What If My Kid with Special Needs Struggles in College?


What If My Kid with Special Needs Struggles in College?

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You might have to change expectations and agendas

High school was hard. You could see your kid was always a step behind. He was late with homework (still is!), had to retake most quizzes, barely passed geometry, and didn’t go to any of the school dances.

It wasn’t about smarts; rather, it was the attention and the processing and just not having the “school” gene. But he wanted to be a veterinarian, and for that, he needed to go to college.

The freshman year of college is challenging for all kids. All at once, they have new freedoms along with new responsibilities. They have to manage classes and laundry, and navigate libraries and cafeterias that close at 7:00 p.m. They have to be on time, and be ready for and engaged in each class. They have temptations that are hard to resist, including skipping class, partying too hard, and cheating on tests and papers. When you add the struggles our kids inherently have to plan, prepare, and make good choices because of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, physical limitations, Asperger’s syndrome, or other special needs, it is a wonder any of them make it through.

So how do you approach college with your teen with special needs and keep your teen there so he or she does graduate?

It’s a delicate balance of support, autonomy, and realism. Your teen will want to be left alone and tell you that he or she has things handled. You also do not have access to his or her professors, grades, or anything (except the money you owe!) unless your teen gives you legal access.

If your teen is still in high school, consider the following:

1. Visit a variety of colleges, and at each one, meet with staff in the Disability Services Department. Some are wonderful and welcoming, and will know what questions you have. Others have little to no staff and seem put out when you want more information.

2. Review your teen’s individualized education program (IEP) with the college, especially the page that lists his or her accommodations. Some of those accommodations can be used in college (under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act), but your teen has to ask for each of them from each professor. Help your your teen become familiar with his or her IEP and to push for those accommodations as a way to get your teen to talk to the teachers if he or she isn’t already doing so.

3. Consider having your teen either delay college for a year, get a job, and move out, or go to a community college and live at home. Teens with executive functioning issues almost all fail if they start college life in a dorm. It’s just too much to handle, and they can so quickly get in an academic hole, they eventually just give up. Realistically consider the most likely path to your teen’s success. Your teen can end up at a university with some valuable life skills if he or she takes a longer route.

If your teen really wants the full college experience but is struggling with classes, roommates, and a growing pile of laundry, you may have to step back, simplify, and start again.

I worked with a smart boy who was diagnosed with inattentive attention deficit disorder in 11th grade. He worked hard all his life and was always behind. His family expected him to attend college and that was his plan. He got into the local university and met with the folks in disability services. From the beginning, it was just too much. He could not figure out how to be at a class at 9:00 a.m. one day and at 3:00 p.m. the next, get his homework done, have all the materials in hand that he needed, make it to the cafeteria before it closed, and handle a roommate who played loud music while he studied.

He limped through the first year and, with his head hanging, moved back home. He had left high school with good grades, the belief that he was capable, and support from lots of people who believed in him. He felt he had disappointed everyone. After a couple of months of mostly sleeping, he got a job at Target and slowly started to feel good about himself again. He moved out, got a better job, and has learned to live independently. Just this year, he started taking a class at a community college. He was finally ready.

Teens have to get over their embarrassment and use the support that disability services can provide. Most schools have tutors available, can assist with access and technology needs, offer preferential course selection, and can help students use their accommodations from their IEP/504. The staff always tell students not to wait until they are flunking and/or struggling in various facets of college life. Encourage your child to ask the school for help as soon as he or she stumbles.

Helping our kids with special needs to be successful in college may also require us to change our expectations and agendas. When my own son left college after the first semester, I had to go through my own process to accept his decision. For him, it wasn’t the work or the life skills or even his roommates; it was a deeper question about why he was there. He wasn’t really engaged in high school, and college felt like more of the same. He wanted to experience it on his own terms. I have to admit, it’s been hard to just let him hang and work as a busser. As a Solo Mom, I want him to travel, go to college, and embrace life, since he is not bound to where we live like I am. But that is my agenda, not his. I have to trust him at the same time, let him know my expectations of him while he is living at home and planning for college.

Meeting our kids where they are and not where we want them to be holds true throughout our lives. That’s one of the best lessons we learn from parenting a kid with special needs. It’s not an easy lesson, and when the choices involve money—lots of money—and it feels as if our kid’s whole future is at stake, it is hard to see him or her struggle in college. Our acceptance will help our kids remember that we do think they are capable and that they are loved and that they can make it through, though the path may not be the same as their peers’.

Start where success is most likely, navigate the obstacles, alter your course if needed, and your young adult will succeed.


Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.


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