College is a hard-won dream for a majority of students, and for parents of children who are learning disabled or neurodiverse, the dream of a college education may appear almost unattainable. Trying to imagine it is challenging at best, when the present is full of appointments with disability specialists, parent/teacher meetings about academic/classroom accommodations in the child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or 504 plan, homework battles and behavioral issues that could impact a child’s social growth.
“I was a first-generation college student in my family, but I knew that college was in my children’s future. It was always part of the conversation,” said Janice Royal, Independent Educational Consultant and founder of Royal College Consulting. “I didn’t waver from that, even when we received my daughter Vanessa’s Asperger’s diagnosis when she was ten years old.”
Learning that your child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or a learning disability (LD) changes your world, any way you look at it. For Janice, who with her husband Rob has a neurotypical daughter older than Vanessa, it took some time to absorb the news and determine how best to explain the diagnosis to Vanessa and the impact it would have on her future.
“You don’t want to feel alone in this, or any diagnosis,” said Janice. “There’s a whole life ahead of her, and I wanted her to take strength from others walking the same path. So I did my research and shared with her the names of all the people I found who are similarly affected, we talked about them, and she embraced her diagnosis. It was very powerful.”
The Ripple Effect
Janice credits her family’s practice of constant communication with helping her daughter – by then, already a bright and inquisitive student – to develop the confidence to get past the challenges of the social aspects of school, and how to navigate that.
“I know it varies by family, but if the relationship between the parent and child can be developed such that there is a constant conversation and comfort level for the child to talk to the parent, I believe you have a greater chance of success,” Janice said. “As she got older and began thinking of what she wanted to do in life, I never discouraged her from pursuing the dream of going to college.” The ASD diagnosis, it turns out, created a ripple effect; it was not only the impetus for a career change, but also the birth of Janice’s mission to help students who are neurodiverse achieve their college dream. From Janice’s bio:
Upon learning of her child’s diagnosis, she retired from the corporate world to learn everything about parenting, educating, and encouraging children who have learning differences. This journey led Janice to the area of college counseling as she discovered that college planning resources were scarce for families challenged with LD, ADHD, Dyslexia, and ASD. Seeking to change this for her community, she earned a College Counseling Certificate from UC Riverside, became a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), and a member of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Through these organizations she has earned hundreds of hours of continuing education on college planning for students with learning differences.
“When a student is finishing up secondary school, by law and by culture, we consider them to be children,” said Janice. “They graduate from high school and take their next steps – job, vocational school, military or higher education – and they’re considered young adults! College becomes that first, big stepping-stone to adulthood and it’s often a leap for students to go to that next level.”
Naturally, the size of the leap runs proportional to the preparation of a neurodiverse student. When it came time for Vanessa’s older sister, Victoria, to apply for college, Janice was in the early stages of being a practicing college consultant. She knew first-hand the long and arduous process to get all of a student’s academic, social and extracurricular ducks in a row before even filling out a college admissions application, which is actually years in the making, sometimes starting before high school and continuing until graduation.
“The training or formation of the student or young person should begin in that safer environment. Soft skills like time management, self-advocacy, identifying your learning style so you know what types of classes to avoid in college, how to ask for help from professors – a lot of these skills can be identified and strengthened during the high school years so that when they’re in college, they will be as ready if not more prepared than those students who didn’t specifically have to work on those skills.”
And then there’s technology. “Introducing students to using assistive technology should begin in high school; earlier, if possible,” Janice emphasized. “One technology frequently used by students with ADHD is an integrated software program that improves reading speed and comprehension by converting print to electronic text. It includes both visual and auditory feedback to help a student with ADHD understand and retain what he is reading. Some learn better by hearing versus reading, or they read too slow and lose track, so there’s a pen that goes across the words and reads them to the student. There’s more, depending upon what’s available at your child’s school. My encouragement is to introduce these assistive technologies to your student before they get into rigid mindsets.”
The K-12 experience is governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The focus is on a student’s academic success, and the law stipulates that students have a right to education. After the students turn 18 and graduate high school, they come under the purview of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At this point, Janice said, “the law says that education is an OPPORTUNITY from this point forward, and the focus is on access to curriculum, so there is tremendous delineation between high school and college not only how the law sees it for students with LD, but also how a student needs to prepare themselves to work with this new set of circumstances.”
Preparation and the “Pie”
With neurotypical students, everything they do in school and life seems to naturally prepare them for college applications — participation in team sports, extracurricular clubs, enrollment in AP classes, student government, etc. Each of these present college admissions officers with a piece of a “pie” that provides a snapshot of the student.
However, not all of these things are feasible for students on the spectrum or with learning disabilities. How can they gain equal footing in the eyes of college admission officers?
“The tip or the trick to what admissions counselors want to see is the student’s passion,” said Janice. “Parents know what their kids like and know their talents. What is it that makes your child’s heart soar? The sooner a parent can help their child find that, the more helpful it will be in the college application process. If your child has a passion for something unique and interesting that demonstrates intellectual curiosity, that is what will excite an admissions officer. That comes in an essay or your activities, and there are places where you can elaborate. And since many colleges are going ‘test optional,’ you need to make sure that as the other half of the pie fills in, those slices are going to be strong enough to show the university the kind of candidate they want. Test optional does not mean test blind.”
Creating a list of colleges in which your child will be successful takes just as rigorous work. Fortunately, said Janice, “the process is the same for those students, with some additional steps. I always like to ask what the student’s goal is – is it moving away from home, going to football games, becoming a nurse, a business professional? Whatever the major, it’s important for the student to be able to ANSWER the question so that we can begin to look at colleges that would provide a good fit.”
A place to start is the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences. Janice described it as “a treasure trove of information about hundreds of universities across the nation, not only describing the institution and admission details, but spending a great deal of time describing the disability services at the university.”
Identifying potential colleges is half the battle. Once that has occurred, Janice emphasized that a visit to each potential college’s Disability Services office is critical.
“You have to dig deeper to find out if disability support is on a basic level that just meets the letter of the law, or if the college provides a more coordinated or structured program. The basic level is available at a lot of universities. That might be OK if your child needs minimal support. Maybe they just need additional time or a quiet area to take tests. For students who meet minimal accommodations or don’t need assistance with executive function, there are important differences between coordinated services where you have certified LD professionals – people who are trained to work with and establish education parameters and guidelines – and a more structured environment where services and programs address significant executive function deficits, perhaps offer a mentor or academic skills training, etc. Structured programs might have an additional charge if students use them, but they can be instrumental in getting the student off to a good start.”
Any universities and colleges that cannot host in-person tours due to COVID-19 or other reasons may offer virtual touring opportunities. Check the school’s website or call the Disability Services office to see if students and parents can request a Zoom/virtual meeting instead. The steps noted in this infographic can help.
It may only be several years in a student’s life, but the road to college and sometimes beyond is much longer for parents. And at the end of the day, Janice said that sometimes a four-year college is not the right option for their child.
“Kids with LD may continually have to overcome challenges every day and it might not be the right time in their maturity to move away from home and go to a four-year university. It depends on so many variables. It depends on the student’s grades, what kind of courses they’ve taken, whether they’re prepared academically to move to a four-year institution. In those cases, I think that community college can be an excellent choice and great place to start.”
An encouraging note is that a growing number of community colleges have established transfer agreements with four-year universities. Be sure to carefully review the agreements to determine the specific coursework needed, deadlines and other terms that the university requires in order to be considered as a transfer applicant.
Some handholding is inevitable, said Janice, who has witnessed and discussed with her colleagues the pitfalls of abrupt transitions to college. “Make sure that you have some plan for regularly touching base,” she said. “A little bit of scaffolding alongside the student can be very helpful those first few weeks of college. It can make all the difference in the world.”
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About Janice Royal
Janice has been an Independent Educational Consultant since 2012. She is the founder and President of Royal College Consulting based in Costa Mesa, California. Her formal education includes a B.A. in American Studies from California State University, Long Beach where she graduated Summa cum Laude and was selected for admission to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Janice attended Claremont Graduate University on a full tuition scholarship and earned a M.A. in American Studies.
Janice lives with her husband of 31 years, Rob, in Costa Mesa with two rescued Bichon Frise poodles. Her oldest daughter graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Montana State University, Bozeman. And her youngest is studying Biology at Concordia University, Irvine and playing in its wind symphony and jazz bands. For more information about Royal College Consulting, visit www.royalcollegeconsulting.com.