Selecting a College for Your Neurodivergent Student

Dr. Aviva Legatt features Dr. Eric Endlich in this webinar interview to discuss how to select a college for your neurodivergent student. 

November 17, 2022


Transcript for the interview: Selecting a College for Your Neurodivergent Student

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Hello everyone and Welcome to our weapon are selecting a college for your neurodivergent student my name is Dr. Legatt and I’m the founder of Ivy insight and the author of Get Real and Get In, which came out last year with Dean Martin’s press. I’m honored to be joined by Dr. Eric Endlich who is the founder of Top College Consultants, a psychologist and independent consultant. I was just telling Eric that I really admire his work and he has wonderful resources on his website for students with learning differences and for neurodivergent students, all to check your college readiness, look for programs that may be of interest to you, and so on. And this is certainly a topic that’s close to my heart. I have a special needs child and I also helped a lot of students that have learning differences, so I am excited to tap into Dr. English’s insight and share it with all of you. So, welcome! 

Dr. Eric Endlich: Thanks, thanks for having me, Aviva. I’ve enjoyed your articles for years so good to be on together.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Absolutely, thank you! Tell me a little bit more about your work. 

Dr. Eric Endlich: I am a Clinical Psychologist, as you said. I was in the mental health field for decades and in a variety of settings. And having worked with teens for years and seeing some of them that went off to college and not thrive, I realized it doesn’t have to happen that way. That if they are properly prepared, if they are ready for college and they go to a college that gives them the right support, they can thrive. So I changed careers and it’s wonderful. You know, I continue to work with teens, which I love doing. I continue to use my skills as a writer and editor helping them with their essays, and helping students in particular who might otherwise struggle or not succeed if they didn’t have the guidance to find the right supports. And  I’m a special needs parent too. So it is very rewarding work. 

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Thank you. And thank you for what you do. It’s very helpful. Tell me a little bit from your perspective, how do neurodivergent students find their college fits? And maybe for those who don’t know what neurodivergent means, you could define that for anybody listening. 

Dr. Eric Endlich: Sure. We also often use the term “students with learning differences”. It used to be using the term learning disabilities, but the neurodiversity movement or paradigm is the idea that we are all wired differently and some of us are neurodivergent. Our brains do not work the typical way and we can benefit sometimes from a particular program or approach that is more inclusive. So students that I work with who have learning differences or who are neurodivergent are often many of them are on the autism spectrum or have had diagnoses such as ADHD, dyslexia, or other so-called learning disabilities. Also, because I am a Clinical Psychologist, I am comfortable working with students with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. Back to your question about how they find the right colleges. So naturally, my students are dealing with the same factors and priorities as other students: How far away from home is it? How much is it going to cost? Does it have the major I want? Does it have the sports I’m interested in or the clubs that I want to join? So all The Usual Suspects so to speak, as well as the key question of, “will it be able to support me?”. Does it offer the services and accommodations I need in order to thrive? Some students know more about this than others. Sometimes students end up getting into a college that doesn’t really meet their needs and doesn’t always work out so well.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: So in your view, and from working with these kinds of kids, does the process of finding your fit, finding your process, does that journey,  by necessity, have to look a little bit different or is it similar in your experience?

Dr. Eric Endlich: It’s similar in a lot of ways because, again, you’re taking in a lot of the same factors. So if the student says, do I want to major in theater or chemical engineering, then that’s going to start to narrow the pool. Or you know, I only want to be in this region of the country, or parents say the college has to be below a certain amount per year. All those factors will limit the search, but then if you throw in also that it needs to have an Autism Support Program or Learning Support Program then that’s another factor that there is too. And it also impacts the way parents, the way families, should be doing chores when they get out there they need to look at not just the majors on campus, but also what are the disability services like or what are the support programs like. So that is a key difference. And for many of the students I work with, certain kinds of environments are going to be more conducive than others. For example, I hear a lot, “My kid is going to do better in small classes.”. That is something that I hear a lot. So that can drive the choice too. Also, if you are a little bit quirky, wanting to be at a college where you are going to feel welcome, where you are not going to feel excluded or stigmatized because you’re a little bit different. 

Dr. Aviva Legatt: That makes a lot of sense. A great resource that you have on your website that I’ve shared with family and friends is this College Readiness, I don’t know if it is a College Readiness Checklist, but it is sort of a quiz of different facets of preparation for college. So there’s the academic preparation, of course, and colleges have their criteria that they have for the student they want to admit from an academic standpoint. And sometimes they may make mention of some sort of extracurricular or academic interest, right? But then you have a list of all the skills that are required to live at college. You know, tracking your wallet, perhaps keeping a budget, showering regularly, etc. All of these things that parents can sometimes help special needs children with, depending on their challenges, students have to start to become more independent and start to learn these life skills if they don’t already have them. So I’d love to hear any perspective you have on how students and families can assess their readiness for college and start to close gaps that they may see. 

Dr. Eric Endlich: It’s a big part of what we focus on and it’s something that I frequently speak on and I get asked about. As you said, you know, in high school parents and school staff are often, and I think you said, closing the gap or filling in certain ways. Whether it’s parents waking them up in the morning or preparing meals, doing laundry, making appointments, reminding students of appointments, or asking students “did you put your homework in your backpack?”. All those little ways in which parents are sort of prompting and nudging and filling in lots of that kind of disappear in that transition to college. So being college-capable and being college ready is not the same thing. And if you’ve got a child who’s really doing well in high school taking challenging courses, honors, AP, accelerated, even dual enrollment and they’re getting A’s and B’s, you might think, you know what I’m confident that my child can handle the academics in a college. They’ve already taken a college course, and they’ve taken AP courses. And you may be right that in terms of the rigor of college, in terms of the content of the curriculum, they might be totally fine. It’s all the other pieces that you alluded to. Are they ready to live independently, are they ready to get along with a roommate, to self-advocate with a professor, or to make medical appointments if they start getting sick? And a whole host of other things. One of the biggest being, whether can they manage their own time. Because one of the biggest differences between high school and college is that in high school a lot of the day is structured for students; from the time to get up in the morning, for a full day of school- maybe band practice or Sports practice or SAT prep after school- it’s a very full day. In college, it’s almost the reverse where there are relatively few hours spoken for in class and a lot more hours that students need to be getting assignments done. It could be hundreds of pages of reading or dozens of papers they need to be writing. And so they need to structure their time and plan out long-term assignments and projects. You get that syllabus at the beginning of the semester: here’s what you have to do for the whole semester. And then you’re kind of on your own. The professors in college aren’t saying to you every week “hey, don’t forget to do the reading, and don’t forget there’s a test next week or a paper due next week”. Students are expected to remember that. So that’s the kind of stuff that students need to be getting better at before they start college and parents can help by starting to dial back what they are doing and nudging the children to step forward. If they need help learning those skills like hiring an Executive Function Coach to help manage their time. If he needs mental health counseling if they need to take a class in managing money or personal finance. Great! They can also take a gap year and go to a college readiness program and learn a whole bunch of skills. So it’s okay if your student hasn’t mastered all that stuff, plenty of students haven’t mastered it all by the time they’re high school seniors. That’s not a cause for panic, it’s just a highlight of some of the things to be working on.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Thank you for that insight! So speaking of the college admissions/college application process: to disclose or not to disclose? I have my opinions on that but I’d love to hear how you advise people on that question. What do you say if you know you have a diagnosis and if you have struggles as well? 

Dr. Eric Endlich: That’s a great question. And it’s one that comes out very often. I’ve even written one or two blog posts you can find on my website. So disclosing or not disclosing? The top line, the big picture is there’s no reason to assume that it’s going to move the needle positively or negatively of getting admitted. So there is no reason to think that it is going to help you or hurt you getting admitted, in general. Let’s not say that is 100% true, 100% of the time. The main reasons you do want to disclose come around aspects of your transcripts or your application that need explanation. So if there is something on the transcript that would be discordant, puzzling, or confusing to an admissions reader, then that is an opportunity to explain it. Why did you change high schools? Why did your grades suddenly go up? Why do you not have any foreign languages on your transcript? There may be various things that need explanation. I have a disability waiver in high school. I am not required to take a foreign language. I changed high schools because I found a high school that gives me the support I need. My grades went up because I was disguised with ADHD, I went on medication, I can focus better and now you can see I’m actually capable of being an A student which I was not before. So there may be ways in which that would be super helpful for colleges to know. If you’re already a straight-A student and there is nothing strange about your transcript and nothing that needs explanation, then you might still choose to talk about it. And by the way, that explanation I was referring to- that would not be in the essay, that would be in a separate part of your application that those of us who do the work are familiar with this “Additional Information” section on the Common App where you can put in extra information. However, I also have lots of students for whom their diagnosis, particulate there on the autism spectrum, is a central part of their identity. And they feel like if you want to know me, you being the college,  if you want to understand you know who I am and know what makes me tick or what’s important to me, this is a key thing for you to know about me. So lots of my students do choose to write about being on a spectrum or being neurodivergent because it’s a key part of their story to them.And again, there’s no real reason to think that that’s hurt them. Lots of them have done really well on college applications. 

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Thanks for that. And I know you didn’t recommend necessarily disclosing in every case, but I would say, more often than not, students should disclose because if they know that about themselves, it gives them a framework to think about their experiences. And if that frame is not shared, it’s almost as if they are holding back a piece of themselves potentially. 

Dr. Eric Endlich: Yeah, and a lot of people will say, “If I share that, and you choose to not admit me because you know that about me because of this diagnosis, maybe that is not the college I should be at”. That is a longer conversation, but I have heard that sentiment voiced by a number of people. And a lot of students naturally want to be in a place where they are going to be welcomed and okay for who they are. 

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Absolutely. And what I usually add to the disclosure question is to talk about how that challenge is managed so that the college sense that even if they don’t have the exact support, you have a way to manage this whether it’s through medication or some kind of different approaches that you’ve taken to your studies or someone that has supported you to improve your grades, let’s say from Bs to As or Cs to Bs, whatever the trajectory is. To give that assurance is helpful. 

Dr. Eric Endlich: Right. And when students do talk about a challenge on essays and I think this is similar to what you said, is sometimes students will save hey there’s this promising to talk about an obstacle you faced or that you’ve over, so I’m going to write about the fact that having ADHD has made it really hard for me to concentrate and focus on my classes. That’s fine, but there are ways to present at that are going show the skills that you’ve learned, the coping strategies you’ve developed, the confidence and resilience that have been built up because you had a harder time than some of your peers and that can make for a really compelling and sometimes inspiring story.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Absolutely.  So moving to a different topic, I know that on the K-12 level if you’re in public school you have certain supports that are mandated for school districts to provide and colleges are not held to the same kinds of mandates. So I’d love to hear, and I know that there’s going to be variation from college to college, perhaps public vs private, what are the differences, and what are the different types of support that students can even expect a college potentially provide.

Dr. Eric Endlich: That’s a great question, and I just want to underline the point you made. You and I are both special needs parents. We have seen what the school district provides, and there is a real differentiation when you leave the school district and go on to post-secondary education, college, or university. And it’s different laws that apply in college. So if you have this idea, my kid has been on an IEP or a 504 plan or some kind of plan for special education, that that’s all going to just go to seamlessly continue and look at all the same stuff that they’ve been getting in college. That is not a safe assumption to make! There is great support available in college, I  want to be clear about that. But it doesn’t just automatically fall into place. You’re kind of starting from scratch in a way, that’s a different law that applies, the IEP that you may have had in high school, some colleges don’t even want to see that. Not only does it not apply, some colleges will say we’re not even interested in that document. Others will, but you can’t generalize across all colleges. But across-the-board colleges are bound by the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act) different from the law that applies in primary and secondary high school and the ADA provides requirements to make reasonable accommodations for disabilities with a physical disability, learning disability, what have you. So if you’ve got, for example, documentation that says you are entitled to extra time on testing because you’re slower processing speed, great! If you have that documentation there’s a good chance you can get that accommodation in any college in the US. Just like you may have gotten that in high school. Not terribly difficult to get. And that’s true of many accommodations as long as you have the appropriate documentation and at practically any college. So if you need to sit in front of the class or get the professor’s notes or have a note taker, there are lots of different accommodations: sitting and taking a test in a private room. But that’s just short of the bare minimum required legal accommodations. That doesn’t mean you get any services. That doesn’t mean that you get any special help in high school, as I think you were alluding to. Lots of kids’ special education plans have lots of support. Physical therapist, speech therapist, resource teacher, and on and on. Most colleges don’t have much beyond what I already described, some will have a little bit more, will have an academic coach that will help you manage time, and then other colleges have a much, much smaller percentage of college will have comprehensive, full-blown learning support programs, or in some cases autism support programs. And those programs tend to have multiple components: you might have an early move-in, you might have priority registration, you might have social events, and certainly learning specialists or academic coaches that you’ll meet with regularly. A whole host and services or workshops perhaps, to teach you skills. And that could be super helpful for students who need that level of support. But most colleges don’t have that and you are going to want to know that when you are building the list, not after you have committed to the college: Oh, I’m going to a college that doesn’t really have any special supports.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Thank you, that’s helpful, and as I mentioned there’s a great list on your website, Eric, of colleges and different populations that are served. I would encourage anyone who is listening to check that out. And there are other guidebooks out there as well tol at least give you an initial idea of where these programs are, and where do these programs exist. 

Dr. Eric Endlich: Thanks. That’s why I started that list, because when I went to use other lists I found out, whether, through books or online, I was just kind of disappointed that they didn’t have all the information I needed. Either the lists were too short or they weren’t up-to-date or there was some missing information. So I created a list that is a database that you can order by state, and reorder it alphabetically by college. And one of the key pieces of information that I put in there that you don’t see a lot of in the list is the cost of the program. So for some of these programs, there’s no additional charge for the support. That’s amazing! You know I went to a college to tour a college 3 weeks ago and that program happens to be funded or endowed by a family that has been very generous to the college so that the students don’t have to pay anything extra for the program. But in some cases, the program costs thousands of dollars above and beyond what you were already paying for college. So if you think you’ve figured out what the college costs you don’t want that sort of unexpected surprise, that unpleasant, of “Oh, that support program is another $5,000 – $10,000 a year”, right? I want families to know that up front, absolutely! 

Dr. Aviva Legatt: And on that topic of cost, we didn’t plan this question, but another question that I’m curious about because this is something I recommend to students and families who have a child with learning differences or who have learning differences is to reach out to their state’s Office of a Rehabilitation or Vocational Rehabilitation or whatever it’s called in your state. So some states have funding for supporting special needs students in their higher learning. I’m curious if you have any insight on that and then also experience funding for these kinds of extra programs.

Dr. Eric Endlich: I’m glad you brought that up, that is something I talk to families about. I’m, again, I’ve gone through it as a parent as well. There are a number of state agencies, that in any given state, your child may or may not be eligible for, as well as Federal programs such as Social Security Disability. So if your child is eligible for these agencies as you said, there may be funding there. In California, for example, there are Regional Centres and all states that I’m aware of have a Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. It has different names in different states. In Massachusetts, it’s called Mass Rehab and those programs often will kick in for various parts of education. So I have seen kids who went to summer programs that were college readiness programs for neurodivergent students and I’ve seen those programs funded by state agencies. I have seen the state agencies fund components of the support or sometimes the college tuition. So definitely worth looking into. I can’t generalize across the board about any of these things but there is always the possibility of getting funding and you have nothing to lose by trying.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Yes, and I want to emphasize the couple of points that you made. There are the Federal funds, so there’s the Social Security that you mentioned. And then for any student going through the college process, if they have financial need, they can apply for a college and apply with the FAFSA. So the FAFSA is different from what Eric and I were just referencing, which are the state-based programs. They are designed to help students become career-ready. So the purpose of these State programs is often to help people who have struggled to become more independent and that’s why they’re willing to give the funding, which is different from FAFSA or Social Security. So I just wanted to make the differentiation just because for the Federal government, State governments there are so many layers to it. So just make sure whatever funding sources that you can tap into that there are going to be multiple ways to tap into with multiple sets of long paperwork attached.

Dr. Eric Endlich: And you know, any family in doubt or unsure about whether they qualify for this, there are ways to kind of calculate that and assess that fairly quickly. And if you’re not sure, then be on the safe side and apply for aid because that scholarship, that financial aid that you get from the college- that’s your best bet for getting a substantial chunk of money. If you get into college and it’s a high bill and then you’re starting to look around for where can I get a scholarship to help pay for this super expensive college, that’s kind of doing it backward. So you really want to look for the colleges where you’re going to do your best financially if that’s an important factor for you. And sometimes families think, well you know we make a lot of money right now, I don’t think we’re going to be eligible. But you know, if your company closes and next year you don’t have that job and your financial situation is drastically changed, some colleges have a rule that if you have not applied for aid the first year you don’t get to apply for the second year or third year. You have to get in on the ground floor. Always better to be on the safe side. And of course, there is some aid for students that are not based on financial need, as we both know, so students who’re doing really well academically might get a scholarship even if the family makes tons of money.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Yes, absolutely. Thank you. So one more question that would apply to when students get to college: Do you have any recommendations for strategies that students and families can use to self-advocate once they get to their college of choice? 

Dr. Eric Endlich: Self-advocacy is really a key term for students to become familiar with. I think part of it is developing that skill in high school. We kind of alluded to that earlier. You know, start making your appointments for your dentist, your doctor, and your therapist, while you’re in high school. Get the student to start stepping up and doing that. You know parents often jump in when there’s something you’re not happy with in school, talking to a teacher. The students can start being the first ones to do that because in college not only are the parents not there to jump in, but colleges, as you well know, may not even disclose things to parents if the student hasn’t signed certain forms. The students are kind of on their own when it comes to self-advocacy in many cases. And they should get in the habit of getting speaking with their teachers in high school and in developing relationships with them so that when they get to college they can seek out the professor during office hours to ask questions if they’re confused. And because those professors can be the conduit to getting internships and doing research as an undergraduate. There are amazing opportunities for college students if they develop those good relationships with professors. And we know what makes college life-changing versus just being another four years of school. There’s actually research on that. And part of what makes the difference for students where college is a life-changing experience is if they’re more engaged. If they join clubs, do research to find a mentor in a college professor, or someone else who can be a mentor, do an internship, you know get involved above and beyond just sitting in class and taking notes.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Thanks for that Eric. So we’ve talked about a number of different topics. We talked about finding your college fit. We talked about disclosure. We talked about finances. We talked about supports provided. We talked about self-advocacy. Is there anything else that you think would be important to add to this conversation that would help students and families to navigate their next steps in higher education?

Dr. Eric Endlich: Well we certainly covered a lot. I think one key thing that maybe I didn’t spell out is that when you’re looking at colleges when you’re building that list, make sure to talk to the disability services or the learning support programs separately. So if you just go to college and sign up for the standard tour you’re going to miss out on that extra layer of information that you need to know about: how well they can support your student. And if you’re sitting there in the information session with admissions officers, you might be tempted to ask my student has ADHD, my kid has ADHD, you know how can this college serve them? The admission folks will answer the question but they’re not the best people to answer it. The best people are the folks who are in Disability Services or Learning Support Programs. Make a separate appointment to talk to those folks. If you can’t squeeze it in during the actual physical tour, you can have a virtual meeting with them or a phone call with them, what have you. You want to have a conversation with them to find out what’s your personality like, and if is this someone you want to deal with for four years. Do they seem very accommodating and very helpful or do they seem understaffed and overworked and not terribly available? So yeah, you want to find out that kind of stuff early. You don’t want to later after your student has started college discovered that the disability office is not as accessible as you hoped it would be.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Thank you so much for bringing up that point. I always advise my students with learning differences to reach out to the Disability Services Offices and I also advise students, whether or not they have learning disabilities, to reach out to other offices that would match their interests. So much like you would want to have support for your learning you would want to have the right supports culturally and socially that aligns with your academics and your personal interest. So you really see if the college fits you, and I think in particular for students with a disability or neurodivergent students that the disability office is a key window into: Is this college if it is for me or not?

Dr. Eric Endlich: Yeah, and as you said, I’m also working with the students and looking at a website, let’s look at the majors, let’s also look at the clubs. Are there any clubs you’re excited about that might align with your identity or your interests? And let’s look at the residence life: Do they have a live-in learning community or a style of a residence hall that applies to you? So athletics, for some students, is a big factor to look at all the things that matter to you.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Absolutely, thank you! Is there anything else you want to share about how people can stay in touch with you or about the topic itself?

Dr. Eric Endlich: I understand that not all families can or choose to hire a consultant which is why I put lots of free information on the website: Topcollegeconsultants.com. If you look at the free resources tab you’ll find that list that you were talking about of neurodiversity-friendly colleges, lots of webinars, articles, and podcasts. And, you can just click a button and set up an appointment with me if you want to or you can email me at Eric@topcollegeconsultants.com.

Dr. Aviva Legatt: Thank you so much, Eric. That’s been so helpful and I really appreciate having the chance to speak with you live and for everyone who gets to hear it. And if you would like to get in touch with us and you’re interested in more programming like this and want to give feedback please reach out to us at info@ivyinsight.com. You can always reach us via our website IvyInsight.com as well. So thank you again.

Dr. Eric Endlich: Thanks for having me, Aviva. Great to see you. 

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