills, and teaching self-advocacy.
  • College Autism Network
    A relatively new organization, College Autism Network (CAN) has provided advocacy and resources for college students with autism since 2014, including helpful college guides.

Resources for Advocates

Whether you are a caretaker, parent, or teacher of a student on the autism spectrum, advocacy can make a world of difference in your student’s outcomes and achievement, especially if they have trouble advocating for themselves. Below are a few resources that can help, no matter the situation.

  • Appyautism
    Created by iAutism, Appyautism is a web project that provides a curated and frequently updated list of apps, software, and devices that serves the assistive needs of those on the autism spectrum. It also offers articles and publications.
  • Autism Now
    Part of The Arc of the United States, Autism Now provides resources for advocates and caretakers of individuals across the autism spectrum and in all stages of life. It includes publications and research, a digital newsletter, and call center, and regular summits.
  • National Autism Association
    The National Autism Association seeks to advance the quality of living of those living on the autism spectrum through advocacy, research, education, and tools. It offers numerous educational programs and publications, as well as a blog, store, and other resources.
  • US Autism Association
    The US Autism Association provides resources and advocacy services for individuals on the autism spectrum in all walks of life. Of particular interest in the US College Autism Project, designed to provide support for those in college, or those making the transition from high school.

If you’re interested in a career helping indivdiuals manage conditions on the autism spectrum, consider starting with a degree in special education:

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