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  • By Elizabeth Wolleben Yoder
  • Posted August 22, 2022

Setting Your College Career Up For Success As A Disabled Adult

Last weekend I attended a transition fair for high school students getting ready for their graduations and the next step in their adult lives. I was there to share how a young person can receive government benefits and still work. The truth is, not everyone at the transition fair goes asking the same question. Some are looking for ways to understand what options they have with government benefits like SSI, some are already receiving SSDI benefits from their parents and others don’t believe they are eligible at all for social security benefits or others and are looking for ways to be successful in work and higher education.

While our primary purpose for being at transition fairs is to provide education and support to neurodiverse individuals with financial questions, we also enjoy sharing our perspective on ways to take advantage of, as one client put it, "every stupid benefit" to encourage independence and connectivity wherever a young person plans to go. Particularly for neurodivergent students, there are many "benefits" that they should educate themselves on prior to starting their higher education.

The first is making sure they have filled out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Aid, to determine their family’s eligibility for financial aid. The FAFSA determines based on parental and student assets and income how much would be “reasonable" for them to pay for college. More ideas on the importance of FAFSA and of filing FAFSA annually can be found here. Both part and full-time students should use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for certain programs and lending.

Any special needs student in any situation who is looking for financial aid of any kind will need to fill out the FASFA. For nearly all this means it will be very worthwhile, if not necessary, to fill out a FASFA every year. You can count on it.

Beyond financial, every student going into school, not only those with special needs, should have some sense of what support will be there for them when they are officially on campus. Use the college visit time and pre-college decision time to understand all the ways to receive disability support for a successful college experience. Then once you’re enrolled, use every resource available to you. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Meet your college’s accessibility department, whatever they call themselves. Understand who you will go to if you need to ask for classroom accommodations or test accommodations, and to have an additional advocate for you on campus. Help them understand who you are, what you are used to from your high school program, and what you might need as a baseline to be successful. Not every neurodiverse student will know exactly what they need before their program starts. Knowing where the university supports are prior to needing them will set the neurodiverse student up for greater success.
  2. Consider having an attorney advocate on standby – know your disability rights. Not all accessibility departments are equal and not all academic professors understand the needs of their students – or the laws that protect your rights as a student with a disability – whether it be autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or anything else. Know who your local disability rights attorneys are in your area before a problem arises so that if you do run into some bad practices, you have backup support.
  3. Use your professors’ office hours. A bit of advice I would have served as a student. Spend time with your professor to understand their expectations for projects and to get support with particularly difficult assignments or concepts. Office hours exist to support students in their journey through higher education. Get what you paid for!
  4. Attend or organize peer study groups. Everyone is in a different place with their understanding of college material. A study group can be helpful to learn together from your classmates, make friends, and have a regular commitment to work on assignments. If getting to work is difficult for you, study groups can help you create the time to do the work that is difficult to start.
  5. Visit your school’s writing center. There are students there who are employed (either through work-study or through class credit) to review writing assignments with students, help them organize their writing at the beginning of a paper, and edit so that a student can turn in an assignment that has already been reviewed. Neurodiverse individuals commonly struggle with getting started on writing assignments, picking a topic, or knowing if you are answering the question that you set off to answer in your writing. Seek out the assistance of your writing center. The writing center staff can help give you new energy for a project you are overwhelmed by.
  6. Be aware of your preferences and special interests. Consider the courses that you find interesting may not always be the easiest for you but maybe the ones that you work the hardest at going through. As an autistic or ADHD individual, it can be hard to avoid fixating on one area. Make sure your focus on these preferred courses doesn’t become so all-encompassing that you neglect the courses that are required for your program for graduation. Again, use the resources available during office hours and peer support groups to stay focused on your non-preferred courses.
  7. If you connect well with a professor, take their other classes. Even if you don’t love the description of the course your favorite professor is teaching, it is often worth it to enroll anyway. If you have connected with them and they have given you the support that you need to be successful in your previous work together, you know that they will continue to be rooting for you in future courses that you take with them. They can become an advocate for your success within the department when you need it.
  8. Use any graduate-level support you can. Many universities have programs that offer their students services through their graduate training programs. Seek out if the psychology department offers free student services for counseling. College is a stressful time, and having additional support – For FREE – in people training to be therapists can be very meaningful to settling into your path through college.

We highly recommend using a certified special needs advisor to review your college spending plans and support needs. We will help you make the decisions you need to in order to have a fulfilling and happy life. Contact Planning Across the Spectrum for special needs certified financial planning services.