When children who are neurodivergent are in their early school years, their parents often serve as their decision makers and advocates. But once these students enroll in college, they’ll need to make their own choices on what classes to take, where to live on campus and how to manage their daily schedules.
Students can prepare for this new independence by starting to take on more responsibility in high school. That could include making their own doctor appointments, doing laundry, cooking meals, volunteering or gaining part-time work experience, says Jane Thierfeld Brown, the director of College Autism Spectrum, an organization that works with universities and K-12 schools to assist students with autism and their families.
“Learning more about yourself and what your strengths are and where your challenges lie are all really important things to know so that you can be more of a self-advocate,” Brown says.
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term – first used by sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s – to describe differences in brain function as strengths rather than deficits. Neurodivergence often refers to individuals with cognitive or learning disabilities, like autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette syndrome and dyslexia. Some experts include mental health conditions in the definition as well.
“No two brains are developed or structured in the same exact way,” says Adam Lalor, interim vice president of research and innovation and co-director of the Center for Neurodiversity at Landmark College in Vermont. “That’s an important part of human diversity. It’s something that needs to be celebrated and respected. There are brains that don’t always follow the traditional development and structure and, like all people, they have areas of challenges and areas of tremendous strength.”
Adjustment to College Life
With most classrooms and residential facilities designed for neurotypical individuals, the transition to campus life – with its larger classes, crowded events and need for independent time management – is not always smooth.
“Usually you’re leaving your hometown where you have a community, whether that be a therapist or support systems at school,” says Erin Andrews, manager of clinical affairs for Uwill, an online mental health platform for colleges and universities. “You have to reestablish all of those things within this new environment.”
Though needs vary, experts generally suggest that students reach out to disability services to request academic accommodations, get involved in a student club or organization and use available campus resources.
Request Academic Accommodations
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, students with disabilities are protected from discrimination. Colleges and universities must make reasonable accommodations for these students to participate in courses and activities. That may include giving students note-takers, extended time on tests or quizzes, a reduced distraction environment option for exams, extensions on assignments or priority course registration.
“When students leave high school, there’s a services cliff that occurs,” says Jennifer Buckley, senior vice president for student success at Aurora University in Illinois. “Many of these students can meet the requirements academically, but need some additional support in order to be successful.”
To qualify, students must provide documentation to their school’s disability services office, such as an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP, from the student’s high school and a statement from a medical provider. The documentation needed varies from school to school.
The office reviews students’ materials and generally either approves their requested accommodations or asks for additional information, says Emily Raclaw, who directs a program for students with autism at Marquette University in Wisconsin.
An IEP, which is a legal document that requires K-12 schools to provide services, does not technically apply in college, so that document alone may not be enough. “A lot of campuses do provisional accommodations for students who just have an IEP,” says Raclaw. “Lines are really long right now to get into (medical) providers so colleges are able to provide temporary accommodations to give students that time to get into a testing center and get more updated testing if needed.”
Join a Student Organization
Whatever a student’s passion – theater, comedy or politics – there is typically an organization on campus to support it. Participating in a club provides students with a chance to take on leadership roles as well as interact with peers who share similar interests.
Brown advises students to challenge themselves and consider new activities.
“For people who are neurodivergent, it’s even more important to not go totally outside your comfort zone, but just push your envelope a little bit,” she says. “You might find something that you’re really good at that you really like.”
Use Campus Resources
Get to know faculty members by attending office hours – a time for students to ask questions about assignments or even address concerns. For further academic assistance, many campuses offer tutors or writing centers. Academic advisors are also available to discuss class schedules and graduation requirements.
Non-academic resources include the career center, financial aid office and health center.
Examples of College Programming for Neurodivergent Students
Some universities are providing professional development for faculty on neurodiversity and putting programs in place specifically for neurodivergent learners. About 80 colleges and universities around the country are currently offering this kind of tailored support.
The University at Buffalo—SUNY in New York, for example, received a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create training courses for computer science faculty on how to support neurodivergent students in the classroom. Faculty members earn micro-credentials upon training completion, which will be displayed on their profiles for students to see. The training curriculum will eventually be published online for other schools to access and use at no cost.
“We know that a large amount of neurodivergent people are attracted to STEM-based careers, particularly computer science,” says Sam Abramovich, associate professor of learning and instruction and director of the Open Education Research Lab at UB. “Yet a lot of them come to higher education with the intention of building a career for themselves in STEM only to drop out. It means we are not meeting this need. We wanted to look at how we could improve this process.”
Meanwhile, Landmark’s entire campus is exclusively designed for neurodivergent students to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. Students have access to therapy dogs, no-cut policies on sports teams and a course on how to understand their learning differences and advocate for themselves. One major resource is the Center for Neurodiversity, which hosts events on topics such as neurodiversity culture and gives students internship opportunities.
“Neurodiversity is an identity,” Lalor says. “It’s one that many students have to lesser or greater degrees, but it’s something that they can explore and they can determine the extent to which they want to include that as part of who they are.”
In November, Aurora University announced the establishment of the Betty Parke Tucker Center for Neurodiversity. The center houses several pathways programs to prepare both high school students and incoming AU students with autism for college life.
The Pathways Collegiate Program, for instance, provides current students with faculty support, peer mentorship and opportunities to practice social and career skills. Additionally, in the fall, AU plans to open a sensory-sensitive residence hall designed for neurodivergent students that includes a decompression space and study areas. The dormitory will be open to both neurodivergent and neurotypical students.
“Every element of this residence hall has been thought of to the point of colors, lighting, fabrics, shower heads and modular furniture,” Buckley says.
Similarly, Marquette’s On Your Marq program provides academic, social, independent living and mental health support to students with autism. Students can get peer mentorship, career development, tutoring and one-on-one coaching. An application is required, with up to 15 students accepted for each cohort.
“Aside from all the services we provide, I think for me, the best thing to see is our students come into their own and really have opportunities that they may not have thought they could have,” Raclaw says.