If you are the parent of an autistic or other special needs child, you may never have imagined that college was a possibility. WIth all the academic and social challenges facing college students, not to mention the cooking, cleaning, and other life skills needed to live independently, any parent might doubt that their child is ready for the experience. However, a college diploma may not be so far off! Helping special needs students gain the skills they need for independent living and learning is the goal of a rapidly expanding  program called the College Living Experience.

The toughest obstacle facing autistic and other special needs students is adjusting to life as an independent individual, says Beth Phillips of the College Learning Experience (CLE). “The biggest challenge facing autistic students is learning to manage their life independently. High school is very structured. When they go to college, they'll have maybe three classes, and a lot of free time. Students have difficulty structuring their time and using that time effectively.”

Good time management skills are just one of the many services offered by CLE, which runs a comprehensive support system for special needs college students at each of its six U. S. locations. The program operates around three basic focus points: academics, independent living, and social skills. On top of attending regular college classes, students receive academic support in the form of multiple tutoring sessions each week. They also have their own apartments, and are coached in day-to-day life skills such as balancing a checkbook and preparing a meal. Social skills activities include outings to the bowling alley or the movies, as well as interest groups formed by students themselves.

Although learning to live independently is the major challenge faced by CLE students, Phillips says that it’s the parents, not their kids, who often have the hardest time adjusting. “Let us be the ones who work with your children,” she urges, “the goal is to allow students to become independent.”

Helping special needs students become independent means giving them the skills to fend for themselves. However, Phillips reminds parents that being supportive is still the number one priority. Letting go could be the best thing for your family, although it may also be the hardest. By learning to live life apart, both you and your child will grow stronger, together.