Has your teenager with ADHD been frustrated by the work demands of his high school environment and longed for the time when he can run his own life and be his own boss? Does he have a special passion or talent that occupies much of his energy and attention? This may be the time to explore his interests more deeply through an internship, apprenticeship, or entry-level job. Are a higher education and professional job prospects important to him? Then he should consider attending college—and may want to take advantage of special programs designed to help students with ADHD. Of course, no high school student can be expected to come up with a definitive answer to all of these questions right away, but it is important to at least start to consider them before jumping into a first job or higher-education experience. Frequent job and career changes are one reason why some adults with ADHD lag behind their peers in career success. Thinking things out carefully and resisting the impulse to “act first and think later” may save time and effort in the long run.
High school is also the time to work on the skills needed to be successful at college and in life. Is your teen able to take care of his daily living needs? Can he get himself up in the morning and get himself to bed at night at a reasonable hour? Is he able to manage his own laundry and other personal needs? Can he take responsibility for his medication and treatment programs by making his own appointments at the doctor and call for his prescriptions? How are his organization and time management skills? Can he create a schedule for all assignments and plan his after-school schedule? It’s also time to take a look at your role in your teen’s development. If your teen is still overly dependent on you for many of these critical life skills, it may be time to set up a program that allows your teen to grow and take on more responsibilities while he is still at home.
Once your teenager has begun working on the various skills needed for a successful launch into adulthood, the next step is thinking about whether he wants to attend college immediately after high school or if another path would be better suited for him. His high school counselor can be a valuable resource in this process. A good counselor can provide him with an objective picture of his school and learning profile and discuss with him how his interests best match different jobs and occupations, where their typical stresses and satisfactions lie, and how he might find a satisfying path toward his career goal. If he has had an ongoing Individualized Education Program (IEP), the counselor can also help see that the types of post–secondary school transition steps mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are being carried out effectively for him. Your teenager should also discuss his plans for the future with his pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other medical advisor, particularly in terms of how his ADHD symptoms may affect his experiences in various jobs and professions, and how he can continue to effectively monitor and self-manage his symptoms.
Thinking About College
Choosing an appropriate school is difficult for most college-bound students, but it can become an even more complicated process, and more crucial, for a teenager with ADHD. Not only must he find a college that suits his academic, social, and geographical preferences, but he also must decide whether the education format and any special services provided by the institution will be sufficient to support his needs. Your adolescent, even more than many of his peers, may need to ask himself “Is this the right fit for me?” in addition to the universal cry of “Will I be accepted?”
Teens often are unaware of how different college is from high school in academic as well as other areas. No one will be there to make sure he attends classes, completes his assignments, or even accesses services. In addition, many of the services students are accustomed to receiving in high school may not be available at college. Self-knowledge and a good transition plan are important to ensure success at the college level.
What to Look for in Post-Secondary Education
Location, size, and academic offerings are 3 important elements for all prospective students to consider when choosing among the many colleges available to them—and these are vital areas of concern for your teenager as well. He will need to think about whether he prefers to attend school near home, allowing him to take advantage of familiar resources, or farther away where he can “start his own life”—understanding, however, that he will continue to need the support that allowed him to be successful enough to get into college in the first place and that he may have to identify and make contact with a new set of medical and support services at his new school. He must consider which is better for him: a small college, where personal attention may be easier to obtain, or a large university with possibly better funding and more options for support services. He must also decide whether the institution’s academic demands and supports will match his learning style and needs.
Because the transition to a self-structured life outside the home can be especially challenging for teenagers with ADHD, it is critical that your teen be well-prepared for life on his own. He will need to know and explain to others his various strengths and weaknesses as well as be willing to access services on his own. While the presence and effectiveness of a college’s ADHD support program is a prime consideration, your teen must be mature enough to know if he needs to access the program. A few colleges specialize in educating students with learning disabilities. Others offer comprehensive support systems with trained, experienced staff and many specialized services for students with ADHD. Most offer limited specialized services and accommodations for students with ADHD, while some provide only a single learning center serving all students with disabilities and students who need temporary tutoring. The quality of support services offered by a college or university may outweigh considerations and preferences in other areas. Family discussions, for example, may conclude that a large or geographically distant university may work as a first choice if its support services are stronger than those of a college closer to home.
Once your teenager has identified the services that are high priorities for him, he can look for colleges and universities that provide those services. Support services are not always described in college catalogs and brochures, so you and your teenager may need to do some extra research to find out exactly what is available at each institution. The first step for you or your teenager is to call or visit the special services office of each institution that interests him to determine which services may be available at that college or university. (The actual name of the services office tends to vary by institution. It may be listed as “student disability services,” “learning support services,” or something similar.) Early contact and familiarization with the student support office is important because this office is most often responsible for notifying professors about any classroom accommodations to which a student is entitled. Once enrolled at the college, students must register with the office and provide documentation of their disability to receive special services.
Some students, however, may choose to start college without ever disclosing their ADHD diagnosis, or they may decide to disclose it to the special services office only when they feel they would benefit from the types of services described previously. The choice of whether and when to disclose this information is highly individual, but deserves thought and discussion as your adolescents begin their college search. There is certainly no right or wrong approach, but students with obvious and ongoing support needs might more strongly consider exploring support services at the time that they begin thinking about college.
Following is a list of general questions that your teenager may want to present to the representative of each college’s special services office. Of course, he will want to tailor the questions to apply to his particular anticipated needs. He may obtain more helpful information by also providing the representative with a list of the accommodations or services he hopes to obtain, along with documentation supporting his diagnosis of ADHD and his need for particular aids.
- What services or accommodations does the university or college routinely provide for students with ADHD—for example, specialized academic advising, early registration, a private dormitory room, untimed testing, or any of the other services listed previously? Is there an extra charge for any of these services? If the college does not provide them, are they conveniently available off campus? How long has the support services office existed? How many, if any, staff members are specially trained to work with students who have ADHD?
- How many students with ADHD does the office serve?
- Does the university provide other services for all students that may especially benefit students with ADHD—such as Web-based services that provide lecture notes or videos online, small seminars to review material covered in classroom lectures, and a willingness to work with new instructional techniques or technology?
- Are academic counselors or psychologists available on an ongoing basis to help students with ADHD adjust to college life and help with any problems that arise?
- Do counselors help connect students with faculty members who are knowledgeable and supportive regarding the needs of students with ADHD? Is there a program in place to educate faculty members about ADHD?
- Do support groups for students with ADHD exist on campus? Can the office provide your child with the names of other students with ADHD who are willing to be contacted?
Another consideration is that some youth with ADHD are slower to mature, so that starting at a local junior college with your child living at home may provide a more gradual opportunity for him to adjust to the college environment and be better able to adjust to the challenges of attending college away from home and the supports you have probably put in place to help facilitate his success in school up to now. Some students who have started college may find a need to return to the family nest—letting parents know that it’s difficult for them to develop the life-management skills that independent living requires, particularly in the context of the freedom of college or living separately. This may provide them the opportunity to further build these skills as well as their self-esteem, and be in a better position to re-enter and be more successful in college academic and social life.