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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

How to Navigate College as a Neurodivergent Student



Securing accommodations for younger kids with ADHD can be challenging and tedious. Both parents and teachers typically serve an important role in the successful ADHD student’s school life by helping them stay organized and prioritize their work.

But the transition to college can bring a new set of challenges, particularly since students will suddenly find themselves in the position of needing to advocate for themselves – not always an easy task when symptoms of the condition can include difficulties with time management, impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention.

“To be successful in college requires self-management skills, which is exactly what ADHD students struggle with the most: planning, prioritizing, and resisting temptations and distractions,” says Ari Tuckman, a practicing psychologist and an expert with the group Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).

To help ensure success, ADHD experts advise these students and their parents to seek out and ask questions about available on-campus accommodations and to consider hiring an executive function coach to help with focus, organization and planning.

Challenges for College-Bound Students With ADHD

While the instinct for many college-bound ADHD students and their parents is to initially determine a path of coursework that will lead to a specific career, Dave Anderson, a senior psychologist at Child Mind Institute, says the college experience is better viewed as an opportunity to develop transitional life skills that will help these kids to adulthood.

For instance, many college students with ADHD question whether they will use the material learned in a class they don’t particularly like. “There’s a need for any human to still persevere, to work hard or finish a project they may not be interested in,” he says – and that’s a life skill. “You don’t know what your boss will assign you in future projects.”

Some students with ADHD get to college and thrive because there’s more freedom than in high school to pick their own classes or arrange schedules around times when they feel most productive. Students say they enjoy the broader range of extracurriculars on a college campus and being able to meet more people who may celebrate their neurodiversity.

Data and anecdotal evidence suggest attending a four-year program may be difficult for students with ADHD unless a support system is in place. According to a 2013 study referenced by CHADD, 15% of young adults diagnosed with ADHD held a four-year degree compared to 48% of the control group.

Tuckman says the college experience for someone with ADHD may not always be the standard four-year, in-and-out approach.

“There are students who understand their diagnosis and deal with it, who take medication, who get accommodations, who use the accommodations, and they probably do fine. Often, they do quite well,” he says. “Then there’s the other subgroup who don’t understand their ADHD, who stop taking meds, who don’t use accommodations, and within a semester or two they have found themselves out of college.”

Seek Out Accommodations

Accommodations for ADHD students are available at the college level, such as requesting longer time on tests, being excused for tardiness or receiving audio and visual recordings of a lecture. The student is responsible for registering with an institution’s disability resource center when admitted.

Experts urge families to research and compare these centers within various schools ahead of time – to ask questions about how the student will be able to access accommodations and what sort of documentation is required.

Tuckman points to two issues that often keep students from trying to access accommodations.

First, he says, there’s a self-awareness problem. “They believe they are managing things more effectively than they are, so they don’t feel like they need the accommodations. They think: ‘Somehow this semester is going to be different,’ or ‘I’m just going to do the work this time.’ That will get you through three weeks of the semester but not the 12 weeks that follow.”

The second issue is stigma. “They want to be just like everyone else. They don’t want to take a letter to the professor asking for extra time,” he says.

Amy Rutherford is the director of MOSAIC at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a support program that helps students on the autism spectrum – many of whom are also diagnosed with ADHD – transition in and out of college. “I have ADHD myself,” she says. “I didn’t like school, but it clicked for me that it was a means to a career.”

Rutherford emphasizes that students with ADHD need to learn how to advocate for themselves. She counsels students to take advantage of campus resources, such as the disability office or the writing center. “Find your sense of belonging,” she says.

Further, understanding one’s own best work habits is key, she notes. “Do you require a full schedule or frequent breaks?” Finding a routine and sticking to it is next, she says. “Be able to recognize when your routine is off and consider using an academic coach.”

Rutherford also encourages open communication with professors and others. “But don’t plan on having the workload that is expected of a college student to change.”

Finally, Rutherford notes that students need to be able to do the work and find what motivates them. “Having a career goal in mind or knowing your ‘why’ is so important. Be open to new things, too.”

Consider Finding an Executive Function Coach

Rutherford and other experts suggest executive function coaching as an option to keep students on track. Tuckman says his best advice for the ADHD student is to secure a coach with whom they can check in regularly. “What’s the issue with your chemistry paper? Where is your rough draft? Let’s come up with a plan for this math test. When will you study for it?” he says.

Perry LaRoque is the founder and president of Mansfield Hall, a residential college support program designed for the neurodiverse with locations in Oregon, Vermont and Wisconsin; and Virtual Hall, an online college support program that provides executive function coaching and other support for diverse learners around the country. Depending on the student, his team of coaches may focus on attention-building, organization, time management or emotional regulation.

“We get to understand what the student is struggling with,” LaRoque says, “and then build support and services around those areas.” In Virtual Hall, students receive three to five hours a week of team support a week, and it’s highly individualized.

Families should ask prior to admission whether their college of choice can recommend executive coaching services on campus or in the area. But they come at a cost, which can be tough for some families.

LaRoque says families can expect to pay anywhere between $75 and $300 per hour for executive coaching, noting the average is between $100 and $150 an hour.

What Success Looks Like

One student with ADHD who succeeded in college – but took a nontraditional path – is 26-year-old Stephen Soltero, who expects to graduate in fall 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Landmark College in Vermont. At Landmark, the faculty, many of whom also identify as neurodiverse, specialize in instruction for students with ADHD, dyslexia, autism and executive function deficits.

Soltero, who was diagnosed with ADHD as a young child, entered Landmark in 2016 to study computer science. But a year later, he left campus.

“Computer science was not the thing for me. It was not what I wanted to do,” he says. “I felt a lot of resentment toward school. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t enjoyable. I didn’t see a purpose.”

But Soltero says he eventually found his purpose through soul-searching and asking himself: “Why do I want to learn?” and “What do I enjoy doing?” His plan now is to land a career where he can help others learn more about themselves – “especially if they have a form of learning disability,” he says.

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