Leaning into Being Different: How One University Got My Autistic Son’s Attention

My son Joshua recently turned 18 and is now formally applying to colleges and universities. It’s hard to believe. He (and his mother) worked so hard to get him to this point. 

I remember when he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age two. The doctor said that Joshua would never go to a regular school. We are all so excited for him to begin his college experience.

Like most high school seniors, he used the Common App to apply to college.

If you’re not familiar with the Common App, it’s a little miracle for applying to college.

Instead of filling out separate applications to all the places in which you want to apply, you only complete the Common App, and then the App sends all your information to ANY college you apply to. It’s majestic.

But you’re not done yet. You’re only mostly done. Most colleges send you one or two more questions to complete. So after Joshua finished the Common App and hit send, he had to fill out all these questions separately.

Of the seven colleges and universities, each one asked pretty much the same question. Something about “What can you bring to XYZ school and why should we care and how can you take our culture to the next level…blah blah blah.”

But there was one who was different. A diamond in the rough. Elon University in North Carolina.

Oh, Elon, how wonderful you are.

Elon asked three questions that were very different.

The first was, “It’s a day in the year 2040. What’s the news headline?”

At this, Joshua was intrigued.

The second question was a stumper for Josh…”What are the three essential songs that MUST be on your playlist?”

He agonized over this question. Of course, the Beatles, but which one? And what about the other two songs?

The third question was about starting a food truck. What would you name it and what kind of food would you sell?

Again, Joshua rose to the occasion…loving every minute of it…answering each question with care.

Before this process, Elon was number eight of seven schools. Not really a consideration. Just a good computer science school in a warmer climate. Now, Elon is in the top three, and we are planning a visit. All because of three silly (but amazing) questions.

Now I don’t know if Elon is trying to be “hip” or “different” or…maybe they really are trying to attract kids like Joshua. Kids and young adults on the spectrum see things very differently. They use their brains differently. They are attracted to things that others aren’t.

All I know is that someone in that organization took the time to think about their audience. To think about the Joshuas of the world.

Now how hard was that? Not very hard. But it did take someone to think a little different…and someone else to execute that idea to actually be different.

The lesson? Do you want to market to kids like Joshua? You want to be more inclusive? Then you have to deliberately communicate differently. Like Elon.

It’s not as hard as you might think.

Joe Pulizzi is a leading author, speaker, and strategist for content marketing. Joe is first and foremost a content marketing evangelist and founded the Content Marketing Institute, as well as the premier international content marketing event Content Marketing World and Chief Content Officer magazine. His most recent book, Epic Content Marketing, was a #1 Marketing Best Seller on Amazon. Joe writes one of the most popular content marketing blogs in the world and is overly passionate about the color orange. @joepulizzi