Choosing a College When You're Neurodiverse
Folks with autism and other neurodivergence are enrolling in record numbers.
Posted Aug 09, 2018
You’re in high school, looking at going to college. Lots to think about. For students like my son and I, there’s the additional wrinkle of neurodiversity—autism, ADHD, or dyslexia. How does that shape school decisions?
When we were little, we were “children with autism,” which sounded like we had a disease. But we don’t. We’re just different. We gravitated to other kids who were different and as we grew older it became clear we are our own little tribe. There are times we wish we were like everyone else, and other times we’re happy to be unique.
Many of us were put in special education classes, or SPED. Most of us SPED students didn’t like the name or the stigma that went with it. We looked forward to leaving it behind when we got out of high school.
A few years ago people started talking about neurodiversity. Neurological diversity. It’s an interesting concept. If autism or anything else is passed on through our genes, and you believe in evolution . . . it stands to reason that anything that is stable and heritable is in us because our species gets a benefit from that particular trait.
When it comes to the differences in us the neurodiversity model feels a lot better than hearing we have learning disabilities, or something worse. You don’t “have” neurodiversity at all. It’s a fact of life.
People whose neurology is different from that of the mainstream are called neurodivergent. By the time we’re getting ready for college, we’re aware of both gifts and disabilities. We might have trouble organizing for school. At the same time we might have amazing powers of memory and recall. We might fail all our algebra exams yet have the ability to manipulate waves in our heads.
The abilities we have that are special may well be the reason people like us are here. Now we have to leave the relative shelter of high school, and venture into the wider world. How to do it? Some will want to go to work, and the fortunate ones have a workplace lined up–maybe a family business or a friend who needs help. Many of us will head for college. A college degree is the essential credential for many jobs in this country.
The thing is, neurodivergent people often mature more slowly than typical folks. We’re just as capable but in our teen years we take longer to get there. There’s no shame in not feeling ready for college. When I was 18 the idea of moving away from home was absolutely terrifying. What to do? Sign up at a local community college. Most of us live in driving distance of a community college. There are two where I live; my son tried both.
Community colleges offer more one-on-one support than bigger universities. They tend to be more practical in what they teach, and that appeals to a lot of us too. Finally, they are day schools, meaning we go home to a familiar environment every night. In most places, if you keep a B average, you can transfer from community college to regular state university for the balance of your four-year degree.
What if you want to try college living, but a mainstream college seems like too much? What if you signed up for regular college and it was too much? There’s Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, which is exclusively for students who are neurodivergent – dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and other learning differences. It’s the college for our tribe, where everyone is like us and all are welcome. Brandeis and Yeshiva welcome Jewish students. Holy Cross and Fordham court Catholics. Alabama seeks star athletes and MIT trains engineers. Landmark College is the place for neurodivergent people.
One of the things you should think about is what’s important to you. If becoming an engineer is the biggest thing, go to an engineering school. If religious faith is important, look at a school like Boston College. Want to work on government? Look at a school like William & Mary. If you feel being autistic and being around autistic people is your thing, Landmark College is the place for that.
Maybe you have more than one interest and neurodiversity is one of them. Look at a school with a strong academic reputation and a great neurodiversity program. Schools like that are few and far between. William & Mary was the first American university to teach neurodiversity. Drexel is building a neurodiversity program alongside a strong vocational or hands-on teaching model that works well for neurodivergent people.
It’s okay to feel several things at once. Maybe you’re coming to terms with what autism means in your life, and you also want to work in policy, or science. Think about a year or two at community college or Landmark College, and then change schools for a different focus. We neurodivergent people are different from others and our educational path is likely different too.
I wish there were more colleges like Landmark, but the recognition of our tribe is recent and it will take a while. There was a time there was only one Jewish college in America; one Black school. Now there are many.
I’m proud to be a co-founder of the neurodiversity program at William & Mary, one of the top public universities in the country. But I’d be the first to admit that a school like W&M is very challenging. I would not have been up to it, at age 18. My son is very smart, and he chose to start with community college too, for the same reason.
One thing about college–the learning experience is what you make of it. You can learn just as much in a virtual reality lab at a local school as you can in a VR lab at MIT. The MIT degree will mean a lot more when you go looking for work, but it won’t mean anything if you can’t graduate. The most important school in that regard is the school you can finish.
For the past five years we have been building neurodiversity culture at William & Mary, and this past year I’ve been working with Landmark College to develop a neurodiversity institute. Landmark is long established as a college that focused on neurodivergent people, but the cultural aspect of neurodiversity is new. This is an exciting time for folks like us. We are casting off the mantle of shame and taking pride in who we are.
The more neurodivergent people step out into the light, the more colleges and universities will develop programs to accommodate us. I'm happy to suggest some schools that embrace neurodiversity today, and I look forward to the day we see them everywhere. It will happen!
We don’t deny our disabilities but we ask they be seen alongside our exceptionality. We bring creative fire to the world, and the world needs us.