Is Your ADHD Teen Ready for University Life
Too many distractions and not enough structure derail many college students with ADHD. How to help your child prepare for freshman year.
by Lois Gilman
Shortly before Aaron Wolf arrived at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts four years ago, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD). At first, he ignored it. But soon he began to suffer from what he calls “brain overload.” “You do a lot of multi-tasking in college,” says Wolf, who graduated in May. “Do your work, pay your bills, do your laundry. It’s a challenge.”
Health experts and college counselors agree — college is a radical departure from high school. For a teen with ADHD, heading off to this complicated academic and social environment means leaving behind the routines and supports that have helped him to function.
In high school’s structured universe, students have constant interaction with their teachers and hands-on help at home. Reminders to do homework, eat lunch, take medication — even to exercise — are built into each day.
College life presents quite a contrast: a handful of classes spread throughout the week, with neither parents nor teachers overseeing schoolwork. Assignments are often long-term and exam scores determine grades. And there’s an endless supply of free time. “The abyss is greater than many people believe,” says Ross Pollack, director of the Specialized Resource Center and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Coordinator at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.
Your child isn’t making this monumental leap alone. You, too, must prepare for transition, from parenting a high school student to coaching a college freshman. And there’s a whole new set of rules. Your job is no longer about coaxing your child to wake up or to study; your new role is to motivate – and empower – him to do these things on his own.
Most college freshmen get a crash course in self-sufficiency when school begins in the fall. But it’s imperative for the student with ADHD to ease into his independence. That’s why college prep needs to start now. “College is expensive, and it’s earth-shattering if it goes awry,” says Pollack. Rather than wait until your child hits an academic wall, spend this summer preparing for the ways life will change — for both of you.
Line up support
Perhaps the biggest difference between high school and college for a student with ADHD is that in high school the federal government lends a hand. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes the school responsible for identifying students with learning disabilities and for providing services when they need them. In college, there’s no such luxury. While colleges are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for learning disabled students, they aren’t required to seek out these students or provide diagnostic services. It’s up to the student to make his disability known to his school — and to ask for help.
A good place to start is the office of Disability Support Services, a service center that advocates and arranges learning accommodations on campus. When Aaron Wolf found himself in trouble at NYU, he turned to the university’s Henry and Lucy Moses Center for Students with Disabilities for assistance. “College is different from high school, and I wasn’t prepared,” says Wolf. “I realized that things weren’t happening, and that I needed someone to help me.”
All colleges have such support services, though they vary in the way they work. Some schools offer structured programs, while others designate a learning specialist to counsel students. Hopefully, you looked into these services at various schools during the admissions process. Now it’s time to get in touch with LD support services again. “Students should immediately introduce themselves to the disability support services officer, and find out what the university requires to utilize its resources,” says Lisa Weyandt, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, who has written about college students with ADHD. “Never assume it’s the same as high school.”
This summer, visit the LD support service center with your child, and set up a meeting with the director and your child’s academic advisor. Hand in any recent evaluations (within the past three years) documenting your child’s ADHD, and make sure they list specific recommendations for the accommodations he’ll need. Discuss the best course load for an incoming freshman with ADHD. Students taking as few as 12 credits are considered full-time, though experts disagree on whether a reduced class schedule is the best way to start off freshman year. Ask which learning accommodations will be available – and how the LD support staff will arrange for them.