Title IX Considerations for College Students on the Autism Spectrum

By:  Claire Sweetman

Navigating the complex realm of Title IX in a university setting can be difficult – dealing with the fast pace of ever-changing administrations, proposed regulations, and even societal norms. An aspect of this landscape often forgotten by Title IX professionals is the unique challenges posed by individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). According to information compiled by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz’s Student & Athlete Defense, 17% of young adults with autism now enroll in a four-year college.[1] Moreover, 11% of college graduates are neurodiverse. Individuals with ASD may be implicated as either complainants or respondents in conduct violation matters. Although these students are neurodivergent, they are subject to the same code of conduct as every other student on campus.

It is important to understand, however, that the grievance and investigation process for students with ASD is more difficult than it is for neurotypical students. For example, the Title IX process, whether the student is a complainant or respondent, necessarily implicates healthy self-advocacy. Self-advocacy requires an individual to clearly communicate their needs and rights, and requires them to share their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives without exploding. This can be quite difficult for students on the spectrum who struggle with information processing, social awareness, and verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

Another challenge for students on the spectrum is that sexual norms in this country are complex and largely unspoken. Thus, an individual who already struggles with understanding non-verbal communications will likely have a more difficult time navigating the complexities of sexual and dating norms in a college setting, away from home. This can lead to issues with dating and boundaries, online behavioral issues, and expressing or responding to sexual needs. Oftentimes, an institution’s response to a Title IX complaint is to investigate the matter and conduct a formal hearing. However, the formal process will largely fail students with ASD who overwhelmingly (through no fault of their own) lack the tools to advocate for themselves in an effective way.

There are several ways to improve an institution’s response to Title IX concerns involving individuals with ASD. First, allowing student advisors to take a more active role in the advising process may be helpful for neurodivergent individuals going through the process. Second, school administrators can choose to grant students with ASD additional time to get through a disciplinary hearing or allow for more breaks than usual during the process.[2] Third, administrators should thoroughly train or hire external investigators who are trained in approaching Title IX matters involving students on the spectrum.

No two individuals with ASD are exactly alike. However, it is important for all Title IX administrators and investigators to understand the nature of ASD, the campus experience of neurodivergent students, and work to instigate a fair and informed approach more fully to address Title IX concerns.

[1] https://studentdefense.kjk.com/

[2] https://www.studentdisciplinedefense.com/autism-spectrum-disorder-and-student-defense