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Self-Advocacy Is Always an Important Skill

...Especially for neurodiverse students with LDs headed to college.

Key points

  • Neurodiverse students with learning disabilities headed to college will need self-advocacy to achieve success.
  • In higher education, the responsibility for acquiring accommodations or services shifts from the school to the student.
  • Parents should encourage their student to consider what has worked for them in the past and where they might want extra support.

This post was co-authored by Dr. Miranda Melcher.

Once a student moves from high school to college, the responsibility for acquiring accommodations or services shifts from the school to the student. This can be a shock to students who have been supported throughout their school careers by parents, teachers, tutors, and coaches. Now they have to be able to recognize when they are in trouble and figure out what kind of help they need and how to get it. Colleges offer differing levels of support, so it is important to research what is offered when looking at schools and deciding the best place, as discussed in our previous blog.

How to know what services are essential?

Jane McClure (in Treating NVLD in Children, Broitman & Davis, 2013) offers practical ideas for advising college-bound neurodiverse students with learning disabilities (LDs) on how to choose the best learning environment. She suggests that the first step in making this determination is to assess the student’s high school experience together, evaluating the kind of help they have had, especially during their senior year. Together, you might consider interviewing their parents, teachers, and tutors (if they have them) to learn problem areas and areas of strength you can build on. This must be a collaborative process encouraging your student to use their self-awareness to consider:

  • What supports and accommodations have worked for them in the past? For example, do parents have to oversee students to get their homework done regularly? Do they need help editing papers before they are turned in at school? If so, how will this be scaffolded during college?
  • What existing or new areas might need further support in higher education?
  • What academic areas or tasks are most difficult for them, both at school and with homework assignments? How likely are similar tasks and situations going to occur in higher education?

Watch out for graduation requirements.

When considering colleges, pay attention to which majors, minors, and other programs are offered and what requirements they have. LD students must be aware of any academic roadblocks that requirements may create for them in order to better prepare for and navigate them. In addition to major requirements, also check the graduation requirements. For instance, one school may require four semesters of math, while another requires two, and some none! Differences like these may help your student choose one school over another (see our blog on choosing a college).

It’s possible the high school waived certain classes due to LDs. Colleges can choose to do something similar, but they’re not required to. In most cases, students will have to take a substitute course in place of the required course. Each school will determine whether the student is eligible, based on its standards.

Colleges won’t know about your student’s learning and thinking differences during the admissions process unless you choose to share that information. That means the student won’t find out if they’re eligible to substitute specific courses until after they’ve been accepted and enrolled. One school’s requirements might be more appealing and a better fit for their needs. They might want to apply to schools that don’t require them to take problematic classes to graduate.

How to teach self-advocacy?

Self-advocacy skills are critical to achieving academic success. Students headed toward college must be (or become) good self-advocates (Krebs, 2002; Lock & Layton, 2001; Skinner, 2004). While we frequently say that neurodiverse students with LDs should focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses, in this case, it is also important for individuals to be able to articulate how they may need assistance.

It is necessary for students to self-identify and have a self-understanding of how their LD specifically affects them to request appropriate accommodations. This can be particularly challenging for neurodiverse students with LDs, potentially because of social awkwardness and missing social cues (Davis & Broitman, 2011). We suggest explicit direct instruction and role-playing. Work with them to write a script and provide real, authentic opportunities for them to seek help.

For example, your student might currently be reluctant to self-advocate with their teachers. You could use this real-life experience to create strategies together to help them speak up for themselves in future situations with teachers. McClure (2013) also suggests a collaborative approach: first, explicitly to put the words down on paper, and second, to role-play the scenario so that the student can feel comfortable communicating with classroom teachers on their behalf. Providing realistic and appropriate feedback will also help students understand how to express their needs effectively when communicating with someone who is expected to provide a service for them. Working through these experiences and figuring out how to approach the situation differently next time are often how they learn best.

Dangers of hidden disabilities and the “new start” phenomenon

Brown, C., & Leary, B. (2013) warn that a common phenomenon with freshman students with invisible disabilities is the wish for a “new start at college" with the hope that they have outgrown the LD or have learned sufficient compensatory skills to mitigate the need for educational supports. Furthermore, they note that self-advocating by asking for accommodations can affect their self-esteem, making students feel like they are not as “good” as college students without disabilities. Additionally, negative cultural pressures can inhibit your student from seeking out the disability resource center on campus and self-identifying. It’s critical to address this in advance and continue to monitor it with your student. They should continue to receive all of the academic accommodations, such as a note-taker, extra time, alternative testing arrangements, or reduced course loads, that promoted their previous success and that will assist with this transition.

Students should be encouraged to register with the college’s disability resource center to access their legally mandated accommodations for coursework. Again, it is the student’s responsibility to ask for and implement the accommodation in their courses. It will not happen unless they do! Therefore, the student must initiate communication with the instructor and present the instructor with documentation of their legally determined accommodations. This often requires supporting information from the disability resource center.

Further, the student must follow through with school policies, such as acquiring approval signatures on any necessary paperwork to arrange various accommodations. In some cases, colleges will require separate paperwork for each class every term. For students with LDs that have challenges with communication or organization, following up on a multiple-step process can be overwhelming. For these reasons, self-determination and advocacy skills are critical for success in college.

Dr. Miranda Melcher is an expert on neurodiverse inclusive education and co-author of the book NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children.


J. Broitman & J. M. Davis (2013) (Eds.), Treating NVLD in children: Professional collaborations for positive outcomes. New York: Springer.

Brown, C., & Leary, B. (2013). Coaching: Addressing the psychosocial and executive functioning challenges of NVLD in K-12 and their transition to adulthood. In J. Broitman & J. M. Davis (Eds.), Treating NVLD in children: Professional collaborations for positive outcomes. New York: Springer.

Jane McClure (in Treating NVLD in Children, Broitman & Davis 2013) offers practical suggestions for advising college-bound students both in how to choose the best learning environment and how to deal with admissions tests and the application process.

Kreb, C. (2002). Self-advocacy skill: A portfolio approach. Review, 33, 160-163

Lock, R., & Layton, C. (2001). Succeeding in postsecondary education through self-advocacy. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34(2), 66–71.

Skinner, M. (2004). College students with learning disabilities speak out: What it takes to be successful in postsecondary education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 17, 91–104

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