Aspergers, College Admissions & the Quirky Factor

Now that Aspergers is a familiar entity, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, it wasn’t.

Fifteen years ago college consultant Allen Tinkler recalls a college disability coordinator asking a group of colleagues—via an email list focused upon colleges and disability services—about “Bergers Disease.”

Like that Facebook relationship status, these days the answer to what a college applicant with Asperger’s should do is, according to Tinkler, “complicated.” That’s because every college is different and so is every student. “Being on the spectrum is by definition synonymous with infinite points in a range so it cannot be one thing and it cannot be easily defined,” Tinkler ventures. “Many kids diagnosed with Asperger’s test well, have good grades and are reasonably able to present themselves in an interview. Those kids merely come across as ‘quirky.’ Many kids, Asperger’s or no, are quirky. I’ve sat in my office with plenty of kids with Asperger’s and unless told about their Asperger’s I really wouldn’t know. They are equipped for college. They are academically prepared. If that’s the case, I think the student is better off not disclosing the diagnosis during the application phase. It’s a more cautious approach, taking that factor out of the admissions equation. Some schools don’t even want to know about a student’s disability during the admissions process.”

His reasoning is this: once accepted, if accommodations are necessary, the prospective student can work with the disability office to see what the college is able to offer and how capable it seems of doing so. He says, “Schools have come a long way and are by and large, much more in the spirit of the ADA standard. Even with the best intentions, some schools are better staffed, trained and equipped than others. After receiving acceptances the student should meet or speak with the disability offices of the schools seriously being considered to see which ones will provide the best services and accommodations meeting the student’s needs.”

If the student’s needs are more severe, Tinkler says that’s another story. “A student’s inability to test well, for example,” he says, “requires explanation. The same is true for a student’s communication skills—if you need to explain why those skills are compromised, disclosure needs to happen up front. The diagnosis is a more important factor if the student will need a specialized program.” He adds, “This is why lumping all students with Asperger’s together with a one-size-fits-all approach makes no sense.”

Tinkler points out that there is much more standardization during K-12 in the United States because federal laws require certain actions. Post-secondary level accommodations are made more due to civil rights laws, and thus there is more variability. While the responsibility—by law—during the K-12 years is success, at the post secondary level, the college’s responsibility is access. The mindset changes and because of this, knowing what’s available and how it meshes with the individual is something the student—and that student’s family—needs to explore before making a decision about where to matriculate.

College consultant Sally Rubenstone took a novel approach with one student. To some schools the student disclosed his Asperger’s, but to others, he did not. The result: the student got into a range of schools, both schools he’d disclosed to and ones he hadn’t—and he was rejected from both schools he’d disclosed to and ones he hadn’t. The value, Rubenstone believes, in this approach really had everything to do with the student’s sense of self. She says, “Had he disclosed … or not disclosed … to the entire roster, he may have always wondered if he’d made the wrong choice. Despite being somewhat nutty, this bifurcated method revealed that whole process is so crazy addressing it this way is probably justifiable.”

Rubenstone says she begins the process of searching for a college with someone who has Asperger’s by addressing the same factors she uses for more “typical” applicants, such as SAT scores and GPA. Beyond admissibility, she says, “We look at size, location, academic offerings, campus climate (weather, politics, and general vibe) to see if the school seems like a good fit … just as I would with any student.” From there, though, depending upon the student, she may add in other factors for consideration, including the schools’ “special needs” services to see how those “mesh with the student’s own needs.” Other logistical matters factor in as well. She offers examples: “How many students share a room … and a bathroom. Is the dining hall noisy?  How many students sit at a table? What sort of supervision is on each dorm floor?  Do students study in their room or in the library? How will the student get to and from college?” She explains, “While these are all issues that every parent might consider, for Asperger’s students and their families, the normal hurdles of daily living may feel higher in some areas than they do for typical teens and will require extra scrutiny.”

In other words, one size does not fit all.

This is why Tinkler’s wary of any lists boasting “good” services for Asperger’s. Blanket proclamations are inaccurate, he believes. He adds, “It’s unfair to inundate a school that way. You can’t lump schools together any more than you can lump kids together.” So, the advice of seasoned advisors goes like this: unless a student needs a specialized program, it’s better to do your searching, pretty much like everyone else.

About the Author ()

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer with a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows. In addition to writing, she has four children: two in high school, one in elementary school and the caboose in preschool. Her work has appeared in Brain Child Magazine, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and numerous anthologies.

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