Why Are Autistic Students Being Pushed Out Of College Housing?

My problems at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, began as a freshman, when I went to the Wellness Center to check out a routine physical ailment — and ended with me getting kicked out of the dorms.

While at the center that ultimately fateful day, I made awkward small talk with a nurse about how I wasn’t getting along with my roommate; she in turn brought in the Student Support Coordinator, who promptly got me a single room.

Then things went downhill.

Under intimidation and duress, I signed paperwork that gave the Coordinator permission to speak about my medical and wellness status, and she shared my situation with the then-Associate Dean of Students. Soon, they began to hold meetings with me to discuss what I was doing “wrong” in the dorms: I stayed up too late at night and drank too much coffee. I paced around in the dorms — in silence, not causing a disturbance — at odd hours of the night and “made people uncomfortable” (never mind what other students were doing in the hall at those hours — it was fine for them to be awake, just not me). I was emotionally distressed and bothered the RA too much, and was too reliant on the RA to deal with my emotions. No one in the dorm told me of these issues themselves, so these meetings were the first I’d heard of them.

Looking back, I can see why there was concern about my inclination to frequently knock on the RA’s door and ask for support that the RA had no training to give. But no one worked with me to solve any actual issues. They just gave me a “behavior plan” that set me up to fail. The moment I violated one item on that plan — knocking on the RA’s door and talking to the RA more than once a week — they kicked me out of the dorms. Even after letting me return my sophomore year, they required a therapist’s approval, and they continued to hold meetings and demand my mother’s presence during those sessions into my junior year.

These issues manifested in large part because I am autistic. This is hardly a unique experience.

Indeed, when I conducted an informal survey of autistic college students, and talked to Julia Bascom, Deputy Executive Director at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), I began to recognize just how extensive this problem is in college housing programs across the country.

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According to Disability Rights California, schools must “make accessible housing available in a number of housing options, so that students with disabilities have housing opportunities equal to those of students without disabilities.” If non-disabled students have opportunities to, for example, live in campus-owned apartments, then disabled students should ideally have the same opportunities.

And yet, as Bascom confirms, many autistic students find themselves pushed out of student housing due to a lack of accessibility and support. These issues can be rooted in people not understanding autism, or in not identifying students as autistic, due to misdiagnosis, a lack of diagnosis, or the student not disclosing. (In my case, the college was aware of my autism, but ill-equipped to offer sufficient support.)

One time as I paced in the halls, someone accused me of stealing a letter they had put in the RA’s dropbox. Many survey respondents said students had complained about them to RAs or administrators. One student that responded to my survey, Rachel*, moved rooms twice while a sophomore because hallmates complained to the Dean of Students about “odd” behavior.

Often, people don’t understand the specific sensory needs of autistic students. As the National Autistic Society notes, “Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. These sensory differences can affect behavior, and can have a profound effect on a person’s life.”

Courtney, who lived in the dorms for one year, reported that “the fluorescent lights induced panic attacks, and there was not a quiet place to study.” Olivia had a similar experience, stating, “The community isn’t very sensorily inclusive . . . and I end up isolated more often than not because the community isn’t intentional with all community members.” Sara stated that “noise levels were loud” and isolation and ostracization occurred, causing an “extremely negative impact.”

Even though disabled students are required to have the same housing opportunities as non-disabled students, in practice, this does not always happen. One option that is supposed to serve autistic students is a medical hall draw, which allows students with disabilities and medical needs to receive a room that best suits them. But Rachel said that “I was forced to choose between [the main] housing draw — which was chaotic and difficult — and only having a choice between two rooms in the medical hall draw.”

While no student who responded to my survey had been denied a medical single outright, Courtney said that because it cost extra for a single, it was unaffordable, which effectively made it impossible to live in.

Outright discrimination also occurs against those with disabilities, be they developmental, like autism, or intellectual in nature. In one high-profile case, a student named Micah, who has an intellectual disability, was refused on-campus housing entirely due to what the university called its “policy” regarding the definition of a degree-seeking student. A judge later ruled that the university made its decision based on “prejudice, stereotypes, and/or unfounded fear of persons with disabilities,” and ordered the university to let Micah move into the dorm.

Problems may also be compounded by additional biases. Two survey respondents, Haley and Percy, said their roommates had issues with them being autistic — and in Percy’s case, also with them being transgender.

There is a theme in all this: inaccessible environments, isolation, hostility, and lack of understanding by RAs and administration. According to a report by the Association for the Study of Higher Education in 2013, “students with disabilities may feel invisible on college campuses.” A solution to this, said ASHE, is social change in how disabled students are viewed.

It’s a change that colleges are struggling to make . . . but for tangible and significant reasons, the change must happen.

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It’s not difficult to discern why all this matters: College is a stepping stone that allows many people to make career connections and build a social network — and, Bascom says, “disabled people need to be included in that.” While students can hypothetically find their own alternate housing if they’re not accommodated by a college, the reality, according to Bascom, is that students pushed out of housing often end up having to leave the university entirely.

This is especially troubling when you consider how difficult it is for autistic people to attend college in the first place, and the impact this can have on their adult lives. According to the National Autism Indicators report (downloadable here), “Over one-third of young adults [with disabilities] were disconnected during their early 20s, meaning they never got a job or continued education after high school. Young adults on the autism spectrum had far higher rates of disconnection than their peers with other disabilities.” The report also indicated that only 36% of autistic people attended any form of secondary education after high school. Only 58% of autistic people acquired a job for pay outside of the home after high school, and it took longer to find those jobs.

Bascom says that access to higher education is still considered a new thing for people with disabilities. Because of this, data is scant, making information on best practices surrounding the social inclusion of autistic students scant as well.

That said, there are some promising measures in place. The Disabled Students’ Program at UC Berkeley has a list of recommendations for accessible events. Another guide from an ASAN project, “Accessible Event Planning,” can be found here. These guides do not cover autism specifically, but they do cover a wide range of accessibility needs for all students with disabilities — including sensory needs and what people with different cognitive traits may need.

And what do autistic people suggest as solutions for problems with college housing? I would recommend RA trainings on how to accommodate autistic students, with input from autistics. I would also have liked to have access to sensory-inclusive events (for instance, events that are scent-free, feature low noise levels and non-fluorescent lighting, and are not too crowded) and social support. Social support would not mean forcing people to hang out with the autistic student, but rather supporting the autistic student to approach people and find clubs, organizations, and activities they have interest in.

Along the lines of social support and inclusion, Bascom notes that “for student leaders, that commitment to inclusion is important,” and student leaders — such as RAs — also need a “commitment to building a relationship” with autistic students, and to socially support autistic students “to access what they want. [Social support is] an access need that can be accommodated.” When student leaders practice inclusion, others follow suit.

Rachel’s wish was for university leadership that listened more. Courtney stated that disabled students should not have to pay more for singles, and that there should be a quiet study lounge and noise restrictions in the hallways. Sara offered the idea of restrictions on loud partying in the dorms. Valerie talked about less crowding and support for moving in and out. Haley wanted RAs who would understand autistic students more, and enforce quiet hours. Olivia talked about having sensory-friendly events, and RAs that understood sensory issues and autism. Percy said enforced quiet hours and RAs that checked in via email or text would help.

Bascom notes that “individually tailored supports are key” to autistic students’ success, and that colleges should have a “library of options” to prepare for autistic students’ needs. These could include accommodations such as no roommates, RA training, and advance warning of fire drills. It is better for the colleges to be prepared — they can offer these options to students right off the bat.

Autistic college students can successfully live on campus. But from my own experience, I know all too well that this can’t happen without the right supports.

*Survey respondents were not required to provide a last name or college location, for privacy reasons.

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Lead image: Wikimedia Commons