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College Admissions Testing and Autism


This contribution is from Parent Advocate/Trainer Nancy Popkin.

Back when my son was diagnosed with autism, I couldn’t imagine him going to college, let alone surviving his school years. But here we are, sixteen years post diagnosis, with a high school graduate who is now a college freshman. If college is in your child’s future, now is a good time to start planning. There are so many steps along the road to college for anyone and the path is more circuitous for someone with an autism spectrum disorder, but here I want to address one step along the way, college admissions testing.

Possible Standardized Tests
Most colleges today require students to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of the application process. These tests are administered by the College Board and the ACT (formerly American College Testing Program), respectively. In addition, some students with autism diagnoses may be taking AP (Advanced Placement) Exams, also administered by the College Board. But even before your child takes his/her first SAT or ACT, there is the PSAT/NMSQT. If your child is following the standard course of study and working toward a Future-Ready Core Diploma Track, they will most likely have their first exposure to college testing with the PSAT in October of the tenth grade year.

The test will be administered by your child’s high school, but here’s the catch: your child’s testing accommodations, as outlined by the IEP, do not automatically apply to the PSAT or subsequent standardized tests. There are steps you must take, beyond the IEP to assure that your child has testing accommodations for the PSAT and any other College Board tests that will follow. The same is true for the ACT. To learn more about the testing accommodation process, what documentation is required, and the timing for applying, check here for the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams,  and here for the ACT.

For the most part, there is someone, either a school counselor or testing coordinator, who applies for the testing accommodations for your child. Your child’s EC teacher should be able to tell you who this is at your school. I would encourage parents to be proactive and contact this person in 9th grade to get this process started rather than waiting for them to contact you. The accommodation application needs to be submitted seven weeks or more before the test your child will take. So if you are planning for the PSAT administration in tenth grade, the end of August is the latest you should be filing for testing accommodations. Even earlier is better as sometimes the College Board will request more documentation before granting some of the accommodations, so time for this further submission should be provided.

Some more unusual accommodations may not be approved. One accommodation my son had on his IEP was to take all tests in pencil (some of his teachers required essays in pen). We applied for this accommodation well in advance of the AP US History exam (also administered by College Board) but it was denied. This gave us time to demo tons of different types of pens and have him practice writing with the best one so he could pull off the essay (he did great).

Once the accommodations are set, you will not need to reapply for each test. You will just need to bring the accommodations confirmation letter your son/daughter receives to each test he/she takes.

Preparing for Test Day
With the exception of the PSAT, you will need to register for testing days on your own if your son/daughter is taking the SAT or ACT. Go to the respective links provided earlier to find out possible test dates for the respective tests. To determine which tests you need to take, you will need to begin a college search and find out which tests are required by the colleges to which your son or daughter is hoping to apply. Don’t leave testing to the last minute in case a retest is desired to get a better score. For some students taking the test twice is a good idea. The first time is for getting used to taking the test as there will be some new experiences when taking the test. The second time things will be more familiar.

Once you have registered for the test, put it on a calendar and come up with a plan for preparing. There are tons of study guides out there. College Board will email a single practice question every day if you want. We actually did not have our son do too much preparing for the PSAT or SAT. We didn’t want him to get anxious about it and we weren’t sure if he would generalize the practice to the actual test. For other students, it may be appropriate to review the different sorts of math problems and verbal reasoning questions to expect, as well as the expectations for the writing section.

Closer to test day, make a schedule for your son or daughter to know how the day will proceed. The College Board tells you exactly what you are allowed to bring into the testing location. They are very strict about this, so discuss this in advance as well. Get these things ready the night before the test. There is lots of good information about what to expect on the College Board website.

On Test Day
On test day, you will not be allowed to escort your son or daughter to the proper room or talk to the proctor, so make sure they know how to self-advocate if they need to. This is especially important if they are taking the test in a school other than their own high school, where things are familiar.

My son took the SAT at an unfamiliar high school, so I went ahead and prepared a page for him to give to the proctor in his testing room. He and I discussed this in advance and he helped me write the page. We provided his name and contact information and my contact information at the top. If you choose to do this, keep it brief and simple. We also provided the following information on this page:

Gray has a diagnosis of autism. Things he might do that are due to his autism:

Make audible silly sounds.
Pop out of his seat and flap his arms or hands.
Sit on his knees and hang his head below the seat of the chair.
Make grunting sounds if he is frustrated.
When frustrated or scolded, he may hit his head with his fists.

Please redirect Gray by telling him what he should be doing instead.

Gray may need help when using a telephone, finding a restroom, or knowing when he can have a break.

On test day, I did take my son into the testing location front door and immediately found an adult to help him figure out where he was to go. I had my phone on and hung out at a coffee shop near by. If your child has extended time, the testing session will last 50% longer than other students. So expect to pick up your child five and a half hours later.

When Gray came out of the testing center, he was accompanied by someone who clearly was making sure he got out of the building safely. She even reported that he did great! He looked at me and said, “You owe me!” I do find it so ironic that the kids who need to get up and move around the most, have to stay the longest to take these tests, so I agreed with him. I did owe him and told him how proud I was that he handled the stress of the test and a strange location so well! I offered to do whatever he wanted for the rest of the day! But all he wanted was a Hershey Bar! Wish granted.

These standardized tests are just one step of many in preparing for a college experience. With careful planning, our kids can have a positive testing experience and do their best. Then it is on to the application, college visits, deciding where to go and moving on!!

A great resource is the book, Realizing the College Dream with Autism and Asperger Syndrome by Ann Palmer, available at the Autism Society of North Carolina Bookstore.

Written by Nancy Popkin, Parent Advocate/Trainer. To contact Nancy, please send an email to:


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