AP Education Writer
Options for students with learning disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to attend college are expanding rapidly. But for students and families, finding programs and a good fit can be far more difficult than a run-of-the-mill college search. Here are some questions and answers on how to proceed.
Q: How should families of students with learning disabilities begin planning for a possible transition to college?
A: The transition from high school to college is abrupt for most students; for those with diagnosed learning disabilities it can be especially jarring. In K-12 schools, all such students must have a detailed learning plan and support services, and, depending on the disability, many students are highly reliant on parents to keep them organized and on track. That will have to change in college, and the sooner the transition begins, the better-- even in middle school. Pamela Lemerand, director of clinical services at Eastern Michigan University's Autism Collaborative Center, recommends some specific independence goals for a student's senior year. Examples could include students making their own breakfast, packing their own backpack, doing their laundry, learning to use a debit card.
Q: What are some key questions to ask in the process?
A: First, ask the student if he or she even wants to go. Jane Thierfeld Brown, who works at the University of Connecticut law school and has written a college guide for autistic students, says if students want to try college, and indicate reasons such as "to have couple more years of development in an educationally stimulative stetting, those are really good answers." But often, she finds, it's the parent pushing college. True, sometimes such students need a push. But sometimes college aspiration "just helps the parents feel like they're more typical, and that just makes it difficult for everyone."
Q: How do you know if a student has a good chance at success?
A: That's a highly individualized decision, dependent on the severity and particulars of a learning disability, which should be made in consultation with providers and teachers as well as prospective programs. But for many, Lemerand and others recommend starting at a community college. Students can continue to live at home while they see how it goes (more and more community colleges are also offering support programs). "Find a subject they like, one class, where they can succeed, and start there," Lemerand says. Next semester move up one level and add a new subject. Soon you'll have a sense of how the academic work is going, what support students need, and their prospects for potentially moving on campus.
Q: How does the landscape of legal rights change between high school and college?
A: Dramatically. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) law, schools must provide an appropriate education for each K-12 student, in the least restrictive environment possible. When you move to college the protections fall under civil rights law and essentially just require "reasonable accommodations" to give students a level playing field to succeed, but with no guarantee or required adjustments to the curriculum. Such accommodations could include things like more testing time. But it's generally up to students to request these accommodations and ensure they are provided.
Q: What are some ways to explore program options for students with learning disabilities?
A: High schools focusing on students with learning disabilities may host a college fair. Online resources include http://www.collegeautismspectrum.com and http://www.thinkcollege.net. Guide books include "The K&W Guide to Colleges Students with Learning Disabilities" and the Peterson's guide "Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or AD/HD."
Q: Do you have to tell a college you've been diagnosed with a disability when you apply?
A: No, and the college is not allowed to ask. But while you need not tell the admissions office, you should thoroughly investigate the services offered on campus and speak with the people who provide them.
Q: How do you pick a program?
A: Ask lots of questions. Make sure there is a strong institutional structure in place and not just one person you like working with; that person could be gone before your child arrives. Ask for data, persistence rates, and references; be wary of any program that hesitates to provide references. If a program is fairly new, look for signs of a serious institutional commitment. "Don't be a pioneer," Brown says. Go to a place with a well-funded and established program. "Then you can be a college student, instead of going to a college solely to be a disability advocate."
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